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Fight for human rights panel with teeth to continue into election year

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Posted: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 3:53 pm | Updated: 4:08 pm, Thu Jan 3, 2013.

The Charlottesville City Council has agreed to beef up efforts to improve race relations in the city, but some advocates are threatening protests and electoral fallout if councilors don’t do something stronger.

“The only thing I think is really going to matter is protests and more protests,” said M. Rick Turner, president of the Albemarle Charlottesville NAACP, which supports a commission with enforcement power. “I don’t think anything is going to be given to those who want it, unless the council believes that there’s some power behind the words.”

The city is in the process of creating a human-rights initiative to reduce discrimination and improve equality, but some people want a commission with power to enforce anti-discrimination laws by investigating complaints against businesses or landlords, holding hearings and ordering a solution.

At a recent council meeting, it became clear that there’s little support for the latter.

In response, Walter F. Heinecke, a University of Virginia academic who championed the original proposal for a human rights commission, fired off a series of emails to city councilors saying the public now can see “what’s really going on” ahead of the next election.

At the end of the process, “the public will surely know and see every councilor’s true colors when it comes to protecting our most disadvantaged citizens,” said Heinecke, an associate professor of education.

Councilor Dave Norris, who wants the commission to take a broader approach geared toward fixing institutional disparities in places such as schools and the justice system, dismissed the idea that a commission without enforcement powers would be illegitimate.

“If that ends up being what makes or breaks the human rights commission, then I think we’ve done a great disservice to the people we’re trying to serve,” Norris said.

Public discussion of a potential human rights commission has been simmering for more than a year, but as the council prepares to act in early 2013, the debate has reached a flashpoint.

The commission idea was put forward in late 2011 by the Dialogue on Race, a temporary city program tasked partly with identifying concrete solutions to racial issues. In February, the City Council deferred action on the matter, choosing instead to create the task force.

To date, there’s been near-unanimous agreement that discrimination still exists in Charlottesville. There’s also agreement that the city government should play a role in stopping it, but a rift has emerged over the details of what that role should be.

The human-rights task force was almost evenly split. Proponents of a strong commission wanted something that would function as a quasi-judicial body, while another faction, led by the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, favored a “human rights advocate” whose office would receive and track complaints, refer people to other resources and legal channels and promote education about human-rights issues.

The council appears to be somewhere in the middle. Councilors haven’t been quick to publicly embrace the chamber’s position, but most seem unwilling to sign on to a commission with enforcement power. That would be the costlier of the two options.

Advocates say enforcement is necessary in order to force a response from entities accused of discrimination.

“You need to face a body of people and explain why you blatantly discriminated against someone,” Turner said. “We’re not talking about someone going to jail. We’re talking about facing the public and explaining your behavior.”

On Dec. 17, councilors agreed in principle to pass a local anti-discrimination ordinance and set up a human-rights mechanism — a city office, commission or some combination of the two — but the plan didn’t include local enforcement powers.

Commission supporters have characterized the response as an undemocratic reaction to public input that came at the specific request of the City Council. Turner and Heinecke both suggested the council has been swayed by business interests, particularly the chamber.

“The only organization they listen to is the Chamber of Commerce,” said Turner.

“I just don’t understand how the council can ask two of its committees to give it recommendations and then go against those recommendations two times in a row,” Heinecke said. “It’s baffling to me why you would do that unless there was some undue influence from some other corner.”

Chamber’s President Timothy Hulbert declined to respond, saying only that the council now has to be “deliberative.”

City councilors denied the charge that they hadn’t listened to public concerns.

“Any time you have a community opinion split the way that one was, to sort of go completely one way or the other would be not listening,” said Councilor Dede Smith. “I think we did listen to the community.”

Norris has pointed out that of the hundreds of people who spoke to the task force, just one cited a clear-cut case of personal discrimination, formally complained and found existing processes inadequate. The focus should be on the hundreds, Norris said, rather than on the “easy” and “tangible” option of setting up an expensive commission with enforcement powers that rarely would be used.

“If we’re going to be increasing funding in our community in our city budget for efforts to roll back discrimination, I want to put that money toward the vast majority of the problems that the low-income people and the people of color in our community have brought to our attention over and over again,” Norris said.

Kristin Szakos, the only councilor who has publicly supported enforcement powers, said money is definitely a factor for her colleagues.

“I know that a big part of the balking on the part of the City Council was the expense,” Szakos said.

As originally proposed, the commission would cost $200,000 to $300,000 a year. A commission without enforcement powers and the investigative staff to go with them apparently would cost less.

Szakos supports enforcement because she wants discrimination disputes to be handled locally rather than being shipped to far-off agencies. But the fact that enforcement isn’t part of the current equation, she said, is not an “unmitigated disaster.”

“We have to embrace incremental victories. And this is an incremental victory,” Szakos said. “It’s a big step toward dealing with race relations and other civil-rights issues in Charlottesville. We can’t not do it just because we can’t do it all.”

Heinecke disagreed.

“We spent two years on this. This is the third time it has come up in 15 years,” Heinecke said. “If they’re going to water it down again, I would say just don’t do it until you’re ready to actually deliver on the full model.”

City staff is in the process of drafting a human-rights ordinance for the council’s consideration. It’s expected to be ready by late January or early February, which leaves a little more time for commission advocates to state their case.

“Those of us who are in favor of a human rights policy have to get troops behind us,” Turner said.

Norris and Szakos are up for re-election in 2013. Both plan to hold events early next year to officially announce their political intentions.

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