With teeth? Council to consider Human Rights Commission powers
There's little doubt that Charlottesville is going to have a Human Rights Commission, but does it need enforcement capability to be effective? That's the question facing City Council at its next two meetings, and opinion remains divided.
"A city like Charlottesville should be the leader in protecting the rights of all of its residents," wrote Walt Heinecke in a Sunday, January 13, op-ed in the Daily Progress. Heinecke, a Curry School of Education professor who was active on the city's three-year-old Dialogue on Race initiative, fears City Council might ignore recommendations from the Dialogue on Race and from the Human Rights Task Force, which was formed by Council to further study the need for a commission.
"We've been at this for three years," says Heinecke in a phone interview, pointing out the Virginia Human Rights Act allows localities to create commissions that can enforce human rights violations, but only in narrow areas: employment, housing, public accommodations, private education, and credit.
"State law is fairly regressive," says Heinecke. "I'm really concerned that people on Council don't even want to give us the full extent of state law."
Multiple Virginia communities, including Prince William County and the City of Alexandria, have established such commissions and have reported success in resolving complaints, says Heinecke.
"Because of the threat of a commission investigation" in those localities, Heinecke says, "most cases work it out without the need for enforcement."
That argument hasn't swayed opponents of enforcement, who say they support a Commission that would facilitate resolution of complaints through education and outreach, they're not convinced a local investigative and enforcement body is necessary.
"There hasn't been a lot of evidence that it's needed, that the system we have now is broken," says Councilor Dave Norris, who cites already existing state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as resources to resolve discrimination complaints.
"Some say that the enforcement mechanisms are inaccessible or difficult to navigate," says Norris. "My argument is, let's look at improving them before we create our own enforcement mechanism locally, which is pretty expensive. "
The budget for the Human Rights Commission has been estimated at $300,000 for the first year and $200,000 in subsequent years, which would cover the cost of three full-time employees.
City Councilor Kristin Szakos says that while cost is a consideration, she supports a commission that can investigate and enforce. "It lets the general public and the employer/renter public understand that we're serious about not having discrimination in Charlottesville," says Szakos. She adds that the threat of fines or other civil punishment "comes with leverage to bring people to the table."
The Human Rights Commission will be considered at each of the next two City Council meetings on January 21 and February 4.