Council approves Human Rights Commission with enforcement powers

Joy Johnson calls on City Council to adopt an ordinance establishing a Human Rights Commission in Charlottesville at a public meeting last Monday. Photo: Graelyn Brashear Joy Johnson calls on City Council to adopt an ordinance establishing a Human Rights Commission in Charlottesville at a public meeting last Monday. Photo: Graelyn Brashear

After two years of study and debate, Charlottesville has a blueprint for a Human Rights Commission. The City Council voted 3-1 last Monday to adopt an anti-discrimination ordinance and an agency to enforce it.

For months, the discussion over what to do with recommendations to form a commission—first from the Dialogue on Race, and later from a task force that spent 10 months researching need and options—centered on the issue of enforcement powers. Many of the strongest supporters of a local commission said giving the body the ability not just to educate, but also to investigate and attempt to right wrongs was crucial to its relevance and success. Opponents were wary of creating an appointed, “quasi-judicial” system, and said an enforcement element would drive costs up.

What was passed last week was touted as a compromise by Dave Norris and Kristin Szakos, its architects on Council, but the enforcement camp came away calling it a victory—or, at least, the start of one.

“I think institutional change in communities like this comes slowly and incrementally, and I’m usually a cup-is-half-empty kind of guy,” said Walt Heinecke, who has been pushing for the creation of a commission since serving on the Dialogue on Race. “I’ve got to say, right now, I’m a cup-is-two-thirds-full kind of guy.”

According to the ordinance, the nine-member Charlottesville Human Rights Commission, headed by a full-time director, will act as a human rights watchdog and education group, reviewing city policy, making legislative recommendations, and conducting anti-discrimination workshops.

And it will take complaints. Residents who feel they’ve been illegally discriminated against—whether on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, national origin, age, marital status, or disability,” according to the ordinance—can come before the Commission to request an investigation. If the Commission finds probable cause, it will set up mediation for both involved parties. If that fails to bring about a resolution, it can call a public hearing, at which both parties can argue their cases, present evidence, and cross-examine each other. The Commission could then dismiss or make recommendations, including job reinstatement and payment of damages, and it could even take the case to court through the city attorney’s office.

Commissioners will only take on employment complaints concerning small businesses—those with five to 15 employees. Complaints against larger companies will be passed along to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but Assistant City Manager David Ellis explained the city is also developing a closer relationship with the EEOC’s state office.

Other enforcement-based human rights commissions around the state—there are four—have some kind of working relationship with the EEOC, he said, “but it’s going to be a lot different here in Charlottesville.” At the city’s request, the state agency is planning to expand its presence, and spend more time in the city.

That’s good, said Abigail Turner, but not good enough. Turner is the former litigation director at Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center and served on the task force that recommended a commission.

“Just because the EEOC is present here doesn’t mean the problems will be solved locally,” Turner said. And that’s the point of a city ordinance and city-based enforcement: No more kicking people’s complaints down the road. “I think we’ll have to wait and see if they step up to the plate,” she said.

Heinecke wants to do more than that. He plans to keep pushing the city to expand the Commission’s scope. “There’s no reason, other than financial reasons, to not have the Charlottesville Human Rights Commission do all employment cases,” he said.

But it’s those financial reasons that opponents, including Councilor Kathy Galvin and several members of the task force, have cited as the most compelling reason to limit the Commission. The initial budget for it is $197,000, $17,000 of which was added to pay for the extra costs of enforcement powers, which staff said may add up to about $1,000 per case.

That money could be better spent elsewhere, said Galvin. She and Mayor Satyendra Huja, who abstained from last week’s vote, were the only two Council members who didn’t support the new Commission. There simply wasn’t enough evidence of discrimination to warrant that kind of spending, she said.

“The one true way to get people to feel that they are succeeding in a society is to give them opportunities in that society,” she said.

Not so, according to Joy Johnson, a Public Housing Association of Residents member who has been among the vocal core of enforcement advocates. Racial discrimination in Charlottesville is real, she said, and people need to feel they can turn to someone for answers, especially when it comes to employers.

“Nobody holds them accountable for the impact of what they do to people,” she told Council last week. “It may not seem important to some folks, but it does have an impact.”