GLAA statement on Office of Human Rights budget
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GLAA on Human Rights


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GLAA statement on Office of Human Rights budget


GAY AND LESBIAN ACTIVISTS ALLIANCE OF WASHINGTON
Fighting for Equal Rights Since 1971
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013

April 11, 2005


The Honorable Vincent Orange
Chair
Committee on Government Operations
Council of the District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004

Dear Mr. Orange:

Please accept this letter as the official statement of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA) for the record of your April 6 hearings on the proposed FY 2006 budget for the Office of Human Rights (OHR). I was grateful for the opportunity to testify in person before you and Councilmember Graham at those hearings.

Having been founded in 1971, GLAA remains the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization in the country. As you know, we are celebrating our 34th anniversary with a fund-raising reception on the evening of Thursday, April 20 at the Radisson Barcelo Hotel at 2121 P Street NW near Dupont Circle. During this reception we will be presenting our annual Distinguished Service Awards to several worthy recipients, including Council Chairman Linda Cropp, in recognition of their contributions to the Districtís gay and lesbian community. We hope you and your colleagues will be able to attend. Full details about the reception may be found on our web site, www.glaa.org.

GLAA has long made enforcement of the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 (DCHRA) one of our top priorities. The DCHRA is still one of the strongest and most comprehensive civil rights laws in the entire nation. Roughly half of the categories protected from arbitrary discrimination through the DCHRA -- including sexual orientation and personal appearance (the category long used to protect our transgendered residents) -- are not protected under federal civil rights laws. Accordingly, when members of our community are subjected to blatant discrimination, we have no recourse to federal agencies such as HUD or the EEOC; we have no choice but to turn to OHR or our D.C. courts for relief.

Unfortunately, even though our elected officials have always paid lip service to the Districtís long history of civil rights leadership, OHR was long underfunded and understaffed. The inevitable result was the development and persistence of unconscionably long backlogs within OHR and the Commission on Human Rights. GLAA struggled mightily throughout the 1970s and 80s to correct this intolerable situation, and we thought the backlog was finally under control by the end of the 80s. Then, while we werenít looking, OHRís staffing levels and budget were ruthlessly cannibalized after it had merged with another agency. By the time we realized what was going on in the mid-1990s, it was taking two and a half years for OHR to even start an investigation after a discrimination complaint was filed.

At that point we began a campaign not just to restore OHRís staff and budget but also to restore its independence as a Cabinet-level agency. At first our requests were ignored by the Administration and the Council, but our lobbying and education efforts paid off by the end of the decade. Thanks to the initiative of Councilmember Kathy Patterson in her capacity as Chair of this very Committee, OHR regained its independence and Cabinet-level status by 1999, and its budget and staffing were significantly increased. Over the last four years, Councilmember Jim Graham continued the tradition of strong Council support and oversight for OHR as Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, Asian, Latino and Pacific Islander Affairs, and Property Management. We hope you will be able to carry on that tradition, Mr. Orange; and if we may judge by the very productive meeting we recently had with your Committee clerk Dr. Donna Cooper, we have grounds to be optimistic.

For his part, Mayor Williams has helped to fulfill the promise of OHRís renewed independence by appointing a series of fine OHR Directors, each of whom has helped to advance the Districtís commitment to Equal Justice for All. We are especially pleased with the performance of the current Director, Mr. Kenneth Saunders, as we explained in our March 4 statement for this Committeeís Performance & Oversight Hearings. (See: http://www.glaa.org/archive/2005/ohrtestimony0304.shtml.)

Turning now to the proposed FY 2006 budget for OHR, our pleasure at seeing its funding doubled from last yearís level is offset by the fact that virtually all of this increase is accounted for by federal grants and funding. The Administration is proposing a paltry increase of only $4,148 in the Districtís own funds for OHR operations next year.

This is absurd. For the first time in decades, the Districtís tax coffers are healthy if not overflowing thanks to both years of tight fiscal discipline and an ongoing boom in property tax receipts. Tax relief is in the air, while many agencies are set to receive far more ample funding than theyíve ever seen. In the midst of such fiscal largesse, OHR -- and more particularly, its clients, both complainants and respondents -- surely deserve more than the few extra crumbs the Administration is offering.

Thanks to increased budgets and the dedication and productivity of OHRís staff and management, the agencyís backlog of complaints has been significantly reduced over the past few years. The current number of ďagedĒ cases (i.e., those more than 270 days old) is less than 190, a number which Mr. Saunders hopes to reduce to 175 by the end of FY 2006. There are now no aged cases dating back before FY 2003, a major improvement over what was the situation just a couple of years ago. But even a greatly reduced backlog impedes the timely processing of newly-filed complaints. When I recently asked Mr. Saunders how long it usually takes from the filing of a complaint to a finding of probable cause, he replied that 270 days is more or less typical--once the OHR staff gets to it. But the need for OHRís staff to hack away at the aged case backlog in addition to working on new complaints means that most new cases in fact still drag on longer than 270 days. 270 days, by the way, is the standard goal set by the federal EEOC for processing discrimination complaints, and is a goal routinely met if not exceeded by many state and local civil rights agencies.

The Administration proposes that OHR use the roughly $300,000 in federal funds it will receive from HUD in FY 2006 for managing the contract for the National Fair Housing Training Academy to hire an additional three staffers. Unfortunately, this federal funding windfall will dry up in just another couple of years, leaving those three new staffers in the lurch. GLAA recommends that those three positions be funded in FY 2006 and forward out of District dollars so that those people may be hired on a permanent basis, not as temporary contractors as they would have to be if federally funded. In the meantime, letís use that temporary $300,000 federal grant to hire some contractors whose prime job it would be to do whateverís necessary to get rid of the backlog once and for all.

The District can now afford to add three more staffers to OHR on a permanent basis. If we are serious about our cityís commitment to civil rights for all, letís take advantage of this long-awaited opportunity.

Thank you for your attention. We look forward to a productive relationship.

Sincerely,

Craig Howell
Human Rights Project Director

Cc: Councilmember Jim Graham
Councilmember Adrian Fenty
Councilmember Phil Mendelson
Councilmember Carol Schwartz
Kenneth Saunders, Office of Human Rights


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