Human rights commissions in Virginia: Northern Virginia as a model for Charlottesville?

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Human Rights Task Force co-chair Jesse Ellis listens to colleagues during a recent Task Force meeting. Photo by Graelyn Brashear Human Rights Task Force co-chair Jesse Ellis listens to colleagues during a recent Task Force meeting. Photo by Graelyn Brashear

Charlottesville’s Human Rights Task Force is staring down a deadline. Two public meetings remain—one on November 14, another on December 5—before its members are to issue a recommendation on whether the city should establish a Human Rights Commission, and what that agency should look like. The local Chamber of Commerce has raised concerns about the effect a quasi-judicial commission that can levy fines would have on businesses, but Chamber officials in at least one Virginia community that has embraced an enforcement model say they’ve seen no problems.

For almost two decades, the Prince William County Human Rights Commission has been receiving and resolving discrimination complaints. Debbie Jones, executive vice president at the Prince William County Chamber of Commerce, said the commission’s work hasn’t raised the hackles of the business owners her organization represents. “I’ve been in the Chamber world for 22 years, and I don’t recall there being anything negative about it,” she said.

Phyllis Aggrey is president of the Virginia Association of Human Rights Commissions and executive director of Prince William’s commission. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included language that gave communities the power to establish local-level agencies to police reforms as a way to lift some of the pressure from the court system, Aggrey said, and commissions started springing up around the country in the decades that followed.

Four municipal-level human rights commissions that have the power to exact fines for acts they deem discriminatory grew out of that era in Virginia—in Fairfax, Arlington, and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria. There’s also a Richmond-based state commission.

Prince William was relatively late to the game, creating its commission in 1993 following a push by a group of local residents led by the head of the local NAACP chapter. Aggrey said a planning committee met for a year to map out what the agency would be responsible for, how it would work with existing government, and what it would cost.

In its final report to county officials, the study committee pointed to economic justifications for a more streamlined, locally administered system for gathering up employment-related discrimination complaints. Prince William needed to bring in more industry to ease the tax burden on residents, the committee members said, and the key to making that happen would be making sure the increasingly diverse workforce felt like they had a fair shot. “The attractiveness of the environment in which County residents live, grow, and compete for the better life will, in the long term, determine whether the study committee can expect to attract light industry as it migrates from the North toward the sun belt regions of the South,” the report reads.

County officials adopted a human rights ordinance that established an enforcement-centric commission with a staff that could essentially act as a satellite office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Nearly 20 years later, the Prince William County Human Rights Commission has a budget of half a million dollars, a staff of five, and takes on about 145 cases a year, said Aggrey.

Of those, she said, “the lion’s share are no probable cause”—that is, she and her staff don’t pursue them. The cases that do move on are almost all resolved through mediation. Just 1 or 2 percent go to what’s called the conciliation phase, she said, where the commission awards damages, like lost wages.

The process can still be slow—when there’s probable cause, it usually takes two years to get a resolution—but Aggrey said there’s value in bringing the application of federal and state laws to the community level.

“This allows for a local entity, a local base, to be looking at your own businesses and your own community and hopefully doing things to try to dissuade potential human rights or civil rights violations,” she said.

So does it work? Aggrey said that even though she’s been with the Prince William commission almost from the start, it’s hard to answer that question, because there are no real empirical measures of success. But it’s important to look beyond the complaints and cases, she said. Like its sister agencies around the state, the commission acts as a nerve center for tackling tolerance issues and takes on an educational role, hosting workshops with businesses on preventing discrimination and forums in the wake of a racist leaflet campaign.

“I think there’s value in any community looking at some of these tough issues,” she said.

And it goes beyond black and white. Dennis Sumlin, an investigator with the Arlington County Human Rights Commission, said that despite the fact that tensions over racial discrimination have historically fueled interest in setting up human rights commissions in Virginia and elsewhere, the scope is far broader than that. He said his office handles many complaints each year from women claiming they weren’t hired because they were pregnant and people claiming they were passed over because of disabilities or illness, from cancer to HIV.

“A lot of times people get blinded by the race issue, but a lot of other people benefit,” Sumlin said.

Advocacy and education-focused commissions exist, too, like those in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, but enforcement agencies are a phenomenon of Northern Virginia, which is a little more diverse than Charlottesville—and a lot more wealthy. The median family income in the four communities with commissions that have significant staff and enforcement powers ranges from $80,847 in Alexandria to $105,416 in Fairfix, which has Virginia’s oldest Human Rights Commission. Charlottesville, by contrast, has a median family income of $42,240.

The task force in Charlottesville that will soon make a recommendation on whether to create a commission here knows all of this. Aggrey visited the city in June to talk about her experience in Prince William. Ultimately, though, she said the agency has to fit the community.

“Charlottesville will have to decide what’s best for Charlottesville,” she said.