GLAA Testifies on Office of Human Rights
OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs and Property Management
Council of the District of Columbia
February 28, 2001
Chairperson Graham, members of the Subcommittee, and Fellow Citizens:
Good evening. My name is Bob Summersgill. I am President of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the nation's oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization. With me this evening is my predecessor as GLAA President, Craig Howell. We will be celebrating GLAA's 30th Anniversary with a reception on Thursday evening, April 19, and each of you will soon be receiving an invitation. I am pleased to report that two of your colleagues, Councilmember Sharon Ambrose and Councilmember Jack Evans, will be among those receiving GLAA's Distinguished Service Awards at this Anniversary Reception.
We are pleased that the Council has established this Subcommittee to focus on human rights issues in the District of Columbia, and that you, Mr. Graham, are serving as its first Chairperson. We at GLAA promise to do our best to keep this Subcommittee busy. We want to take this opportunity to thank your colleague Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who served the cause of human rights with great distinction during her tenure as Chairperson of the Government Operations Committee. We credit her leadership, in particular, for finally securing the renewed independence for the Office of Human Rights (OHR) and for adding $200,000 for the FY 2001 OHR budget specifically to help reduce the enormous case backlog that has plagued OHR for so many years.
We continue to be very pleased with the performance of Charles Holman as Director of the Office of Human Rights. He has proven to be one of the most accessible members of the Williams Administration, and one who has not hesitated to seek out our assistance as well. He has repeatedly demonstrated his deep personal commitment to the human rights cause since taking over OHR. He played a key inside role, for example, in GLAA's successful effort to persuade the Mayor to reissue an Executive Order to D.C. government agencies requiring each official non-discrimination policy to enumerate all categories protected by the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977.
As another example, he found the time to attend a couple of meetings that GLAA arranged in the last year with the Office of the Corporation Counsel. His presence lent weight to our campaign to reverse the Corporation Counsel office's grotesque argument, advanced in the Tyra Hunter case and elsewhere despite several unambiguous court rulings against it, that the Human Rights Law forbids ordinary citizens from suing the District government for discriminatory actions unless they first exhaust their administrative remedies with OHR.
Mr. Holman has also taken the initiative to commence a professional training and development program for his staff through a series of workshops on current human rights issues. At Mr. Holman's invitation, we worked closely with him on the first of these briefings a few weeks ago on the unique challenges confronting the intersex community -- those persons born with ambiguous sexual organs. We consider that program a great success, and trust such success will be repeated in future sessions as well. This training will help the OHR staff both appreciate the enormous diversity of our city and understand what their role is to protect it.
We are also pleased that under Mr. Holman's guidance, the case backlog at OHR has been reduced substantially, from 722 cases in March 2000 to 564 today. This represents the first decrease in the backlog since 1993. Obviously, there is still a long way to go, especially since OHR has conceded that much of this backlog reduction has been due to administrative closures. But it looks like a good start. We remind this Subcommittee that the $200,000 added to OHR's FY 2001 budget last year was intended as the first of several annual installments designed to eliminate the backlog. We hope the Mayor's forthcoming FY 2002 budget will incorporate another such temporary bulge in OHR's spending authority, or, if not, that this Subcommittee will help persuade the rest of the Council to restore it.
We would also urge this Subcommittee to do what you can to augment OHR's budget in several other ways. In particular, we believe that the mediation process -- which, by law, every case must go through before an investigation commences -- should be funded, rather than relying upon the services of outside volunteer mediators. OHR also needs a TTY to communicate with members of the deaf and hearing impaired community. GLAA donated a TTY to the MPD's Fifth District after we discovered in the course of the Eric Plunkett murder investigation at Gallaudet that the police department lacked such basic facilities outside of its central operations office, so we have been sensitized to this matter. If the Office of Human Rights is to have the confidence of deaf and hearing impaired community to protect their rights, they need at minimum the equipment to communicate.
We also think that OHR staff involved with investigations and mediation need to have private offices for conducting interviews, making phone calls and the like, in order to protect the confidentiality of both complainants and defendants. It is not reasonable for confidential and sensitive investigations to be handled in an open office environment where any visitor to OHR or Small Business Development can overhear conversations or see confidential material.
The District has one of the most comprehensive Human Rights laws in the country. But over many years we have dismantled the law's enforcement through cuts in staff and budget. OHR staff needs to be increased to include a legal unit and field investigators. While we do not expect an increase in staff to the 70 FTEs that OHR used to have, 20 FTEs is inadequate. OHR needs adequate staff to conduct onsite investigations and interviews. Right now, OHR only has the ability to request documents, leaving proof of discrimination claims in the hands of the victims. This has resulted in the high level of cases found to not have cause. A legal unit, such as OHR used to have, would allow the proper level of legal scrutiny of cases that are required in this delicate area. Mr. Holman attempted to address that shortage by hiring lawyers as investigators. This has proven too difficult, as the pay scale is inadequate to recruit and retain lawyers. We are not sure that lawyers are needed as investigators, but lawyers are unquestionably needed in the office and must be paid at appropriate levels to be competitive at least with other lawyers in the District Government.
OHR's operations would also be improved by legislation codifying its former practice and policy of granting an automatic priority to discrimination complaints filed by people suffering a life-threatening ailment. A few years ago, that policy was so firmly entrenched that OHR had a staff member whose prime responsibility was to work on such cases. Unfortunately, the incumbent passed away and his position has not been filled since. When Mr. Howell asked Mr. Holman a year or so ago whether the policy was still in place, Mr. Holman investigated and found out that it was not. We have raised the possibility of such legislation in our questionnaires to Council candidates during the last several elections, and we are pleased that most Council incumbents have gone on record in support of such a bill. Attached with my testimony is a compilation of those responses, which is also available on our web site, www.glaa.org.
Thank you. We would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.
[Former GLAA President Craig Howell added the following statement at the end of Mr. Summersgill's prepared statement:
"Councilmember Graham, just to illustrate what we're up against and why the Mayor's Executive Order was needed, I received in today's mail the February 23 edition of the D.C. Register. It includes a "Notice of Final Rulemaking" by the D.C. Board of Education, approved on December 20, 2000, covering "Chapter 9: Public Charter School Policies." Section 915 covers "Admissions." Subsection 915.2 includes the following highly incomplete anti-discrimination policy: "A public charter school may not limit enrollment on the basis of a student's race, color, religion, national origin, language spoken, intellectual or athletic ability, measures of achievement or aptitude, or status as a student with special needs." This omits many of the categories (Including sexual orientation) protected explicitly under the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977, a law whose coverage includes education as well as employment, housing, public accommodations, and credit.
"GLAA found too many other cases where anti-discrimination policies issued by District government agencies were inadequate, leading us to urge the Mayor to issue an Executive Order to all departments requiring each anti-discrimination policy to include all protected categories. As we stated, the Mayor issued this Executive Order last year, thanks in no small part to Mr. Holman's assistance."
Mr. Graham pointed out in response that this policy was adopted by the old School Board and that the new Board under Peggy Cooper Cafritz should be quite receptive to our concerns. Mr. Howell replied that GLAA will be contacting Ms. Cafritz and her colleagues shortly to urge a speedy remedy to the problem we discovered with these new regulations.
Mr. Graham asked what kinds of legislation GLAA would urge his Subcommittee to consider to promote the cause of civil rights in the District of Columbia. Mr. Summersgill cited legislation being prepared by Councilmember Carol Schwartz that would define harassment as discrimination. This legislation was prompted by our concerns over the lack of an explicit ban on harassment targeted at gay and lesbian students. He said it would also be a good idea to refine the Human Rights Act so that discrimination on the basis of "actual or perceived" characteristics such as sexual orientation would be barred. Legislation codifying the former OHR practice of granting automatic priority to complaints from people with serious illness was also mentioned. Mr. Howell added that the Subcommittee might want to take another look at the Human Rights Act Amendments Act of 1995, which lengthened from 120 days to 1 year the statutory requirement for the normal lag between the filing of a complaint with OHR and the issuance of a finding of probable cause. Mr. Howell said OHR is a long way from even a year's gap now, since 2-3 years is more common, but we need to set an ideal and support it. He said a lapse of 120 days is routine at human rights agencies all over the country.]