The abrupt departure of the staffer in charge of implementing Charlottesville’s 2-year-old civil rights ordinance has set the volunteer Human Rights Commission (HRC) that worked with her office on the defensive, but some involved with the creation and oversight of the city’s anti-discrimination efforts say there’s reason to be optimistic.
Zan Tewksbury resigned from her position as director of the city’s Office of Human Rights (OHR) earlier this month. An experienced civil rights attorney, she was hired in October 2013 with a salary of $72,000 and a budget of $197,000 to run what was then still a new endeavor. Four months earlier, the city had passed an ordinance allowing it to tackle discrimination locally with a two-part approach: Tewksbury’s office would take in complaints and help resolve them through mediation or refer them to other agencies, while the Human Rights commission would adjudicate persistent complaints and tackle issues of systemic racism in the city.
The ordinance was hailed as a partial victory by those who had long advocated for local civil rights enforcement powers; it limited the OHR’s oversight to complaints against city businesses with 15 or fewer employees. Claims against bigger employers were to be passed along to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, while housing complaints would be handed off to the Piedmont Housing Alliance.
The HRC’s first annual report, released in January, was a mixed bag. While the commission reported success in facilitating conversations about race and civil rights in the city and collected 107 discrimination complaints, it hadn’t officially resolved any complaints. None of the 39 employment-related claims received fell under its purview—they involved companies that were too large or were located outside the city. Another 24 complaints were deemed to be “systemic” problems, the most common being biased policing. In all, the commission itself was able to address just 10 complaints. None are resolved.
Local NAACP president M. Rick Turner, initially a supporter of the human rights ordinance, said those numbers point to a basic problem.
“I don’t think you can be effective city-wide with the kinds of impediments that were in the policy,” he said.
HRC members referred requests for comment to chair Aidyn Mills. They were speaking with one voice, she said, because recent media coverage of the commission had been critical and they deemed it was “best not to give these reporters more fuel for the kinds of negative articles they might be trying to write.” Mills wouldn’t comment on Tewksbury’s departure, but said the group was moving forward with action plans to address several issues it had identified in its first year of operation.
City Manager Maurice Jones also declined to discuss why Tewksbury left, and stressed it was important to look beyond complaint adjudication when judging the effectiveness of the commission: It has helped refer many complaints to the EEOC and other bodies, he said, and is an important part of community conversations about discrimination.
Walt Heinecke, another vocal supporter of the city’s human rights ordinance when it was passed, said he thinks there’s still hope for a commission with teeth, but it needs a champion on City Council and more control over the office so recently vacated.
“The HRC has to see the world in terms of city staff working for them, and not vice versa,” Heinecke said.
Turner is less optimistic. He thinks the fundamental flaw in the city’s civil rights institutions is that they were built on compromise. “You can’t compromise with discrimination,” he said. “You fight it, or you don’t fight it.”