THE NEED FOR AN INDEPENDENT,
CABINET-LEVEL OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Testimony before the Committee on Government Operations
FEBRUARY 22, 1999
Mrs. Patterson, Members of the Committee, and Fellow Citizens:
My name is Craig Howell. I am President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization in the country. We will be celebrating our 28th Anniversary at a reception at the Charles Sumner School on Thursday evening, April 22; we hope you will all be able to attend. Thank you for holding these oversight hearings today.
GLAA has been coming before this or similar committees for some years now pleading for the reestablishment of the Office of Human Rights (OHR) as an independent, Cabinet-level agency. I am delighted that there are more grounds for optimism today on this point than we have seen in the past decade. Much of this hope stems directly from the election of Anthony Williams as our new Mayor. The GLAA candidate’s questionnaire raised this issue during last year’s campaign. Mr. Williams answered very plainly: “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.”
In fulfillment of this pledge, the newly nominated Director of the Department of Human Rights and Local Business Development, Ms. Jacquelyn A. Flowers, affirmed in her February 3 confirmation hearings before the Committee on Economic Development that “Mayor Williams will be proposing legislation to separate the Office of Human Rights from Local Business Development.”
I was further delighted to hear Councilmember David Catania remark during my February 9 testimony on behalf of GLAA before the Judiciary Committee that he and other Government Operations Committee members were working on their own legislation towards the same goal of an independent OHR. (However, I was somewhat startled to hear this comment, because I had been told in years past that under our Home Rule Charter the Council could not propose its own reorganization legislation but must instead wait upon reorganization plans officially proposed by the Mayor.)
Based on their answers to GLAA’s candidate questionnaires in either 1996 or 1998, Councilmembers Allen, Catania, Evans, Graham, and Schwartz are on the record with Mayor Williams in full support for an independent, Cabinet-level Office of Human Rights. In addition, Councilmembers Ambrose, Cropp, Mendelson, and Patterson are on the record in favor of an independent OHR but have not committed themselves on the issue of its Cabinet-level status.
Councilmember Chavous told us in person at one of our GLAA meetings last summer that he too was leaning towards supporting independent status for OHR; his written replies to our questionnaire, however, did not reaffirm that commitment. (For your convenience, I have attached to my testimony today the answers on this issue submitted by all present Councilmembers to GLAA, as well as the relevant excerpts from our campaign briefing document Agenda: 1998.)
There thus seems to be a clear consensus that the Office of Human Rights should be independent of the Local Business Development office. For the sake of those both in the Administration and on the Council who are working on reorganization plans for OHR, I would like to offer the following comments focusing on why OHR needs to be reestablished as a Cabinet-level agency.
First, OHR was a Cabinet-level agency before its unfortunate merger in 1989 with what was then the Minority Business Development Commission whose Director, if memory serves, did not enjoy Cabinet status before the merger. If we are now ready to concede that this merger was ill-conceived, then logically we should restore the status quo ante. Let me remind you that the head of the present Department combining OHR and the Local Business Development office has never been anyone with a background in civil rights enforcement, even though OHR started out as the dominant part of the merged Department in terms of budget and staff. It would be the height of irony if the Local Business Development office which grew through the 1990’s, especially during the Kelly Administration, by cannibalizing staff and budgets from OHR were to remain at Cabinet level while its victim was left behind in a permanently subordinate status. Such a complete role reversal rewards bureaucratic aggressiveness and parasitism and is unacceptable.
Second, the Director of the Office of Human Rights should not be a mere administrator whose primary duty is to keep the papers shuffling at the appropriate speed and direction (vital though this function is). Instead, he or she should be the conscience of the Administration on all matters affecting civil rights. As such, the OHR Director needs direct access to the Mayor and to other agency heads on an ongoing regular basis. This requires the Director to enjoy the prestige of a Cabinet position.
Under the current system, the highest ranking official in the Office of Human Rights can be no higher than a Grade 14. As an ex-Grade 14 myself, I can tell you that a 14’s influence within the overall bureaucracy is peripheral at best. It just will not do to “liberate” OHR while keeping its Director at a level far below the level of other agency and department chiefs.
Third, we need to reestablish OHR at a Cabinet level so that we can attract a top-notch expert with a rich background in civil rights enforcement. We need a Director who will not be afraid to step in and speak out, publicly or privately, when he or she sees other Administration leaders neglect or abuse their civil rights responsibilities.
The lack of such a knowledgeable, courageous voice for human rights has been keenly felt on far too many occasions in recent years. One of the worst cases, ironically, occurred several years ago when a Director of the Department of Human Rights and Minority Business Development himself displayed ignorance of our Human Rights Act by ruling that the Boy Scouts of America organization is legally entitled to exclude gay men from participating. This outrageous ruling, which contradicted other rulings made when OHR was still independent, itself had to be overturned by the then-Corporation Counsel, Charles Ruff.
On other occasions, though, the Corporation Counsel’s office has argued that the entire D.C. government is exempt from its own anti-discrimination laws. OHR has played no role in reversing that and similar frontal attacks on our civil rights laws in recent times:
- OHR has played no role in helping the Fire Department address the transphobia that surfaced so tragically in connection with the Tyra Hunter case.
- OHR has played no role in urging the Corporation Counsel’s office to withdraw its current claim (in the lawsuit filed against the District by Tyra Hunter’s mother Margie) that no one can sue the D.C. government in court for violating our Human Rights Law but must instead first take their complaint to OHR potentially adding even more burdens for an already overstretched OHR.
- OHR has played no role in securing adequate sensitivity and community relations training for police and fire department staff. This list of wasted opportunities for necessary intervention in defense of the D.C. Human Rights Law could go on. The only way we can bring the principles of human rights and non-discrimination to the foreground and keep them there is to get an OHR Director who is blessed with both fire in the belly and the prestige to make other agency chiefs fear his or her wrath. That requires a Cabinet-grade official.
We recognize, in the words of Councilmember Mendelson, that “An independent, Cabinet-level director can be lousy.” There is no magic guaranteed by restoring the Office of Human Rights to its previous status. It can be headed up by a hack whose overriding loyalty is to the Mayor or certain Councilmembers, and the public be damned. Reestablishing OHR as an independent, Cabinet-level agency is no assurance that miracles will happen; but establishing OHR as an independent but isolated agency lost in the bowels of the bureaucracy can pretty well guarantee that they won’t.
The need for aggressive Council oversight on human rights enforcement will be stronger than ever after the Office of Human Rights regains its independence and, we trust, its Cabinet-level status. For starters, the Council will actually have to exercise its confirmation powers aggressively to assure that the new OHR will not be led by someone with inadequate or inappropriate credentials or whose record shows that he or she is being nominated more for their personal loyalty to the Mayor or to certain Councilmembers rather than for their knowledge and commitment. Then the Council will have to see that the agency is fully funded so that its outrageous backlog is eliminated, and stays eliminated. Then the Council, here as elsewhere in the District government, will have to go out looking for trouble. This may require the Councilmembers and/or their staffs to make unannounced, on-site visits or take other steps to verify that whatever soothing words are uttered in these cozy hearing rooms bear some sort of resemblance to what is actually happening. We are pleased that aggressive oversight is a skill which has suddenly, and gratifyingly, come into its own on the Council in the last few years.
The framers of 1973’s original Title 34 reenacted word-for word as the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 had a progressive vision for our city as a hate-free zone, a place of refuge and safety for all persons. But in the decade since OHR’s submergence into its current status, that spirit of idealism has been compromised in practice by inadequate resources, bureaucratic lassitude if not outright hostility, and the indifference of our own elected officials who seem satisfied with mere lip service. As you on the Council and your counterparts in the Williams Administration draw up your plans for a new Office of Human Rights, we hope that same original spirit of idealism will burn brightly within your hearts, coupled with a sober determination to give that spirit flesh.
Thank you. I will be glad to answer any questions you may have.
[In the ensuing Question and Answer session, Councilmember Patterson explained that the Council does have the right to abolish and create agencies via legislation, and has in fact exercised that power as recently as last year. Under the Home Rule Charter, the Council has no choice but to vote up or down on a Reorganization Plan submitted by the Mayor, without amendment. In the present situation, all members of the Committee on Government Operations have sent a joint letter to the Mayor asking for a joint effort to make OHR independent. But Mrs. Patterson would not say whether she favors making OHR a Cabinet-level agency.]