GLAA endorses Saunders as Director of Office of Human Rights
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GLAA on Human Rights

GLAA endorses Saunders as Director of Office of Human Rights

(See Craig Howell's notes on hearing)

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

Delivered before the Subcommittee on Human Rights

JUNE 24, 2003

Councilmember Graham and Fellow Residents:

Good morning. My name is Craig Howell. I am a native Washingtonian currently living in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. 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; we recently celebrated our 32nd anniversary. My colleague Rick Rosendall was not able to join me this morning.

I am pleased to be here this morning to offer GLAA’s strong endorsement of the Mayor’s nomination of Kenneth Saunders as the permanent Director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR). We urge the Council to confirm his appointment as speedily as possible.

We were honored earlier this year when the Office of Personnel invited us as community representatives to participate in the selection panel that interviewed the finalists for the position of permanent Director of OHR. (I participated in interviews on the first day, and Mr. Rosendall represented us on the second.) It was an enlightening and educational experience for each of us, and at the same time we think we brought some unique perspectives to the table as well.

In the end the selection panel forwarded several names to the Mayor as our recommendations, deferring to his own right and duty to make the final selection. We believe that any of these recommended candidates would have made an outstanding choice. Accordingly, we are happy to endorse the nomination of Mr. Saunders.

On his very first day at OHR, last Monday, Mr. Saunders took the initiative to contact us to ask for an informal meeting so we could get to know each other better. Mr. Rosendall and I, joined by another former GLAA President, Bob Summersgill, met with Mr. Saunders last Thursday. It was a very enjoyable and productive meeting, as we briefed him on certain aspects of GLAA’s three decades of relations with OHR and he filled us in on his own personal and professional background and his eager commitment to an imaginative and vigorous enforcement of the District’s landmark Human Rights Act of 1977.

In brief, the strong impression that Mr. Saunders left with the selection panel in his original interview was only reinforced by what Mr. Saunders told us last week. We heard about his work as Assistant Director and Legal Counsel with the Columbus, Ohio Community Relations Commission. In particular, we were pleased to learn about his own extensive interactions with that city’s gay and lesbian community, including a number of high-profile controversies that often involved blatant and undisguised homophobia. It didn’t hurt when he mentioned that he and his family had lived for some years in a Columbus neighborhood that featured a high proportion of gay and lesbian residents.

Mr. Saunders demonstrated the depth of his commitment to a meaningful career dedicated to civil rights when he accepted a pay cut so that he could assume a higher level of responsibility as Executive Director of the Greater Shreveport (LA) Human Relations Commission. But after a couple of years in Shreveport, he leapt at the chance to come to Washington, D.C. as Director of our Human Rights Office, even though he thought he must have been a longshot at best. Well, here he is, and I think we can all be grateful that he is.

Our judgment is that Mr. Saunders has the proverbial “fire in the belly” to be a sound and effective OHR Director. He is both emotionally and intellectually committed to the cause of civil rights for all D.C. residents, and appreciates the broad sweep and coverage of our 1977 Human Rights Act. He guarantees he will not be afraid to step on bureaucratic toes to carry out his mission if and when that becomes necessary, as we strongly suspect it will. He arrives with some fresh ideas on how to improve the entire discrimination complaint process, from intake to finding of probable cause. He also wants to improve OHR’s outreach to the general community, so that people will know what the law requires and what services OHR offers. In short, he is ambitious for all the right things for all the right reasons.

Before we continue, we want to take this opportunity to express our deep appreciation to the outgoing Interim Director of OHR, Nadine Wilburn. Ms. Wilburn was plucked out of the Corporation Counsel’s office at virtually a moment’s notice last June to take the OHR job, but she has acquitted herself magnificently. She has enforced the Human Rights Law aggressively while enhancing OHR’s operations and efficiency. She was always receptive to GLAA’s concerns and suggestions, and possessed an uncanny knack for anticipating just what we wanted even before we were able to say it. We are especially grateful for her vigorous enforcement of the Mayor’s Order on uniform language in anti-discrimination policy statements, which required her to shake up the District’s bureaucracy just to get their attention. Thanks to her persistence, and greatly aided by this Subcommittee’s own strong interest and oversight, we think the need for publicizing the entire scope of our comprehensive Human Rights Law at every opportunity has been hammered into most if not all parts of the District government.

GLAA fought throughout the 1990s to re-establish OHR as an independent agency that could be headed by someone with an extensive background in civil rights law enforcement, whose first priority would be equal rights and opportunity for all D.C. residents. OHR had been merged with another agency into a new Department in the late 1980s. This merger proved disastrous. The head of the combined Department in the 1990s was never an expert in civil rights, and OHR's staff was systematically cannibalized and decimated to beef up the other, more politically useful side of the Department.

The Council heeded our advice and restored OHR’s independence in 1999, at the outset of the current Administration. Since then, Mayor Williams has batted 3-for-3 in his appointments. He got off to a great start by appointing Charles Holman, who we think did an outstanding job in getting OHR back on track after a decade of malign neglect. Although we remain baffled to this day as to why the Mayor dismissed Mr. Holman so abruptly last June, his Administration did itself proud in finding Nadine Wilburn to serve as Interim Director. The Administration would be well-advised to find another high-ranking job where Ms. Wilburn could exercise her formidable talents. And now the Williams Administration has completed the trifecta with the nomination of Kenneth Saunders. Our hats are off.

During the interviews by the selection panel with the finalists, Mr. Rosendall and I raised an issue with each candidate that provoked some very interesting discussions. We cited instances in the recent past where District government agencies had taken what we considered highly questionable actions that seemed to undermine our own government’s commitment to the principles and philosophy of the Human Rights Act of 1977. The Fire/EMS Department’s behavior in connection with the notorious Tyra Hunter incident of August 1995, and the Office of Corporation Counsel’s (OCC) crabbed and often-grotesque interpretations of the Human Rights Law invoked in defense of the Department’s behavior in response to a lawsuit filed by Tyra Hunter’s mother, were the most notorious examples of this longstanding and deeply-rooted problem. We asked each finalist if they would be willing under comparable circumstances to intervene on their own responsibility with the agency in question and/or with the Mayor’s Office in order to defend the Human Rights Act from the government itself.

This was a question that none of the interviewees -- and, apparently, none of our colleagues on the selection panel, all of them high-ranking District government officials -- had confronted before. This question is based on GLAA’s often-stated belief that the Director of OHR should serve as the conscience of the Administration, defending the Human Rights Act even when the law might seem inconvenient to other parts of the government.

But all agreed in various ways as the discussions progressed that what we were suggesting would indeed be appropriate, and even useful for all parties concerned. It was generally agreed that the earlier such intervention would take place, the better, before the District government found itself publicly embroiled in another embarrassing and legally and morally indefensible quagmire. It would be even better if District agencies would themselves consult with OHR any time a question of interpretation of the Human Rights Act comes up, whether the issue involves an employee or a member of the public, before the agency decides upon a position.

Without such advance consultation with OHR, District agencies have too often made muddled and incoherent decisions. The resulting problems have been compounded by the OCC’s bizarre interpretations of the law in a misguided sense of duty to defend the government even when it is clearly in the wrong. OCC itself should consult with and defer to the Director of OHR, and, in turn, the Director of OHR should not hesitate to exercise his or her duty to defend the Human Rights Law from being subverted.

There are opportunities now for Mr. Saunders to exercise the kind of initiative we are talking about. A recent article in a community newspaper, the Current, described a controversy involving the possible conversion of the Watergate Hotel into either a co-op or condo, a question that the Zoning Board will soon have to act upon. An ANC Commissioner was quoted as saying he wanted a co-op specifically so that the co-op board could bar students at nearby George Washington University from buying any units -- a policy that would be in flagrant violation of the Human Rights Act’s bar on housing discrimination on the basis of matriculation. We would hope that Mr. Saunders will promptly notify the Zoning Board of OHR’s interest in this matter, so that illegal discrimination can be stopped before it even begins.

That same newspaper article quoted the ANC Commissioner as saying that several of the co-op boards within the existing Watergate complex already have by-laws barring purchases by students or their parents. We notified Ms. Wilburn about this on-going violation of the law, and she promptly authorized an official investigation, as the law explicitly allows OHR to do. We trust Mr. Saunders will pursue this investigation so that the entire matter is settled quickly and hopefully with as little fuss as possible.

Another illustration of the need for OHR to intervene at an early stage in other agencies’ deliberations was provided this past spring when a federal judge ruled against the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs for rejecting an application for a residential facility to house six handicapped individuals. DCRA was obviously oblivious to its responsibilities under both federal and civil rights statutes. At last word, the OCC was still considering the possibility of an appeal. We would urge Mr. Saunders to intervene with both OCC and DCRA to end further judicial proceedings by simply bringing the District into compliance with basic civil rights principles.

Here is a summary of that case, based on a story in the April 23 issue of the Current, entitled "Judge Says City Zoning Rules Violate Federal Housing Laws." It starts: "A U.S. District Court judge ruled last week that the District's zoning regulations discriminate against disabled individuals...."

The case at hand involved a judgment by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs against the Community Housing Trust for opening Zeke's House near Chevy Chase Circle, a facility to house six mentally disabled men, two years ago without obtaining a certificate of occupancy, as DCRA had ordered them to do.

"Opponents said they considered a facility for mentally ill individuals an unsuitable use for the property in a residential area and near churches and nursery schools," according to the Current. But "in a 35-page decision..., Judge Henry Kennedy cited the controversy as evidence that the District had acted in violation of the federal Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988 by considering opposition motivated at least in part by the disabilities of Zeke's House residents."

The Current described the judge’s opinion: "The court's ruling first scrutinizes the zoning regulations themselves, with Kennedy finding that they apply different standards on the basis of a person's disability in violation of federal law."

The Current then quoted this from Judge Kennedy's ruling: "Put simply, according to plaintiffs, six college students or six young professionals may cohabitate without submitting a certificate of occupancy, but six people who need treatment assistance, or supervision, are not so entitled. Defendants appear to concede this point."

The Current quoted Elizabeth Siegel, the Executive Director of one of the groups supporting Zeke's House, hailing the judge's ruling: "It's our win on the law - that the city was discriminating - that's the issue."

One quasi-government agency that has been actively and inexcusably undermining our commitment to the principles of basic civil rights is Metro. In several cases involving allegations against Metro for violating the rights of the elderly and the disabled, Metro’s General Counsel has argued in court, incredibly, that as a quasi-governmental body Metro enjoys sovereign immunity and is therefore exempt from having to obey federal or local anti-discrimination laws. We have petitioned the Metro Board to pass an unequivocal policy statement ordering its General Counsel to renounce this arrogant and anti-social stance in all court cases. We are gratified, Mr. Graham, that as Chair of the Metro Board this year, you have assured us that steps are being taken to resolve this embarrassment. However, to the best of our knowledge this has not yet happened. We hope that this will indeed come to pass in short order so that we won’t have to encourage Mr. Saunders to intervene.

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

[Craig Howell's notes on hearing: This morning's hearing began with testimony from 5 of the Mayor's 8 nominees for the Human Rights Commission.

[Of particular interest was Brother Donald F. Lippert, the new Executive Director of the Spanish Catholic Center. He had told Jim Graham in a letter that he fully supported the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Human Rights Law. Jim asked him about that, and he reiterated unequivocally that he had no mental reservations about enforcing that section of the law and saw no conflict with his faith.

[A couple of other nominees mentioned in passing their work on behalf of gay men and lesbians. Jim asked the nominees if they promised to actually show up for Commission meetings and hearings, which of course they all said they would. He dragged in OHR's backlog of cases and wanted to know what each nominee would do to help cut back the backlog. The fact that Commissioners have no powers in this regard did not seem to bother Jim. (The Commission's own backlog is slim at this point; nobody referred to it as apart from the Office's backlog.) Jim said he hopes to have all 8 nominees confirmed by the full Council at its July 8 legislative meeting.

[I testified after the Commission nominees. I read the first half of my full statement, in the interests of time. I added a phrase indicating we hoped Saunders would be confirmed on July 8, the same day as the Commissioners would hopefully be confirmed. Jim had no questions for me, complimented my record on behalf of the Human Rights Law, and mentioned that Mr. Saunders was "beaming" during my kind words about him.

[Mr. Saunders then was sworn in by Jim. He made a relatively short statement, speaking of his "passion" for enforcing civil rights that he traced to a 1998 conversation with his boss when he first came on board at the Columbus (OH) Community Relations Commission.

[Jim got into a discussion of the OHR backlog with Saunders. There are now 339 backlogged cases (more than 180 days old) out of a total caseload of about 470. There were 385 backlogged cases as of April 8. Jim said he was not satisfied with the slow progress being made on reducing the backlog. He asked Saunders how long it would take him to prepare a plan for attacking the backlog and present it to the Subcommittee at an oversight hearing. Saunders said October would give him enough time, and Jim said fine. (He would change his mind, though; see below.)

[Saunders noted that DC has an unusually high number of discrimination complaints, which he attributed to the many extra categories protected by DC law. (Actually, the vast majority of complaints filed with OHR involve federally protected categories.)

[When Fenty came in, the line of questioning seemed to shift into focusing on Saunders' inexperience and lack of familiarity with DC. Fenty seemed surprised that Saunders had just moved into DC a couple of weeks ago. Fenty said DC is a city with much diversity of populations and issues, a diversity that an OHR chief should be familiar with to be effective. Fenty asked about Shreveport, where Saunders had moved to from Columbus to become head of their Human Relations Commission. Saunders said he was startled when the Mayor vetoed a proposal from the state EEOC to have Saunders' agency handle all anti-discrimination complaints filed in northern LA. He was disturbed by this lack of support he was getting from the Mayor and other local elected officials, and was frustrated by the absence of a local civil rights law and any powers to enforce any findings he made on complaints filed with his office (such findings were forwarded to the state EEOC office in Baton Rouge, and he never heard how those cases turned out). His office only had four employees. Asked whether he was recruited for the job of OHR Director by anybody from DC, he said no, he just found the posting on and filed his application with the Personnel Office (which, indeed, had been very aggressive in publicizing this position, leading to the submission of hundreds of applications).

[Fenty asked about immigration populations, or lack thereof, in Shreveport and Columbus; he had been in Ohio himself for many years and didn't think of Ohio as an immigration hotspot. Saunders said that actually in the last few years, quite a few Somalians (I think) had moved into Columbus, probably now constituting 4% of the population. Fenty also asked about the GLBT communities in the two cities, saying he knew Columbus certainly had an active one. Saunders said yes, in fact gay-related complaints accounted for about half of all cases filed in Columbus. Shreveport, in contrast, has no visible gay community or groups that he could ever find.

[Fenty asked whether the OHR staff would resent him as an outsider, since no one had been promoted from within the agency. (Whether anyone from OHR had actually applied for the job, other than Wilburn-herself an outsider-was not clarified.) Saunders said he was confident that by meeting with all the staffers, he could alleviate concerns coming from that direction.

[A series of questions (whether from Graham or Fenty) emphasized the difference in staff size and budgets between Saunders' previous jobs, especially in Shreveport, and OHR. Saunders said it was such a pleasant surprise to head an agency with such a large budget and staff.

[After walking over and chatting with Fenty for a few minutes, Jim returned to the chair and announced he was revising his earlier plan. The Subcommittee's hearing on Saunders' plan for attacking the backlog would be moved up to September, just after the recess ends, and the Subcommittee would not act on Saunders' nomination until after that hearing. He said that in light of the many controversies swirling around OHR in recent years, and the fact that it was unusual to have somebody from outside not just the District but the entire region take over as OHR chief, it would be prudent to delay action.]

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