Anti-discrimination ordinance on its way; fate of Human Rights Commission still unclear

Jesse Ellis, co-chair of the Human Rights Task Force, believes the city needs a Human Rights Commission with enforcement authority, an opinion six of the 10 members of his volunteer advisory body share. Photo: John Robinson Jesse Ellis, co-chair of the Human Rights Task Force, believes the city needs a Human Rights Commission with enforcement authority, an opinion six of the 10 members of his volunteer advisory body share. Photo: John Robinson

A human rights commission may be on the horizon for Charlottesville, but exactly how it will function and address local discrimination is still up in the air. The Human Rights Task Force, a volunteer group created to conduct a study and determine whether or not the city needs a permanent commission to handle discrimination issues, presented its findings at last Monday’s City Council meeting. Council members agreed to craft an anti-discrimination ordinance, but after a two-hour discussion about enforcement powers and legalities, confusion hung in the air in the City Council chambers, and the issue won’t be addressed again until at least mid-January.

The task force formed in February, and has spent the last nine months holding public forums and researching human rights commissions in other Virginia localities like Prince William County and Virginia Beach.

At last week’s meeting, task force co-chairs Jesse Ellis and Dorenda Johnson presented the group’s recommendation to develop a commission similar to Prince William’s, with a concrete ordinance that will help all demographics in the community “to feel valued in a way that they may not have before.”  The recommended commission would use limited enforcement powers, and provide comprehensive education and training that members of the task force believe will address ingrained institutionalized discrimination.

Following the presentation, City Councilor Dave Norris peppered Ellis and Johnson with a list of concerns, asking if the commission would have the power to address things like homophobia, police-community relations, disparities in health care, and a living wage. Ellis attempted to answer each of Norris’ questions individually, but more often than not, the answer was “No, the commission wouldn’t be able to address that.”

Some task force members said they felt blind-sided by the barrage, but Norris said no one should have been surprised by his questions. He was making a point he’d made before.

“I raised the exact same set of issues [in February],” he said. “A whole laundry list of issues that are more institutional and systemic in nature. I felt then, and still do, that those should be the primary focus.”

Councilor Kathy Galvin had her own set of concerns, and said she wasn’t convinced by the report that Charlottesville needs a model like Prince William’s.

“The report itself kind of raises a lot more questions than it answered,” she said.

Galvin suggested that in some cases that appear to be discriminatory, “there could really be something else going on.”

When the investigative group from Prince William visited in January, for example, it observed that a number of employees lost their jobs for not showing up to work.

“My question is, why didn’t that person show up for work?” Galvin said. “That opens up a whole slew of other obstacles with employment. Discrimination is part of it, but also lack of good day care, education, affordable housing, workforce readiness, basic skills programs.”

Galvin said she wants to see a commission that will push hard to combat poverty and break down silos, coordinating across agencies and providing resources for struggling families. She’s also concerned about the high cost of a commission that may or may not serve Charlottesville effectively, adding that only one in 600 cases in Prince William County resulted in a decision against an accused business.

“It’s been said that any discussion about a commission must be budget neutral, but no program or department budget ever gets that protective status,” she said. “Every time council balances a budget, we’re making a value judgment. And the implication is that racial justice can only be served through this Prince Williams model at $500,000 a year, but I have to ask, is that true?”

City resident Holly Edwards was the last to speak at Monday’s meeting, and said human rights is beyond a black and white agenda, but “also includes opportunity for people to live and work with dignity.”

Edwards listed a number of local African Americans who are boldly taking on leadership roles in the city 250 years after its founding.

“It’s 2012…we have Maurice Jones, David Ellis, Galloway Beck, Rosa Atkins—the building blocks for a powerful community, only if the culture and systems in which they work address discrimination in a way that’s meaningful,” she said.

Task force co-chair Johnson said she was disappointed with the way the meeting played out, but Ellis felt more optimistic.

“As long as Charlottesville is trying to move forward on this commission, then I think it went pretty well,” Ellis said. “We reached a very big milestone just to have an ordinance made.”

A finite decision wasn’t made by the time the City Council meeting let out in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, but City Manager Maurice Jones said to expect an ordinance on the agenda for January’s second meeting.