Three years ago, local activist Walt Heinecke was elated when, after years of task forces on human rights, City Council finally approved a human rights commission with enforcement power and put $197,000 into funding an office.
Today, Heinecke accuses City Manager Maurice Jones of “killing” the Office of Human Rights by cutting its staff while seeking a new $84,460-a-year position in his office in the fiscal year 2016-2017 budget.
“At the same time he’s asking for an assistant city manager, the budget says we’re going to downsize the human rights office,” says Heinecke.
“The assertion that this is an attempt to gut the office is completely false,” replies Jones in an e-mail. “City Council asked the staff to develop cuts as part of our overall budget process. Based on the lack of formal complaints that have come into the office we felt we could reduce this second position from 40 hours a week to 20 hours. We also added $5,000 to the legal and mediation budget to allow for outside counsel if it was needed.”
Typically government departments ask for more rather than fewer staffers, but Charlene Green, manager of the Office of Human Rights, says she’s manned the office alone since May 2015. That would be the same month that former director Zan Tewksbury, a civil rights attorney, abruptly resigned after holding the position for fewer than two years.
The reasons for her departure remain a mystery, and Tewksbury did not return a call from C-VILLE, nor has she publicly commented since her resignation.
“I felt like she was pushed out,” says Heinecke. “She couldn’t do her job.”
Heinecke has long been an advocate for a human rights office, and he served on the Dialogue on Race steering committee formed in 2009. He believes a compromise that allowed Tewksbury to only investigate allegations of discrimination in businesses with six to 14 employees basically hamstrung her effectiveness.
When the Human Rights Commission released an annual report in January 2015, it had facilitated lots of conversations about race and civil rights, and received 104 discrimination complaints, but none of the 39 employment claims fell under its jurisdiction either because the companies were too large or weren’t in the city. The number of complaints resolved: zero.
“They set it up so it would look like a failure from the beginning,” says Heinecke.
Green says she’s working on an annual report that will be ready in April, and she deflected an inquiry about whether the office is effective to Jones, who did not address that question in his e-mail.
“I’m not worried about this office being defunded,” says Green.
City spokesperson Miriam Dickler clarifies that the new $84K assistant to the city manager position is not another assistant city manager, of which Charlottesville already has two. The job will be split between Jones and Clerk of Council Paige Rice, and the salary includes benefits.
The new assistant will be in charge of a new system that’s out for RFP to track citizen inquiries, says Dickler, as well as be a backup for Rice.
More budget details
-$16,000 for City Market
-$48,976 for weeding and emptying bags of leaves
-$100,000 for ammo in anticipation of a new firing range
-$139,000 for a bus route to Wegmans
-$9,750 from making annual flower beds perennial
-$17,544 from shorter pool hours at Smith Aquatic Center and Washington Park
–$104,000 by ditching Downtown Mall ambassadors and using parking enforcement officers to welcome visitors
-$172,000 by making CAT Route 7 a 20-minute wait instead of 15