GLAA testifies on Office of Human Rights budget
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GLAA on Human Rights

GLAA testifies on Office of Human Rights budget

Fighting for Equal Rights Since 1971
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013

Before the Subcommittee on Human Rights

APRIL 11, 2003

Chairman Graham, Members of the Council, and Fellow Residents:

Good morning. My name is Craig Howell. I am a former President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights group in the country. As you know, this coming Tuesday evening, April 15, we will be celebrating our 32nd anniversary with a reception at the Radisson Barcelo Hotel in Dupont Circle.

I want to begin by expressing our deep gratitude to this subcommittee for its recent decision to restore $183,000 to OHR's current FY 2003 budget after the Williams Administration tried to rescind those funds. Thanks to this subcommittee's action, OHR is now able to proceed with hiring three additional investigators, bringing the total number of investigators to eight -- positions that are sorely needed if the agency is to continue eating away at its long-entrenched case backlog.

We realize that the District, like almost every other political jurisdiction in the country, faces a severe and continuing budget crisis that is forcing elected officials to make some painful choices among priorities. You and your colleagues have demonstrated very clearly, Mr. Graham, that the struggle against arbitrary and unjust discrimination deserves the District's unyielding commitment.

Thankfully, the Administration seems to have learned this lesson as well. Its proposed FY 2004 budget for OHR inflicts no more than minimal damage -- a cut of $55,000 (about 3 percent) in local funds, from $1,831,000 in the current fiscal year to $1,776,000 in the next. Obviously, we would prefer no cut or even an increase, but we appreciate the fiscal realities that limit our options. The bottom line for us is that OHR will not lose any FTEs in FY 2004 but will remain steady at 28 positions. This stability in employment should enable the agency to continue making progress towards its worthy and ambitious goals.

And speaking of worthy and ambitious goals, we are thrilled to see that OHR is committed to ending the case backlog entirely -- that is, bringing the number of cases pending more than 180 days down to zero -- by the end of FY 2004, less than 18 months away. Truly, for us this would be the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Considering that there is a backlog of 385 cases as of April 7, we would have to call OHR's optimism positively breath-taking, and must reflect the agency's confidence in its augmented staff and improved operations. But while any number of budgetary or other obstacles arising between now and September 30, 2004 could delay achieving this noble goal, it is well to recall the motto of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect who built Union Station and many other local landmarks: "Make No Small Plans."

However, we also note that the agency is committed to bringing a mere 90 percent of District government agencies into compliance with human rights laws and policies by the end of FY 2004. This goal seems unduly cautious. All D.C. agencies should be in full compliance by then, and preferably long before. A Compliance Officer has been added to OHR's staff in recent times specifically for this purpose (among others). If any department or agency chiefs ignore or resist their obligations under the Human Rights Act of 1977 and/or with the Mayor's Order on Uniform Language in Non-Discrimination Policies, they should be quickly brought into line by the Mayor's Office, or else dismissed for cause.

Before concluding, we want to call the subcommittee's attention to an annoying and perplexing problem that can and should be readily resolved. Last year, there was a great deal of controversy swirling around a proposal to create an Office of Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgendered Affairs. To make a long story short, the debate was mooted last September when Mayor Williams suspended his support for the proposal - "It's not going to happen," were the Mayor's words to a meeting of his GLBT Advisory Committee where I was present -- in light of the then-just-emerging budget crisis. In the same spirit of fiscal responsibility, you, Mr. Graham, cancelled an October hearing on the bill you had introduced for this purpose. We at GLAA, among the proposal's most vocal critics, assumed the issue would remain in limbo at least until the budget crisis was resolved.

So we are baffled by a flurry of lobbying mounted on behalf of the idea in the last several months at the behest of the Mayor's GLBT Liaison, Ms. Wanda Alston, who seems oblivious to the District's ongoing fiscal crisis. Mr. Graham, we ask you to state publicly that plans for an Office of Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgendered Affairs must remain on hold at least until the current crisis passes, and that you will be introducing no legislation or holding any hearings on the subject until then. Once the present budgetary storm clouds pass, GLAA will be prepared to argue, as before, that such an Office would seek to co-opt the GLBT community's organizing and advocacy efforts, and would amount to little more than a taxpayer-funded political operation serving not our community but the Mayor's re-election.

Thank you. I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.

[Addendum by Craig Howell: Friday’s hearing was 40 minutes late getting started, because OHR Interim Director Nadine Chandler Wilburn had been told to arrive at noon but the hearing actually began at 10.

[Subcommittee Chair Jim Graham started his questions by asking whether it was legal for Ms. Wilburn to serve as Acting OHR Director for more than 180 days without a formal nomination from the Mayor, citing a law that seemed to clearly indicate otherwise. (Her 180 days would have expired last December.) Wilburn said she was exempt from that particular law because she’s “Interim” Director, not “Acting” Director, or some such reason. In any case, she said she was going in for a “Final Interview” for the permanent post with the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor (Carolyn Graham) on Monday the 14th. It seems that the Mayor will make his selection shortly.

[The rest of Jim’s questioning centered on how Wilburn intends to use the $183,000 that the Council restored to the OHR ’03 budget. Surprisingly, she seemed unprepared for this question and could not readily provide a complete answer. Part of the problem was that Jim kept interrupting her every time she came up with something, mostly to point out that hiring a bunch of people now at an annual salary rate of (say) $45,000 would only cost about $20,000 each in ’03, so where would the rest of the money go? She said she would hire 3 investigators who should be on board shortly, but she only talked about one GS-11 and one GS-12, so I don’t know what the third investigator will be. She’ll also hire a Deputy Director, a position that’s been vacant for 2 years (Holman’s Deputy left then, apparently very unhappy with Charles), at a salary of about $80,000; but since that position has to be filled by the same cumbersome process required for selecting the Director, it’s unlikely it will be filled before August at the earliest, so again there’s money sloshing around. Wilburn said she could hire an Interim Deputy Director long before August, even though she has no one in particular in mind for the job at present. Jim said he went out on a limb to restore the $183,000, and wanted to be sure every penny of that will be spent this year in ways that will reduce the backlog. Wilburn promised to provide a full accounting of where the money will go. Jim suggested maybe she should use the extra money for consultants, but warned against any repetition of the Curtis Lewis fiasco, where $296,000 was provided a couple of years ago to well-connected outside contractors to do Letters of Determination (like Findings of Probable Cause) at an extravagant per-Letter cost. (This was the contract that Holman is suing the government about, claiming he was fired for not renewing it. Wilburn did not renew it either but is still on the job.)

[In my testimony, I thanked Jim for his aggressive pursuit of the question of where the $183,000 was going, an example of good oversight. I also thanked Wilburn for indicating she was about to hire another Intake Officer, since people now sometimes have to wait as long as 2 months for an initial meeting with one of the two present Intake Officers to formalize their complaints — a wait that might discourage complainants from pursuing their cases.]

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