Just a few weeks away from its deadline, Charlottesville’s Human Rights Task Force is deadlocked.
The 10-member body agrees that the city should do everything in its power to prevent discrimination. But when it comes to the key question the group was created to answer — whether that power should include an investigative commission with enforcement authority — there’s an even split.
One group of five favors a less-aggressive approach focused on advocacy and guidance for those who feel they’ve been discriminated against, while the other five want a full-bodied commission that would be able to probe potential cases of discrimination.
The task force is scheduled to make its recommendation to the City Council in December, but at the group’s latest meeting last week, there were few signs of consensus.
Rick Jones, a task-force member who opposes the commission, said the city’s role should be to point people to the right resources. He added that anyone caught discriminating is already subject to “severe penalties” under state and federal law.
“I think the city is just wasting its time trying to become another judge, jury and investigation body, run by a political subdivision,” Jones said.
Task-force member Rennie Johnson, who supports the commission, said the city has pushed so-called advocacy programs for decades, and they haven’t worked. “Real enforcement,” she said, will finally hold people accountable.
“I don’t think that the city of Charlottesville wants to have a commission,” said Johnson, who works in the mortgage business. “And realistically, we need to get out of the prehistoric times and get into modern-day thinking … It’s gone on for so long. It’s time to wake up. Times are changing.”
The task force is now poised to present a dual recommendation — laying out areas of agreement and areas of disagreement — that will basically put the original question back in the council’s lap.
The plan for a local human rights commission came out of the Dialogue on Race, the city initiative launched in 2009 to foster better race relations. As proposed, the commission is estimated to cost $300,000 its first year and $200,000 each year thereafter.
The proposal went before the City Council in February, but a majority of councilors weren’t convinced that a commission was needed, which led them to vote to create a task force that would return with a recommendation at the end of the year. At the time, some commission backers criticized the city for the delay, saying it was a move designed to kill the momentum for the commission idea.
The group held a number of public forums and met with local organizations that deal with discrimination issues. During the course of its work, the task force collected 28 complaints of discrimination within city limits, according to data from city officials.
More than half of the complaints came from blacks. The most frequent form of discrimination was employment-related.
At the task force’s Nov. 14 meeting, Assistant City Manager David Ellis ticked off a list of possible characteristics of a human rights commission and asked members to raise their hands for ideas they could support.
There was unanimous agreement that the city should pass an anti-discrimination ordinance, receive complaints, hear reports and conduct studies, refer people to other agencies and resources and offer training and educational resources. The group also agreed that whoever was tasked with those responsibilities should advise the City Council and have access to an attorney.
The split occurred when the group was asked if there should be a commission to actively investigate claims of discrimination.
“What would be the use of having an ordinance if you don’t enforce it?” said task-force member Jesse Ellis, who has a military and law-enforcement background.
The city attorney’s office has said that the city would have to get enabling legislation through the General Assembly in order to create a commission infused with powers to investigate and punish.
Task-force member Timothy Hulbert, the president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, said everyone favors a local mechanism to fight discrimination, but getting the enforcement powers is near impossible.
“I am a believer in the doable,” said Hulbert, who proposed the idea of creating a city office focused on human-rights advocacy in lieu of a commission. “I believe that if we can go to the City Council with a doable mechanism, not a mechanism for all time, but the next step … I believe that will work.”
The recommendation will also come at a time when councilors are focusing on budgetary essentials rather than niceties, largely due to a $3 million to $4 million shortfall in the city schools budget.
Mayor Satyendra Huja said he thinks the city will have some money that can be used in response to the task force’s recommendation.
“But not to the extent of half a million dollars,” he said.
Councilor Kristin Szakos said she likes the idea of having a body that could help resolve disputes locally rather than having them handled by distant agencies like the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“To me, that seems real essential to our role in city government,” Szakos said. “It seems pretty core to our mission.”
The task force is expected to meet once more to finalize its recommendation, with the presentation likely to occur at the Dec. 17 council meeting.