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.

  • Edward N Virginia

    The public and the media might importantly consider two more things for research and discussion:

    1. The Virginia Human Rights Act (see text below) is a (a) poor law because of its limitations – which is not being reported – but is also a (b) more balanced law than is being reported:

    (a) The Virginia law is a POOR LAW because of the vulnerable and offended classes that are not included: the Act does not protect directly and explicitly gender, sexual orientation, does not protect the undocumented, the homeless, does not directly and explicitly protect persons with mental illness, and other groups. Therefore, the law poorly respects all human rights. Yet, City of Charlottesville has ‘protected’ many different groups from discrimination, and voiced concern for the human rights of many diverse groups, in City policies and declarations, over many years. If not included in any new ordinance and any new functions and operations delimiting an ordinance and operations to the Virginia law would appear to ‘take back’ those protections and declarations of concerns.

    We have not seen media research and discussion on these points. And, we have not seen discussion of these point by the proponents: are the often-quoted proponents in favor of some but not all human rights? Which ones? Which vulnerable classes should be included? should be excluded? We are perplexed.

    (b) The Virginia law is a BALANCED LAW because it also considers that persons facing unfounded charges are also vulnerable and must be protected. The law requires – and therefore an ordinance and operations would require – protections from unfounded charges. These are also considered among ‘human rights’ to be protected.

    We have not seen media research and discussion of these points. And, we have not seen discussion of these points by the often-quoted opponents: wouldn’t it be a benefit to the business community to be protected by unfounded charges? Might not a City ordinance levy fines or other sanctions against those making unfounded charges? Wouldn’t a citizen commission be required to protect the community under both prongs of the law? Wouldn’t such provisions – under the second prong – lessen risk of harms to respondents to complaints?

    2. The City is wholly surrounded by Albemarle County. And contrary to common understanding, much if not most of the University’s operations, including its employment, its health care operations, etc are located in the County, not the City. Most housing, most employment, most health care, etc is in the County, not the City. Do acts of discrimination, unfair practices, and harms of human rights end at the City line?

    We are perplexed that proponents roar about strategies and tactics for City authorities, and utter not a squeak about the County? ( where some proponents live or work, making an awkward appearance of ‘not in my backyard’? )

    And, certainly there are other concerns from the public to be discussed. Proponent and Opponents who seek to close off public research, inquiry, and discussion – by threats – do not do the public good services.

    § 2.2-3900. Short title; declaration of policy.
    A. This chapter shall be known and cited as the Virginia Human Rights Act.
    B. It is the policy of the Commonwealth to:
    1. Safeguard all individuals within the Commonwealth from unlawful discrimination because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, or disability, in places of public accommodation, including educational institutions and in real estate transactions; in employment; preserve the public safety, health and general welfare; and further the interests, rights and privileges of individuals within the Commonwealth; and.
    2. Protect citizens of the Commonwealth against unfounded charges of unlawful discrimination.

  • Walt

    What I take away from this article is it seems that Councilor Galvin and Dave Norris don’t really think there is a serious problem with illegal discrimination against individuals in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations that is worth spending money on to protect. Ms. Galvin rightly pointed out that every time Council makes a budget decision it is a value statement. She doesn’ seem to value protecting minorities, women, the elderly, the disabled from illegal discrimination. She is concerned about business though. When all these new businesses come to Charlottesville, what will prevent them from only hiring white, able-bodied, men?

    The biggest problem with Mr. Norris’ position to focus only on the institutional, legal discrimination is: How can he he think there is such a terrible problem with discrimination in the areas of criminal justice, public housing, health services, etc, and that level of discrimination would not carry over into individual cases in employment, real estate, credit, etc? How could that be? He doesn’t seem to believe that people are discriminated in Charlottesville because of their race, age, gender, disability status? Somehow these are immune from the discrimination he passionately asserts while denying protection in individual cases of illegal discrimination?

    For some reason Ms. Galvin and Mr. Norris and the other Councilors do not want to use the fullest extent of the Virginia Human Rights Act to enable a human rights commission that can protect individuals as well as deal with doing studies, hearings and advising Council on matters of individual discrimination. Why would Council not want to really and substantively protect our most vlnerable citizens from discrimination? Do they really think there is no such discrimination in town when the Dialogue on Race and the Human Rights Task Force have old them otherwise? Enabling a commission the way in which the Dialogue on Race and the Humna Rights Task Force urged them to do is the best way of eradicating discrimination both legal and illegal regardless of Mr. Norris’s and Ms. Galvin’s protestations to the contrary. But they have the power to water down the HRTF recommendations and keep Charlottesville locked in a history of racism, discrimination, and regressive race relations.

    With the way Council is dragging its heels, watering down multiple recommendations for a Human Rights Commission with teeth, this is becoming a civil rights issue. The people in the Dialogue on Race Study Circles three years ago asked for a Human Rights Commission with teeth, the Dialogue on Race Action Team produced a recommendation for such and it was ignored by the Council, Council’s own Human Rights Task Force recommend such and still they are balking on creating a Commission that can deal effectively with both legal and illegal forms of discrimination. Instead they take their direction from the Chamber and appear ready to create a symbolic entity.

    The EEOC is not coming to our rescue and a Human Rights Advocate in City Hall is not the same as having a citizen commission with the stature of the Planning Commission. These were not recommneded by the Human Rights Task Force.

    It is a civil rights issue and it is time for everyone in town to reread Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In that letter he appealed to moderate whites, middle class minorities, and the clergy to join the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham. It is time for that to happen in Charlottesville in creating a Human Rights Commission that reflects the Virginia Human Rights Act and follows the recommendations of two of Council’s own advisory committees. I hope Council rethinks its direction taken at its last meeting. There will be a public hearing about this in January and all of you who have been discriminated against in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations should come out and tell them about your case because as of now they don’t beleive it.

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