Charlottesville’s Office of Human Rights and Human Rights Commission have an intimidatingly broad mission: to reduce discrimination in the city.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the office and its volunteer commission, which are tasked with both investigating individual complaints of discrimination and reviewing city polices for systemic discrimination, have received their fair share of criticism since their creation in 2013. During a 2017 Dialogue on Race meeting, former mayor Dave Norris accused them of not doing enough to uphold the city’s Human Rights Ordinance. At the same meeting, UVA professor Walt Heinecke said the organizations had been largely ineffective, a claim he reiterated in a 2018 Daily Progress op-ed.
Today, similar feelings persist not just among community members—but among commissioners themselves. At last week’s City Council meeting, HRC Chair Shantell Bingham said that although there was “an uptick” in the commission’s ability to fulfill its role in 2019, “we really want to do more.”
Earlier this month, Charlene Green, who has led the OHR for five years, stepped down to join the Piedmont Housing Alliance. Bingham, who became commission chair last year, says both the commission and the office have faced numerous obstacles over the years.
“The Office of Human Rights hasn’t been properly staffed for a very long time,” she says. Though the office hired Todd Niemeier as an outreach specialist in 2018, “before it was just [Green] in the office with interns. And now that she’s leaving, it’s going back to there being one staff person…which is just ridiculous.” The city is currently looking for Green’s replacement.
Since Tarron Richardson became city manager, the office and commission hasn’t had a direct line of contact in the city either, says commissioner Ann Smith.
Smith notes that former city manager Maurice Jones was “very involved” with the HRC, but says, “We haven’t had a chance to meet the new city manager.”
To improve the commission and office’s communication with the city, Bingham says there needs to be a city official who the HRC can directly report to. She also recommends that City Council receive and review reports from OHR on a monthly basis, rather than annually.
Commissioner Sue Lewis suggests council also reexamine the city’s human rights ordinance, particularly the limited authority it gives to the OHR and HRC. They are currently only able to investigate complaints of discrimination in companies with five to 14 employees. Complaints from larger companies are referred to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in Richmond.
If the city gives the OHR more money for staffing, it could turn it into a Fair Employment Practice Agency, which would give the office greater authority and better equip it to handle the thousands of discrimination complaints it receives each year, according to Smith.
City Councilor Sena Magill says the council takes the challenges OHR and HRC have faced seriously, and that equity will be a “huge part” of the city’s strategic plan, with the HRC being “a part of that equity work.”
And, according to Richardson, the city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year “will include continued support for the Office of Human Rights, the new Office of Equity and Inclusion, and the new Police Civilian Review Board.”