Human Rights Task Force preparing for first public meeting

New Assistant City Manager David Ellis serves as the city’s liaison to the Human Rights Task Force, appointed in March to research the need for and feasability of a commission to address discrimination in Charlottesville. The task force holds its first public forum June 13, but some still feel it’s a poor substitute for a body charged with enforcing anti-discrimination statutes locally. (Photo by Graelyn Brashear)

Charlottesville’s Human Rights Task Force was born amid controversy last winter as the City Council put the brakes on a plan to appoint a body to investigate, mediate, and issue rulings on alleged cases of discrimination. Like so many compromises, Council’s plan to put off the creation of a full-fledged Human Rights Commission in order to study its need and possible structure made few people happy. But three months in, city staff says the Task Force has collected useful information, and is preparing for a June 13 community forum to share their progress and hear input from the public. Even as the group prepares for its first public presentation, the debate over its ultimate mission—and whether it should exist at all—continues.

The plan to create a commission that could enforce anti-discrimination rules, particularly in housing and employment, grew out of last year’s meetings of the Dialogue on Race. Walter Heinecke, a former member of the Dialogue’s steering committee and an associate professor at UVA’s Curry School of Education, said the idea was broadly favored by the group’s leadership, but proponents ultimately couldn’t get the support they needed. In February, the City Council voted down a measure to institute the commission, and instead created the 11-
member Human Rights Task Force to study the issue for another 10 months.

Some, including Heinecke, read a clear message in the decision: Council wanted to put the plan to bed. Shortly thereafter, he and four other members of the steering committee resigned from the Dialogue on Race.

But the task force charged with taking a closer look at their idea was mustered without them, and has met three times since March. Serving as a representative for the city along with Dialogue on Race chair Charlene Greene became one of Assistant City Manager David Ellis’ first roles in his new job.

Part of their responsibility is to collect discrimination complaints from the community, Ellis said. They’re not adjudicating cases, he said, simply referring residents to other groups that can help and keeping track of each one as a way to gauge need.

Critics say a complaint clearinghouse with no mechanism for enforcement won’t encourage people to speak up. But Ellis said he feels the face-to-face approach is working. “We wanted to give folks the opportunity to come forward,” he said. “We wanted to make it happen on a more personal level.”

So far, he said, the numbers point to modest success when it comes to engagement. He and Green have amassed about 46 complaints of alleged discrimination in less than three months, he said. That’s about as many complaints as the EEOC typically receives out of Charlottesville in an entire year, according to previous reports.

At the same time, the task force is doing its own research into other Human Rights Commissions in the Commonwealth. Members have taken trips to visit with officials in Virginia Beach, which attempts to combat discrimination through educational programs, and Prince William County, which has an enforcement model Heinecke and other Commission supporters pushed as the gold standard.

That background work has already been done, Heinecke said. But Ellis said it was important to dig deeper.

“The folks who did the initial work did a yeoman’s job in collecting [their information],” Ellis said. “This gives us a more robust set of data.”

Timothy Hulbert, president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, serves on the task force. He’s critical of any plan that involves a commission with the power to subpoena witnesses or issue judgements, or, as he called it, “a politically appointed high tribunal with police powers.” The rest of the Chamber leadership feels the same. “That’s just not going to gain our support,” he said.

Despite the city’s effort to brand the discussion as one of broad human rights issues, most agree they’re talking about race relations, especially between blacks and whites. And the most frequently aired arguments center around employment. And by now, they sound familiar.

A city-run commission would be weak and ineffective when it came to addressing workforce discrimination, Hulbert said, because it couldn’t help the 45 percent of residents he said are employed outside Charlottesville. It would also be hard to keep proceedings confidential and protect those accused of discrimination before they had a chance to defend themselves, he said.

And Hulbert reiterated one point on which most agree: Everybody knows there’s discrimination happening in Charlottesville, but it’s very hard to learn just how widespread the problem is.

“The question is, is it measurable?” he said. “There really is no data. How do you then shape a response to something you can’t measure?”
In his work on the Task Force, Hulbert said he’s seen alternatives he can get behind. He likes

Virginia Beach’s education-based model, and expressed support for the idea of a permanent ombudsperson on city staff who would continue the work Green is doing now, receiving and referring complaints.

Heinecke’s retorts are familiar as well. He said the commission he advocated would simply be upholding established law, stepping in where the increasingly underfunded EEOC was falling short.

What’s more, Heinecke said, granting a commission the power to enforce those laws sends a powerful message to the community as a whole. “It symbolically says that the city is really invested in the long-standing issues of racial injustice and race relations, and it’s a commitment for a long-term social process,” he said.

As for Hulbert’s alternatives, Heinecke said they’re watered-down versions of a body he believes needs teeth. Other Virginia municipalities have adopted commissions that go beyond community outreach and mediation, he said, and they’ve seen success. David Ellis hails from Fairfax County, Heinecke pointed out, which has an active and long-standing human rights commission with enforcement powers, “and the sky has not fallen there.”

In the end, Heinecke said, “this is a matter of political will. It’s not about numbers or money. It’s about Charlottesville’s horrendous race relations history, and people in the community who really don’t have a voice.”

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