GLAA testifies on FY 2002 budget for Office of Human Rights
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GLAA on Civil Rights

GLAA testifies on FY 2002 budget
for Office of Human Rights

Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013
202-667-5139

April 9, 2001

The Honorable Jim Graham
Chairperson
Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs, and Property Management
Council of the District of Columbia
441 4th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001

Dear Councilmember Graham:

We are submitting this statement for the record of your April 5 hearings on the FY 2002 budget for the Office of Human Rights (OHR). This statement expands on the remarks made at that hearing on behalf of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) by our former President, Craig Howell.

We were very pleased to learn that your subcommittee and the Judiciary Committee will be holding a joint hearing on April 24 concerning the notorious e-mail hate messages that have just been uncovered within the Metropolitan Police Department. We are also gratified that OHR Director Charles Holman III has been meeting with MPD Chief Charles Ramsey and plans to testify at that hearing. We have already met with Chief Ramsey ourselves, along with other members of the NAACP Police and Criminal Justice Task Force, and we plan to participate on the 24th.

We also encourage you to take a leading role in overhauling if not completely overturning the absurd grooming policies now being enforced within the Fire & EMS Department by Chief Ronnie Few. Obviously we have no quarrel with policies that are motivated by legitimate safety concerns, but clearly Chief Few is promoting an altogether different agenda only tangentially related, at best, to safety. The disclosure that the department has not bothered to conduct an annual seal check for each firefighter's face mask further underscores this point.

Chief Few says he is enforcing a strict grooming policy to "increase discipline, uniformity, safety and espirit de corps throughout the department." He wants the public to view firefighters as clean-cut and professional-looking, so they must "project a positive public image that is consistent with the wearing of uniforms." Despite his reference to uniforms, his policy covers all department employees.

This kind of rationale stands in flagrant violation of the D.C. Human Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of personal appearance. Chief Few has also shown contempt for those in his department who cite religious reasons for their long hair or beards. This issue of grooming standards for D.C. firefighters was litigated back in the 1980's and resulted in a decisive rejection of the department's arbitrary discrimination by the D.C. Court of Appeals. More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned firefighters' hair standards that are not related to safety considerations.

We are not surprised that the department's policy received a rubber stamp of approval in 1997 from the Office of the Corporation Counsel. Over the last decade, the Corporation Counsel's office has been actively undermining the D.C. Human Rights Law whenever D.C. government agencies are involved, most notoriously in its arguments defending the fire department's grotesque mishandling of the Tyra Hunter tragedy in 1995. GLAA fully appreciates that the Human Rights Act's prohibition of discrimination on the basis of personal appearance protects our transgendered residents, and we are all the more sensitive to any attempts to undercut the personal appearance section of the law.

When we testified on behalf of Mr. Holman's confirmation as OHR Director, we urged him to serve aggressively as the Conscience of the Administration, speaking out assertively whenever a District government agency violates the letter or the spirit of the Human Rights Act. This is a perfect opportunity for Mr. Holman to exercise that responsibility, and we urge him to intervene directly with the Mayor to have this policy revoked or redrawn to conform with our law. We are pleased to hear that Mr. Holman plans to meet with Chief Few shortly, and we hope that Mr. Holman will read him the proverbial Riot Act--or the literal Human Rights Act.

There is no way the Fire Department's grooming standards as presently constituted will survive a legal challenge. The sooner the Mayor acts to resolve this pointless controversy, the better for all parties concerned.

We hasten to point out that aside from this one area, we are generally pleased with Chief Few's performance. He had a productive meeting with leaders of our community several weeks ago, and we found him much more responsive and sensitive than his predecessors. Let's put this foolishness behind us so we can get back on track.

Moving on to the budget for the Office of Human Rights, we are quite pleased that OHR is finally able to beef up its investigative staff once again, which had been all but annihilated during the past decade. Currently there are three investigators on board, with a fourth due to come on board today and more to come in the next few months. We are especially pleased to see that Mr. Holman is working with the Office of Property Management to assure that each investigator has his or her own private office, a step GLAA has been calling for to assure confidentiality and privacy in the investigative process.

As a direct result of these new hires and Mr. Holman's administrative reforms, OHR has finally begun to reduce the enormous case backlog that had developed in the 1990's. Better yet, there is now in place for the first time a definite timetable for eliminating the backlog altogether in the next three years. This long-overdue commitment depends on higher budgets, and we hope both the Mayor and the Council will follow through until the job is completed.

We are gratified by the proposed 17.4 % increase in the FY 2002 budget for OHR. We note with particular approval that Mr. Holman will be using the added funds in FY 2002 to hire at least three attorneys to re-establish OHR's Legal Bureau. As Mr. Holman stated in his testimony: "OHR needs lawyers on board who have the time to research the legal questions brought to us by other city officials and the public." We think that the re-establishment of the Legal Bureau should help OHR become recognized throughout the Administration as the controlling legal authority on interpretation of the Human Rights Law. As we indicated earlier, the Office of the Corporation Counsel has done a grave disservice to the citizens of the District through its series of attacks on the Human Rights Law, and the sooner they are made to defer to OHR instead of vice versa, the better.

We also repeat our suggestion in previous testimony before this subcommittee that funding should be provided for mediation services provided by District employees or contractors. The tremendous contributions made by volunteer mediators must be fully acknowledged, and such volunteers should no doubt continue to play a role. But since the Council has recently started requiring an attempt at mediation before an investigation can commence, we think the government has an obligation to fund those mediation services directly. In addition, we have seen instances where the departure of one key OHR staffer has resulted in a virtual disintegration of the volunteer mediation program, and such disruptions can and should be avoided.

As we have stated before, we think Mr. Holman has done an outstanding job as Director of the Office of Human Rights, vindicating the trust we placed in him when he was first appointed. His success to date deserves to be reinforced by as much spending authority as this subcommittee can wrangle for him.

Best wishes.

Sincerely,

Bob Summersgill
President

cc: All Councilmembers
Charles Holman III, Director, Office of Human Rights
Ronnie Few, Chief, Fire & EMS Department
Philip Pannell, Office of the Public Advocate


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