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GLAA testifies on budget for Office of Human Rights
GAY AND LESBIAN ACTIVISTS ALLIANCE OF WASHINGTON
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013
TESTIMONY ON PROPOSED FY 2005 BUDGET
FOR OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Delivered before the Subcommittee on Human Rights
APRIL 5, 2004
Chairman Graham and Fellow D.C. Residents:
Good afternoon. My name is Craig Howell. I am a native Washingtonian and a former President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights group in the country. We will be celebrating our 33rd anniversary with a fund-raising reception at the Radisson Barcelo Hotel on Tuesday evening, April 20. I am pleased to report that one of the recipients of GLAA’s Distinguished Service Awards to be presented at that reception will be Ms. Nadine Wilburn, in recognition of her accomplishments as the Interim Director of the Office of Human Rights (OHR) in 2002-03. Anyone interested in attending our reception may find details on our web site, at: www.glaa.org.
OHR is receiving an increase of nearly one-third in its proposed FY 2005 budget, from $1,891,338 in FY 04 to $2,513,552 in FY 05. The $622,000 raise is entirely accounted for by the costs of implementing the about-to-be-passed Language Access Act, combined with technical accounting adjustments and rising fixed costs. The Mayor’s proposal thus leaves OHR with no increase in funds or staffing to handle its complaint caseload. Great progress has been made in the last several years in reducing OHR’s burdensome and persistent backlog, made possible both by increased budgets and by more productive performances on the part of OHR’s management and staff. If it is at all feasible, GLAA would like to see this momentum continue through another boost in OHR’s budget and staffing to facilitate further inroads into its case backlog.
When OHR Director Kenneth Saunders testified before this Subcommittee on February 20, he noted that the total OHR caseload at that point stood at 438 cases. Of these, 284 cases were “aged”-- that is, complaints that were filed more than 9 months earlier, the current operating definition of what can be termed the backlog. The Mayor’s FY 2005 Budget document notes that one of OHR’s “strategic result goals” for FY 05 is that the agency should “have a backlog of no more than 250 cases at the end of FY 2005.” A 250-case backlog represents a limited goal, since it would be only 34 cases less than the size of the backlog as of a few weeks ago. Each of the eight investigators at OHR is expected to close about 5 cases a month, while 40-45 complaints are being filed (if not necessarily docketed) in an average month. While this math might allow for some progress, the authority to hire another investigator or two should make room for some real headway into that backlog. OHR’s more vigorous outreach to the community, educating our residents about the scope of the protections provided by our landmark Human Rights Act of 1977, has already resulted in an increase in the number of complaints being received at OHR. Accordingly, more investigators and support staff may be required just to stay where we are.
All that being said, we feel confident that Director Saunders will continue to improve OHR’s operational efficiency even within the constraints imposed by the Mayor’s proposed budget. Mr. Saunders pointed out on February 20 that the backlog of aged cases dropped by 42 during his first 3 months on the job last summer; if that rate could have been sustained, the backlog would be well on its way to a total dissolution by now. Progress stalled, in part because the agency’s only two attorneys left; no letters of determinations could be filed while those vacancies remained. Fortunately, those two positions have recently been filled.
We are pleased by a number of steps that Mr. Saunders has taken or intends to take in the months ahead.
- Residents who file complaints are now being scheduled for their initial interviews with OHR staff within 6 weeks. This represents a substantial improvement from the situation a few months ago, when some people had to wait 2 or 3 months for their initial interviews--a gap we feared might discourage folks with valid complaints from filing or following through in the first place.
- All contract investigators have now been replaced by in-house investigators.
- All investigators are being trained as mediators. Until now, all mediation services have been provided by outside volunteers, even though the Human Rights Act mandates that mediation must be attempted before full investigations can be launched.
- Each investigator is now expected to focus on the oldest cases in his or her portfolio, in hopes of preventing the development of new “dated” or “super-aged” cases that drag on for years and years. Mr. Saunders reports that after much effort, only one such “super-aged” case now remains unresolved, and even that one should be completed soon.
- The Office of the Corporation Counsel has agreed to Mr. Saunders’ request to supply OCC attorneys to represent complainants, whose complaints have resulted in findings of probable cause, in subsequent proceedings before the Commission on Human Rights.
Moving on to other aspects of OHR operations, we are glad to learn that Mr. Saunders has recently sent out two notices to D.C. government agencies that are not yet in compliance with the Mayor’s Order on Uniform Language in Non-Discrimination Statements. Mr. Saunders took on this responsibility himself after OHR’s compliance officer resigned several weeks ago. This is one area where progress may have stalled since your Subcommittee held hearings in 2002. We trust progress will resume once a new compliance officer, whose duties include riding herd on out-of-compliance agencies, is hired within the next few weeks.
Finally, we want to take this opportunity to note one area of disagreement GLAA has with Mr. Saunders. There was an article in The Washington Blade a few weeks ago about what was termed a “fact-finding conference” at OHR in the case of the complaint filed by Kenda Kirby against the Fire/EMS Department. (Full disclosure: Ms. Kirby’s attorney is Ms. Mindy Daniels, a former President of GLAA. The following comments reflect GLAA’s perspective but not necessarily Ms. Daniels’.) This conference, which was scheduled by OHR for both parties to attend to try to reach agreement on which allegations were stipulated as fact and which allegations were still in dispute, proved to be a fiasco that left both sides angry and that frankly left egg on OHR’s face, as Mr. Saunders concedes.
GLAA believes, on principle, that it is mistake for OHR to hold something called a “fact-finding conference” before it attempts mediation, as is required by law. We find no reference to “fact-finding conferences” within the Human Rights Law; if they are to be held, they should be part of the investigative process, after mediation efforts have failed. Otherwise, the atmosphere at a “fact-finding conference” may not be conducive to constructive co-operation, and subsequent mediation efforts will become that much more difficult.
Thank you. I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.