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Dorsey testifies for Commission on Human Rights
COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS
FY2006-2007 PERFORMANCE OVERSIGHT HEARING
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT AND GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS
March 2, 2007
Chairwoman Schwartz and members of the Committee on Workforce Development and Government Operations: My name is Deborah Wood Dorsey and I am Chair of the Commission on Human Rights. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the successful work of the commission, its achievements, goals and challenges.
I am very pleased to report that the commission is meeting its public mandate to efficiently adjudicate complaints of unlawful discrimination. The commission on human rights is an independent agency, related to the office of human rights, and is made up of fifteen civic-minded residents of the district who volunteer their time to do the important work of upholding the “D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977.”
THE PRIMARY FUNCTION OF THE COMMISSION IS TO ADJUDICATE PRIVATE COMPLAINTS CERTIFIED TO IT BY THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS FOLLOWING A DETERMINATION OF PROBABLE CAUSE—MEANING THE LIKELIHOOD OF DISCRIMINATION WAS FOUND FOLLOWING AN EXTENSIVE INVESTIGATION AND UNSUCCESSFUL ATTEMPTS AT CONCILIATION. THESE CASES ARE GROUNDED IN THE seventeen PLUS PROTECTED CATEGORIES SET FORTH IN THE HUMAN RIGHTS ACT. WHILE THE D.C. MUNICIPAL REGULATIONS (“Rules of Procedure for Contested Cases,” 4 DCMR Section 400 et seq. (1995) say that A hearing may be conducted by the hearing examiner or a panel of Commissioners, typically it is the hearing examiners who hear the cases. The exception is the VERY RARE occasion when A HEARING EXAMINER AND A PANEL OF COMMISSIONERS HEAR CASES WHERE THE ISSUES ARE COMPLEX OR ARE “HIGH PROFILE.”
The commission engaged in an extensive rulemaking process last year following enactment of the “clarification of human rights act of 2005.” This legislation amended the D.C. Human Rights Act to include “gender identity or expression” as a new protected category. The commission held public hearings and received constructive comment and suggestions from the transgender and transsexual community on how to write the compliance guidelines so as to achieve the depth of protection from discrimination as intended by the council and the mayor. The proposed rule was open for public comment and the commission carefully considered those comments, as well. The rule became effective on october 27, 2006.
As a result of these new compliance guidelines, the commission believes, that training is needed for front-line District government employees---those employees whose positions put them in direct contact with the public---to ensure their knowledge and understanding of the guidelines and the District’s expectations that they provide quality service to the transgender and transsexual residents of our community, and, of course, limit the district’s potential legal liability.
In addition, The Human Rights Commission continued with community outreach by sponsoring a Town Forum in recognition of International Human Rights Day, on december 8, 2005. The 2006 international human rights day programme, postponed from last December, was held just last Thursday evening. Furthermore, the commission sponsored an information booth at the City’s annual Capital Pride Festival on june 11, 2006. Each year, commissioners and commission staff volunteer time manning the booth explaining the roles of the commission and office of human rights to the public.
The initial goals of the commission in this fiscal year are two:
First, the commission will promulgate new rules and regulations for the “genetic information” law passed by council in fy2006, that would protect individuals from being required to provide their DNA information as a condition for employment or for obtaining insurance.
Second, a major goal---and challenge---of the commission is to work with the private bar to identify attorneys willing to offer pro bono representation for complainants who are unable to provide their own counsel.
Chairwoman Schwartz, the Commission has challenges:
1. The Commission needs a full compliment (15) of commissioners as soon as possible.
Currently, there are only seven (7) sitting commissioners, three of whom are expected to be reconfirmed. Other terms expired in 2005. I understand the mayor’s office has put forward its nominations to the council, and I would ask that you confirm these nominations as soon as possible. This void, however, has caused a temporary delay in issuing final decisions and orders for cases on the docket. To remedy this situation, I have asked commissioners to take on more cases so we can move them off the docket and provide speedy resolution to the parties.
2. Increased funding for the office of human rights’ budget is integral to the efficient operation of
the commission on human rights and timely disposition of cases.
In FY2005, the chief hearing examiner was sole staff to the commission. In fy2006, however, commission staff grew to a total of three people with the addition of two full-time hearing examiners. Consequently, more cases are being heard in a timely manner and beign referred to the commission tribunals for final decision and order. While we are very pleased that last year’s budget was increased to hire the new hearing examiners, we continue to need a full-time paralegal and a full-time secretary. EVERY DAY, commission staff does THE WORK OF A STAFF OF THREE TIMES THEIR NUMBER, AND MR. ALEXANDER, the chief hearing examiner, STEPS IN WITH YOEMAN’S SERVICE AS THE COMMISSION’S DE FACTO FULL-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR.
3. The commission has long outgrown its office space and needs a dedicated hearing room.
Currently, the hearing examiners must book hearings in any available space belonging to other agencies and hope they are not pre-empted by those agencies’ subsequent need for the office. Such office space must also include private offices where attorneys may confer with their clients.
4. The commission needs resources to pay for private attorneys:
In fy2005, THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS TERMINATED ITS CONTRACTS WITH PRIVATE ATTORNEYS DUE TO A LACK OF available funds. This is a COSTLY SERVICE. APPROXIMATELY 80% OF COMPLAINANTS NOW RELY ON COUNSEL APPOINTED BY THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS. WHILE THE COMPLAINANT MAY RETAIN PRIVATE COUNSEL, THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS MUST “REPRESENT THE INTERESTS OF THE COMPLAINT BEFORE THE COMMMISSION”— TREATING THE COMPLAINT AND THE COMPLAINANT AS ONE IN THE SAME. (D.C. Code, Sect. 2-1403.12(b) AS A REMEDY, THE COMMISSION HAS ACTIVELY SOUGHT THE PRO BONO SERVICES OF the private bar and LAW SCHOOL CLINICS, but with poor results. Our cases are lengthy and too involved to be interest the private bar.
Chairwoman Schwartz AND MEMBERS OF THE COMMITTEE, THE CHALLENGES BEFORE THE COMMISSION EXIST BECAUSE THERE IS NO separate BUDGET FOR THE COMMISSION. CURRENTLY, COMMISSION EXPENSES ARE CARVED OUT OF THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS’ BUDGET ON AN “AS NEEDED”, AD HOC BASIS. ONLY THE HEARING EXAMINERS’ SALARIES ARE SPECIFICALLY INCLUDED IN THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS’ BUDGET. UNDER THIS CONSTRUCT, ALL COMMISSION OPERATING EXPENSES ARE SUBMITTED TO THE DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE AND ARE ALLOCATED, ON A PIECEMEAL BASIS, TO PAY FOR SUCH CRITICAL STAFF AND NON-STAFF OPERATIONAL NECESSITIES AS HEARING EXPENSES, LEGAL REPRESENTATION FOR COMPLAINANTS, PARALEGALS, COURT REPORTERS, DOCUMENT REPRODUCTION, SIGN LANGUAGE AND FOREIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETERS, AND PUBLIC EVENTS HOSTED BY THE COMMISSION IN ITS EFFORTS TO CONDUCT PUBLIC OUTREACH AND EDUCATION, TO NAME A FEW.
THERE IS NO STRUCTURE OR CERTAINTY IN THE LEVEL OF FUNDING THE COMMISSION HAS TO WORK WITH IN ANY GIVEN FISCAL YEAR. FORTUNATELY, THE COMMISSION has ENJOYed A VERY COOPERATIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS, AND HAS BEEN ALLOCATED FUNDS TO THE EXTENT POSSBILE. HOWEVER, AS THE AGENCY CHARGED WITH A VERY CRITICAL ADJUDICATIVE FUNCTION, AS WELL AS THE POWER TO CONDUCT “INVESTIGATIONS OR EXAMINATIONS OF MUNICIPAL MATTERS” (D.C. Code, Section 2-403.01(a)(b), IT IS CRITICAL TO THE FUNCTIONING OF THE DISTRICT GOVERNMENT AND ITS RESIDENTS THAT THE COMMISSION IS FULLY FUNDED THROUGH A SEPARATE LINE ITEM IN THE DISTRICT’S FY2007-2008 BUDGET. THE NEED IS CRITICAL.
THE COMMISSION URGES YOU TO USE YOUR BEST EFFORTS THIS YEAR TO PROVIDE FULL FUNDING FOR OUR MANDATED OPERATIONS, staffing AND ACTIVITIES. WE STAND READY TO WORK WITH YOU TO ACHIEVE all our goals.
THANK YOU, AGAIN, madame CHAIR, FOR THE OPPORTUNITY TO APPEAR BEFORE YOU and your committee today.