GLAA testifies on Office of Human Rights
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GLAA on Human Rights

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GLAA testifies on Office of Human Rights

Fighting for Equal Rights Since 1971
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013
(202) 667-5139


Before the Committee on Workforce Development & Government Operations

MARCH 2, 2007

Councilmember Schwartz, Members of the Committee and Fellow Residents:

Good evening. My name is Craig Howell. I am Secretary of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA).

We have been testifying at these annual oversight and performance hearings on the Office of Human Rights (OHR) for many years, though this is the first time before you, Mrs. Schwartz, as the chair of the relevant Council committee and with Mr. Gustavo Velasquez as the Director of OHR.

OHR has made considerable progress in the past year on a number of fronts, first under former Director Kenneth Saunders and continuing under his successor. We were pleased to hear Mr. Velasquez report to you during his confirmation hearing a few weeks ago that the backlog of cases at OHR has been reduced to just barely over 100. Mr. Saunders instituted a number of reforms during his tenure that speeded the handling of complaints filed with OHR, and Mr. Velasquez seems well disposed toward continuing that trend.

During the 2006 elections campaign, we asked all candidates if they would support a budget for OHR large enough “to allow it to reduce to 270 days the average gap between the time that a discrimination complaint is filed and the time OHR issues a finding of probable cause.” Virtually every successful candidate committed themselves to that goal. Here is what Mr. Fenty said in answer to this question:

“Yes. I will always review the work of each agency as I prepare my annual budgets and ensure that the funding we are giving to each agency will allow them to accomplish their mission. I believe that a 270 day or nine month time frame between the time a discrimination complaint is filed and OHR issues a finding of probable cause is a reasonable time frame on which to base staffing requests and funding. I believe that OHR is making great strides in reducing its caseload and I will work with my director to make sure that this trend continues. I will also instruct my Director of OHR to work with the law schools in the District of Columbia where feasible and legal to get additional assistance in reducing the caseload.”

We hope that Mayor Fenty’s FY 2008 budget proposal in a few weeks will reflect that same commitment. This would make the task facing Mr. Velasquez that much more manageable.

Mr. Saunders was not afraid to advocate for civil rights for all of us, even to those District government agencies with a long record of entrenched homophobia. In particular, he did his best to persuade the District’s Fire & EMS Department to institute a meaningful training program that would help firefighters and emergency medical personnel treat members of our GLBT community with dignity and respect. Regrettably, his efforts were rebuffed by Fire/EMS Department officials, so that challenge still faces us today.

Mr. Saunders had secured a generous grant from the federal Department of Housing & Urban Development to operate the national Fair Housing Training Academy, a grant which brought with it federal funding to support three OHR positions. That grant has expired sooner than expected because the Academy has been shifted to another federal agency. Mr. Velasquez is trying diligently to find either local or federal funding to replace the lost federal funding, and we trust the Mayor and Council will back him up as much as necessary.

One of the last accomplishments of OHR under Mr. Saunders that we became aware of only recently was that they persuaded Mayor Williams to re-issue in November 2006 an updated Mayor’s Order on Uniform Language in D.C. Government Anti-Discrimination Issuances and Equal Employment Opportunity Notices. GLAA had fought hard to get Mayor Williams to issue the original version of this policy in August 2000. It had been reissued only once since then, in 2002, and needed to be updated. Now that we have a new Mayor, it would be helpful if Mayor Fenty reissued this same Mayor’s Order under his own signature. Among other advantages, this step would allow the Mayor’s Order to be published in the D. C. Register, which is required before the Order may be considered official.

Last month Mr. Velasquez released a series of posters that can be used in both the public and private sectors to publicize the protections afforded by the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 (DCHRA). GLAA had been pushing for the updating of these posters for far too many years, and we are pleased that Mr. Velasquez seems to have finished the job. Indeed, the last letter we wrote to Mr. Saunders last year was a detailed list of suggestions for improving these posters, and Mr. Velasquez seems to have taken our suggestions to heart. The posters are now both very professional-looking and legally correct, reflecting the recent expansions and clarifications of the protected categories due to legislation enacted in the last year.

However, we are still faced with the problem of getting these posters posted in all the many places where they are required to be posted under the DCHRA, a provision that has never been adequately enforced. The new posters are only available on-line, because there is no budget for actually printing and distributing them, much less enforcing the posting requirement. Mr. Velasquez needs to develop an ambitious and imaginative plan to get these posters out there through a variety of initiatives, and not just through outreach to community groups. DC government agencies should be taking the lead; for example, DCRA inspectors should be routinely checking whether these posters are displayed where required before issuing building and other permits. If the FY 2008 budget does not include funding to print and distribute these posters, we hope the Council will add it.

We were distressed to hear from Mr. Velasquez that one of Mr. Saunders’ initiatives seems to have petered out. Even though the backlog of cases at OHR has steadily diminished in recent years, there has been a nagging problem of seriously aged cases remaining before the Commission on Human Rights. Part of the explanation for this persistent backlog was a shortage of attorneys who could represent complainants for whom OHR had issued findings of probable cause when their cases were brought before the Commission. Mr. Saunders had worked out an agreement with the DC Attorney General’s office to provide legal representation for these complainants. Unfortunately, that agreement apparently has not panned out, and Mr. Velasquez is searching for legal help from other sources. We believe this incident points up the need to give the Commission its own budget, separate from OHR, so that it might administer these situations for itself.

We are also gratified that Mr. Velasquez has been making a vigorous community outreach, not only to publicize the provisions of the DCHRA and the operations of OHR, but also to encourage citizens to apply for one of the many vacancies currently on the Commission. The Commission has had a hard time making its required quorum to conduct business because of the many vacancies.

One of the most crucial jobs facing Mr. Velasquez is the need to publicize and enforce the amendments recently enacted by the Council to clarify that transgendered residents are protected from arbitrary discrimination in employment, public accommodations, housing, education, and so forth. This is a cutting-edge issue these days, as transgendered residents today are in a situation much like that confronting gay and lesbian residents 30 years ago. Transphobia, i.e., prejudice against transgendered people, remains deeply embedded in both the public and the private sectors, including our Fire/EMS and police departments. We are heartened by Mr. Velasquez’ apparent determination to tackle this problem with all the resources at his disposal.

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

[Craig Howell reports from the hearing: At the outset of the hearing, Councilmember Schwartz announced that the Administration will be submitting 7 nominations for the Human Rights Commission to her committee next week; this will be in addition to three names previously nominated. She announced she will hold a hearing on all these nominees on Monday March 19 so that the Commission will be able to achieve a quorum much more readily very soon.

[Councilmember Schwartz congratulated us on our testimony, noting her agreement that a 270-day period between filing a complaint and a finding on probable cause is a desirable goal. She was happy that new posters have been developed and agreed that some funds should be used for printing and distributing them.

[She stated it was right for us to give due credit to former OHR Director Kenneth Saunders for his contributions to OHR operations during his term of office.

[She expressed surprise at a statement in Director Velasquez’ testimony that only 3.8% of all complaints filed in 2006 ended with a finding of probable cause in favor of the complainant.

[Director Velasquez stated at one point that he expects an “enhancement” in OHR’s budget for FY 2008. The Mayor’s budget request is scheduled to be released on Monday March 26, with Council hearings on OHR’s budget scheduled for two days later, on the 28th.]

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