Proposed Human Rights Commission Seeks Power, Raises Questions
Charlottesville's major justice organizations are urging City Council to move forward with plans to create a human rights commission. Not only do they want the commission created, but they also want it to have power, including the right to conduct investigations and obtain confidential records.
People on both sides of the debate agree it's important to bring people to the table; they just have very different ideas on how to do that.
"If we create a commission that can only talk and doesn't have real power, I'm not sure it's going to be taken seriously," said Alex Gulotta, executive director of Legal Aid Justice Center.
A 17-page document details how five of Charlottesville's major justice organizations want to crack down on discrimination in the city with what's being called "full enforcement" capability.
"And in some ways I think it would be much better for our community than the current system, which lets those things linger for a long time before you get to the point where you get a court or somebody to intervene," said Gulotta.
But the potential power of "full enforcement" is raising a lot of questions. Under the proposed functions and powers, the commission could investigate, hold public hearings and ask parties to turn over evidence for investigation. If parties don't comply, the body could subpoena the information through the circuit court.
"That approach I believe, and four of us on the task force believed, is well intentioned, but wrong-headed," said Timothy Hulbert of the Human Rights Task Force.
Hulbert sat on the Human Rights Task Force and says that over a 10-month period, most of the complaints were directed at the city itself, housing authority, school system and police. "Each of those operations have jurisdictions that they report to that have oversight and have all the authority needed to enforce any type of discriminatory acts," said Hulbert.
Gulotta disagrees. "And in most places that have had these - Prince William County is one - they have had one of these for many years and they very, very rarely use the court power. It gets people to the table," said Gulotta.
Hulbert and other task force members argue the city doesn't need a political tribunal, but an advocate.
"That was the experience that we saw in all of the other communities, that well north of 90 percent, and I'm not exaggerating, are handled through mediation among the parties," said Hulbert.
Charlottesville's Rutherford Institute, which focuses on defending civil liberties and human rights, issued a statement saying:
"Power to issue subpoenas or to force individuals to testify and give evidence against their will runs afoul of established Virginia law.
If city human rights commissions are to be empowered in such a fashion, legislation from the General Assembly will be required."
Gulotta says it would difficult to estimate the cost at this time because it depends on staffing, but says it could possibly cost a few hundred thousand dollars a year.
People can weigh in on this issue next Monday at the City Council meeting.
Legal Aid Justice Center, Charlottesville-Albemarle Chapter NAACP, University and Community Action For Racial Equity, Virginia Organizing, Public Housing Association of Residents Press Release
Charlottesville, VA – January 29, 2013 – The Albemarle–Charlottesville Chapter of the NAACP, the Legal Aid Justice Center, University and Community Action For Racial Equity (UCARE), Virginia Organizing, and Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR) urge the Charlottesville City Council to enact an ordinance outlawing discrimination and to establish a Charlottesville Commission on Human Rights.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday we are reminded that the attainment of Dr. King's dream of equity requires that steps be taken to build institutions that promote fairness, justice, and positive human relations in Charlottesville. We are also reminded of his words "Justice delayed is justice denied."
Our organizations join with the endorsement by the City's Human Rights Task Force supporting the proposal that the City Council should enact a local anti-discrimination law and create the Charlottesville Commission on Human Rights with full enforcement capability allowed by federal and state law among other duties described below.
Adopting a strong ordinance forbidding discrimination in Charlottesville and an effective enforcement mechanism results from the ten months of work done by the City Council appointed Human Rights Task Force. It also builds upon the work done by hundreds of residents in the Dialogue on Race to improve race relations in Charlottesville. The Spring 2010 Action Plan for the Dialogue on Race identified as a high priority creating an entity to process and resolve race discrimination complaints and to educate residents about racial issues and promote positive community relations.
The City Human Rights Task Force has received complaints, held two community forums, spoken with Human Rights Commissions statewide, heard presentations from groups who now do some anti-discrimination work, and met with the leaders of the Dialogue on Race. The clear message was that race discrimination as well as other types of discrimination are still prevalent in Charlottesville.
To enact an anti-discrimination ordinance without effective means of enforcing that ordinance will not bring the relief from discrimination envisioned by the Dialogue on Race or the Human Rights Task Force.
Our organizations support a three-pronged approach for the Commission:
1. Consultation and Advisement. We support the Commission conducting research into human rights issues, including inequities that perpetuate our history of discrimination and ingrained institutional discrimination. This work could lead to issuing reports with recommendations to remedy inequities.
2. Anti-DiscriminationEnforcement. Anti-Discrimination Enforcement. The anti-discrimination component will focus on providing persons facing discrimination with an effective local option to resolve their complaints of discrimination in employment, real estate transactions, credit, private education, and public accommodations on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, familial status, or disability. In addition to other functions described here, the Commission must enforce existing state and federal laws forbidding discrimination as allowed by the Virginia Human Rights Act in a similar fashion as the Prince William County Human Rights Commission. There are many advantages to a local Commission such as: increased privacy for parties to a dispute, reduced time to disposition of cases, easier access to alternative dispute processes (conciliation, mediation), reduced costs to all parties, local employers participation in informal resolution of complaints without the expense of hiring an attorney to represent them in a Richmond proceeding, increased access to justice for low income citizens, among other advantages.
3. Education and prevention. We also agree that it is important to continue the prevention and education work done by the Dialogue on Race by providing outreach to inform citizens about anti-discrimination laws, public and private discussions to reduce tensions among groups and campaigns to eradicate bias and prejudice in our community.
The City Ordinance must outlaw discrimination and set up a Commission that is capable of enforcing the ordinance as authorized in the Virginia Human Rights Act. We offer the attached draft Charlottesville Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Commission ordinance as a model that incorporates all three components of an effective human rights commission for the City of Charlottesville.
We applaud the aspirations reflected in the proposal for Charlottesville to become a national model distinguished for its diversity, positive human rights and race relations, equity, and inclusiveness. If Charlottesville is to remain competitive as one of the best places to live in the nation, we must make significant progress in addressing the problems associated with the City's history of race relations.
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Natalie Wilson joined the NBC29 news team as a general assignment reporter in April 2012.Full Story
Natalie Wilson joined the NBC29 news team as a general assignment reporter in April 2012. She is a proud alum of Howard University and is currently pursuing her Master's in Communication at Johns Hopkins. Email/ Full Story