City balks on human rights commission

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Over the years it could be said that Charlottesville city councils have used process to side-step tough decisions. Think about the successive McIntire Park master plans, the past year of Belmont Bridge charettes, and the endless discussions that led up to the refurbishment of the Downtown Mall. Prudent or pokey?

Last week’s 4-1 vote to postpone the creation of the Charlottesville Commission on Human Rights, Diversity, and Race Relations and instead assign a task force to study the “level of need” is another point of process in a long line of discussions generated by the city’s Dialogue on Race. The 11-member task force will spend the next 10 months studying the situation, preparing an interim report after the five-month mark. For the members of the Dialogue on Race action team that generated the plan for the commission, the decision felt like a dismissal.

“There are two words that come to mind after last night for me: nullification and interposition,” said Walter Heinecke, member of the policy action team of the Dialogue on Race. “I feel like the work has been nullified by city politics and it’s just wasting time and energy and certainly we don’t need a 10-month study. I could have seen a five-month public input session and then move on. I think that’s the more logical and reasonable thing if they were really serious about doing it.”

As for the interposition part, Heinecke said there was an “undercurrent” desire to “cool off” the commission’s momentum.
“This call for further study is a typical political organizational tactic,” he said.
Councilor Dave Norris, who was the sole vote against the City Manager’s recommendation, said he believes in the value of the commission and would support its immediate creation.

However, he added that the proponents of the commission “have made something of a strategic error in focusing almost exclusively on the aspects of the commission that have to do with enforcement and investigation of allegations of discrimination.”

Instead, Norris said he would like to have seen a proposal that included an educational and social outreach component.
“I think that this commission would actually do more good through the work it would have the authority to do looking at disparity in our community, coming up with recommendations for addressing those disparities and continuing that community engagement work of the Dialogue on Race,” he said.

As it was proposed, the commission would be designed to investigate and report claims of discrimination in housing and private employment. In deciding whether to create the new department, City Council was asked to consider allocating $300,000 as an initial investment and $200,000 per year after that. Ultimately, the commission’s goal was to become a local branch of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and facilitate the investigation of complaints, which its supporters say are in the hundreds each year.

The task force, which won’t have enforcement and investigative authority, will be comprised of the city’s Assistant City Manager, the Director of Human Services, and the Coordinator of the Dialogue on Race, Charlene Green. According to a staff report, “This approach will give the City Council a better understanding of the size of the problem in our community.”

Joe Szakos, executive director of Virginia Organizing and husband of Councilor Kristin Szakos, told council that it would take an enforcement body to accurately measure how many people are still subjects of discrimination in work and housing situations.
“There is no doubt that discrimination exists in Charlottesville,” he said. “We have facilitated many, many dismantling racism workshops here and have heard report after report about incidents that have taken place in Charlottesville. We can give you lots of stories, but we still don’t know the real extent of the problem.”

Local attorney David Pettit disagreed, saying the commission would be expensive in a difficult budget season, but more importantly, it would have “substantial” authority that “has the ability to do injustice as well as justice, to do wrong, as well as right, to be divisive as well as unifying.”

Pleased with the council’s vote, Pettit told C-VILLE that all he was asking for was a thorough process with community involvement. As for the need of a commission, Pettit was unclear.
“I don’t know. I think that’s part of what needs to be determined,” he said.

Although the task force is expected to bring its own set of recommendations to City Council before the end of the calendar year, the future of the commission is uncertain.
Heinecke, unlike some of his fellow supporters, is not optimistic.

“We have been here before, 30 years of initiative after the report, an initiative that called for another study,” said Heinecke. “Thirty years of constant cycle and we get to a point that the city promises things and then they don’t deliver.”

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