D.C. Officials Support Independent Office of Human Rights
excerpt from GLAA's "Agenda: 1998"an election-year guide to gay and lesbian issues in the Nation's Capital
(Last revised: July 14, 1998)
Part V. Human Rights
A. Improving the Administration of the DC Human Rights Act
GLAA has been critical of cutbacks in enforcement of the DC Human Rights Act of 1977, the District's landmark anti-discrimination law. Since 1990 the number of investigators assigned to anti-discrimination complaints has plunged from 14 to just 2; as a direct result, anyone filing a complaint of illegal discrimination today with the District government can expect to wait for 3 to 4 years before a finding of probable cause can be issued. Gerald Draper, head of the Department of Human Rights & Local Business Development, has acknowledged that OHR does not have nearly enough resources to do its job properly. GLAA salutes the DC Council's action last year to mandate mediation at OHR before an investigation is launched into a complaint; this helps make the most of OHR's limited investigative resources.
GLAA urges the following steps:
- An increase in the number of investigators and other staff assigned to the Office of Human Rights. A clear goal should be set to eliminate the current backlog within a reasonable time frame. After the backlog is under control, the staff at OHR should be maintained at a level that will keep the backlog low.
- Reestablishment of the Office of Human Rights as an independent Cabinet-level agency whose Director has direct access to the Mayor. The 1989 merger of OHR with what was then called the Minority Business Development Commission proved to be a disaster under the administration of Sharon Pratt Kelly, as OHR's staff was systematically cannibalized to beef up minority business development. Little has changed in the past 4 years to improve this picture. Under the current arrangement, the chief of OHR can be no higher than a grade 14 — hardly a position lofty enough to serve as the conscience of the Administration, as the job should require. The next Mayor should urge the Financial Control Board to elevate the status of OHR through the formal reorganization process; should that fail, the Mayor should propose such a plan when he or she regains control of District government. agencies.
- Legislation that would codify the long-standing policy within OHR that grants an automatic priority to complaints of discrimination from persons afflicted with AIDS or other health conditions that are immediately life-threatening.
1998 Questionnaire for Mayoral Candidates20. Will you propose the reestablishment of the Office of Human Rights (OHR) as an independent, Cabinet-level agency whose Director has direct access to the Mayor? If the Control Board fails to act on this proposal, will you submit an appropriate reorganization plan for Council approval when your powers are restored?
Anthony Williams (Democrat, elected Mayor):
"Yes, I believe that the Office of Human Rights should be independent and at Cabinet level and its director should have access to the Mayor. I will work with the control board to see that this happens, but will submit my own plan to the council if this isn't accomplished."
Carol Schwartz (Republican, At-Large Councilmember):
"Yes and Yes. Budget constraints and indifference should not be allowed to curtail our commitment to human rights for all our citizens. The current Office of Human Rights does not have the focus that it truly deserves, and I would work to reorganize it."
Jack Evans (Democrat, Ward 2 Councilmember):
"Yes. The Office of Human Rights is one of the most important mechanisms this city has to ensure proper enforcement of the Human Rights Act of 1977. I have always been opposed to the department sharing personnel with the Office of Minority Business Development, which I believe is the sole reason the back-log of complaints is sitting at three to four years. As Mayor, I will propose its reinstatement to the Control Board and, if necessary, the Council.
"The problem with the current arrangement was highlighted when the Department of Human Rights and Minority Business Affairs accepted the Boy Scout's of America's claim that it was exempt from the Human Rights Act because it was a "private club". This ridiculous conclusion probably would not have been made if the office had been an independent Cabinet-level entity. Unfortunately, there have been several other recent cases where this Department failed to fully uphold the Human Rights Law. As Mayor, I will make certain the Director of this agency is headed by someone with a clear understanding and appreciation of the Human Rights Law."
Kevin P. Chavous (Democrat, Ward 7 Councilmember):
"I will monitor the performance of the Office of Human Rights and ensure that its budget permits efficient operation. None of my agencies will be permitted to operate with a backlog."
Harold Brazil (Democrat, At-Large Councilmember):
"As with almost every question I get as a candidate, this one seems to take us right back to the way we have protected and allocated our scarce resources."
1998 Questionnaire for Council Candidates13. Do you support both an increased budget for the Office of Human Rights (OHR) so that its heavy case backlog can be eliminated, and the reestablishment of OHR as an independent, Cabinet-level agency whose Director has direct access to the Mayor?
Linda Cropp (Democrat, Council Chair):
"OHR's backlog needs to be addressed. I have supported reform measures, such as mandatory mediation, and the establishment of performance goals and measures to address the backlog of cases. Now that the District government is returning to financial recovery, I would support consideration of additional funding to address OHR's backlog. In fact, I supported the budget increase for OHR in the fiscal year 1999 budget, which will permit the hiring of three additional employees to help reduce the case backlog. I support establishing OHR as an independent agency separate from the local business functions of the larger department."
David Catania (Republican, At-Large Councilmember):
"Yes. The ability of our citizens to have redress against discrimination is extremely important to me. Recently, I have been working with members of the transgendered and transsexual community who have been denied access to Lorton due to the Department of Corrections policy prohibiting individuals from visiting the facility if their gender appearance does not match their personal identification. A suit has been pending within the OHR for almost a year on the subject. The staffing shortage at OHR makes a timely resolution of this subject—and others like it—hard to obtain. In my opinion, justice delayed is justice denied. I will continue working to broker a settlement on the matter. However, a fully-staffed and funded OHR could have resolved the matter by now without the fear of timely and costly litigation."
Phil Mendelson (Democrat, At-Large Councilmember):
"Yes. Funding for OHR must be adequate to reduce the backlog, then it can be reduced -- but maintained at a level that will not permit recurrence of the backlog. The Human Rights Act is important and therefore must be supported with an adequate number of investigators to eliminate the case backlog. Regarding independence, OHR has suffered by being consolidated with minority business development. This consolidation must be reversed because it has failed, and because it makes no sense to have combined two unrelated functions that appeal to mostly different constituencies.
"One of my campaign themes, though, is that we must look at efficiency when we talk about "adequate" funding. The critical factor in the administration of any program is the quality of the manager or agency director, and so usually it should not matter where an office fits within the government. An independent, cabinet-level director can be lousy. Ultimately, the Mayor and Council must ensure that there are capable administrators. This is a fundamental problem with service delivery in this government. Poor managers are not held accountable. Where the Executive fails, the Council should step in. Yet the Council has failed in oversight: it does not hold managers to any kind of performance standards, it does not deny confirmation of unqualified department heads, it does not press for resignations when the incompetence becomes manifest, it does not use funding as a tool to fight waste and mismanagement, and it never uses its subpoena powers."
Jim Graham (Democrat, Ward 1 DC Councilmember):
"Yes and Yes. OHR must be separated from the Office of Minority Business Development.
"OHR must seek, especially in light of the City’s financial condition all federal funds that are available to process cases. These funds would allow the City to hire needed investigators who can process back logged cases. I support mandatory mediation at OHR before an investigation is launched into a complaint and support the current policy of giving automatic priority is granted to complaints involving allegations of HIV/AIDS discrimination."
Kathy Patterson (Democrat, Ward 3 DC Councilmember):
"I have demonstrated my own leadership in securing additional funding for the Office of Human Rights in the last two budget cycles. The FY 99 "consensus" budget includes a 10% increase in OHR funding at my recommendation. With regard to separate cabinet status for OHR, this issue was raised more than a year ago in a draft reorganization plan that would have placed the office within the Office of Personnel. I objected to that plan, in part because lack of independence for the office would jeopardize certain federal funding sources. Whether the Office is cabinet-level or sub-cabinet level, it should nonetheless have access to the mayor and leadership that assures that access."
Vincent Orange (Democrat, Ward 5 DC Councilmember):
Did not respond to GLAA questionnaire.
Sharon Ambrose (Democrat, Ward 6 DC Councilmember):
"Yes, and, after we have hired a swat team to clear the back-log, we need to actively recruit with the cooperative efforts of the community some assistance in hiring competent and committed managers and staff, and in developing better processes and tracking for complaint resolution. I will also support the reestablishment of the office as an independent agency with direct access to the Mayor."
1996 Questionnaire for Council Candidates5. Do you support the re-establishment of the Office of Human Rights as an independent, Cabinet-level agency whose Director has direct access to the Mayor?
Charlene Drew Jarvis (Democrat, Ward 4 Councilmember):
"The District's Human Rights Law has been so effective in protecting human rights in the District and has indeed served as a model for jurisdictions across the nation. Therefore, I believe that the Office of Human Rights should be reconsidered in terms of its organizational structure, staffing, and policy. I support giving priority to complaints involving allegations of HIV- or AIDS-related discrimination."
Sandy Allen (Democrat, Ward 8 Councilmember):
"Yes. The Office of Human Rights should become independent immediately. The Director should be Cabinet level, with direct access to the Mayor. The new Department should receive the necessary resources to effectively enforce the Human Rights Bill of 1978."