Charlottesville's City Council voted 3-1 late Monday to enact a $197,000 anti-discrimination ordinance and human rights commission. Councilor Kathy Galvin voted against the commission and Mayor Satyendra Huja abstained from the vote.
Huja said he abstained because he liked some, but not all, of the ordinance.
In voting against the measure, Galvin said she didn't think the commission was necessary and that money allocated for the commission could be better spent.
"I cannot ignore that the human rights task force did not produce the data ... that necessitates the steps we are taking tonight," she said. "The one true way to get people to feel that they are succeeding in a society is to give them opportunities in that society."
The commission is designed to investigate claims of discrimination, mediate them and, if necessary, file suit through the city attorney's office against employers and others found guilty of discrimination.
The commission includes $90,000 rolled over from the Dialogue on Race, which originally recommended some form of a human rights commission, and formed a human rights commission task force.
Councilor Dede Smith applauded the commission in her comments at the beginning of the Monday's meeting.
"What the human rights commission will give us is a mechanism to deal with [discrimination], which I think is really vital," she said.
The proposal came after two years of studies and arguments by the City Council and a group of vocal core supporters. In April, councilors rejected a proposed commission that did not include enforcement powers.
The measure council approved Monday was a hybrid version of proposals from Councilors Dave Norris and Kristin Szakos that includes limited enforcement powers. Previous versions of the ordinance did not include enforcement powers at all.
Charlottesville's commission will have the power to investigate complaints of discrimination by companies with between six and 14 employees and, if necessary, send them to the city attorney's office for litigation. Before the commission sends complaints to the city attorney, it will attempt to mediate and reconcile the complaint without legal action. Complaints brought against bigger companies will be sent to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Complaints dealing with fair housing will be referred to the Piedmont Housing Alliance.
Alex Gulotta of the Legal Aid Justice Center said the commission should do more to attack discrimination.
"The reason for having enforcement is accountability, and if we are going to have accountability, we should give the commission the freedom to refer to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but would allow them the opportunity to hear larger complaints," he said.
Councilors said last week that they want the commission to focus most of its time on institutional discrimination, rather than individual complaints. Councilors hoped the commission would focus primarily on examining public institutions for discriminatory practices and asking for community feedback. It will also conduct focus groups and produce legislative, budgetary and policy recommendations to stem discrimination, as defined in city documents.
Charlottesville resident Jim Moore expressed concern that the commission is a solution to a problem that does not exist.
"Currently, I think you are sort of chasing shadows," he said. "If I understand correctly, we are yet to have one validated instance of an offense that would fit within the categories this is describing."
Charlottesville's human rights commission is the fifth of its kind in the commonwealth, joining similar bodies in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties, and the city of Alexandria, all of which have some level of enforcement power.
The EEOC is a federal body that investigates complaints of illegal workplace discrimination and enforces federal laws making it illegal to discriminate based on race, sex, religion, nationality or age.