GLAA Testimony on OHR: Feb. 27, 1997


Committee on Government Operations

February 27, 1997

Madame Chairman, Members of the Committee, and Fellow Citizens:

My name is Craig Howell. I am a former President and the current Secretary of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC (GLAA), the nation's oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization; we will be celebrating our 26th anniversary in April. Thank you for this opportunity to participate in your committee's oversight hearings on the enforcement of the D.C. Human Rights Law of 1977 — arguably the strongest anti-discrimination law in the country.

Let me first say how relieved we are that all oversight responsibilities for human rights enforcement are centralized in just one Council committee. We were dismayed when the initial Council committee structure that was announced this last December fragmented this responsibility, assigning the Commission on Human Rights to one committee and the Office of Human Rights to another. We immediately fired off a letter to the Council requesting a correction of the problem; thankfully, our vigilance was rewarded.

Since this is our first appearance before this committee, some history of GLAA's role in human rights enforcement might be in order. Securing strong protections for lesbians and gay men against arbitrary discrimination in employment, public accommodations, housing, education, and so forth has been at the top of GLAA's agenda since our founding in 1971. Even before the advent of home rule, we persuaded our elected Board of Education to ban anti-gay discrimination in our public schools in 1972, and we spearheaded the drive to enact what was then known as Title 34 in 1973; Title 34 was later upgraded to become the D.C. Human Rights Law of 1977. Even in the 1970s, large backlogs built up at the Office of Human Rights under Mayor Walter Washington, and we had many complaints about the indifferent enforcement of the law during the Washington Administration. Substantial inroads were made against the case backlog under Mayor Marion Barry in the late 1970s and 1980s, although delays in processing complaints were still common. The advent of the Barry Administration also facilitated passage of a law in 1979 that prohibited referendum or initiative votes on any measure that would restrict the protections afforded minorities by the Human Rights Law.

A high point in enforcement of the Human Rights Law occurred in 1989 when the Office of Human Rights ruled that Big Brothers of the National Capital Area would have to abandon its long-standing ban against letting gay men serve as volunteer Big Brothers. In so ruling, OHR rejected the claim by the local Big Brothers chapter that they were a distinctly private club and therefore exempt from the anti-discrimination law. Since we at GLAA had been fighting the Big Brothers ban since the mid-1970's, you can imagine how pleased we were with that outcome.

1989 also saw another major development whose long-term implications we regrettably failed to grasp. In that year, the Office of Human Rights lost its long-standing status as an independent, Cabinet-level agency whose director had direct access to the Mayor. Instead, it was merged with another agency and became the Department of Human Rights and Minority Business Development. We did not object to this reorganization in the mistaken belief that OHR would naturally be the dominant half of the new Department. How wrong we were.

During the Kelly Administration, the new Department was always headed by someone whose background was solely in the area of minority business development. Human rights enforcement received plenty of lip service but precious little else. In particular, a sizable number of investigator positions were systematically cannibalized, via the magic of reprogramming, away from OHR and given to the minority business development side of the Department. Quite predictably, the backlog of complaints at OHR exploded. We first became aware of the reemerging backlog problem when the media reported in late 1994 that OHR had not yet assigned an investigator to the complaint filed two years earlier against the Boy Scouts of America for banning gays participating either as Scouts or as leaders. When we investigated to find out what had happened to OHR, we were horrified to learn that reprogramming and budget cuts had reduced the number of OHR's investigators from 12 in 1990 to just 5 in 1994. The case backlog had correspondingly grown to roughly 700 cases, which translated into an average wait of from 3 to 4 years between the time a complaint was filed and the time OHR would reach an initial finding.

Today, the picture remains bleak. OHR is now down to just two full-time investigators, thanks largely to attrition; the Control Board is not letting investigator positions be filled. One of the tragic results of this foolish policy is that OHR no longer has anyone dedicated to investigating complaints filed by people with AIDS, because the previous incumbent himself died of AIDS. Fortunately, OHR in recent years has taken some steps to enhance their productivity. The current backlog, according to the Department chief Gerald Draper, is 664 cases. Since OHR expects to close about 210 cases this year, that should translate into an average 3-year wait between filing a complaint and having OHR make an initial finding. (Department witnesses claim this average wait is only about 18 months; we are at a loss to understand the apparent discrepancy.)

One step we have endorsed to enhance OHR's productivity is a requirement that all complaints go through mediation before a formal investigation is begun. Since many cases could be resolved through mediation, we believe this step could greatly reduce the backlog and channel the very limited time of the remaining investigators towards the toughest cases. We were quite pleased last year when Councilmember Kevin Chavous engineered passage of an emergency law authorizing this procedural reform. However, that emergency law expires in April. We beg the Council to reenact this measure, now incorporated as one provision of Bill 12-34, as a permanent law by the end of April.

Just how much mandatory mediation will do to reduce the case backlog is not yet clear. It will still be necessary for the FY 1998 budget to increase the number of investigators for OHR if we are to bring the backlog down to a level that does not discourage the filing of complaints in the first place.

To ensure more permanent reform, GLAA strongly backs the reestablishment of the Office of Human Rights as an independent, Cabinet-level agency, with a Director who has direct access to the Mayor. OHR's failure to act as the conscience of the District government has been vividly illustrated over the past few years while it has been submerged as a subordinate element of the current Department. For example, the gay and lesbian community was horrified by the arguments advanced by the Corporation Counsel's office in at least two gay-related cases that the District government is exempt from its own Human Rights Law! Similarly, we were appalled when the Department initially ruled that the Boy Scouts organization was free to bar gays because it qualified as a private club — a ruling utterly at odds with OHR's earlier findings in the Big Brothers case (not to mention a parallel ruling against the Cosmos Club for barring women as members). We were gratified when then-Corporation Counsel Charles Ruff ordered the Department to reopen the Boy Scouts case because that group is not a distinctly private club at all. But here it is a full year since Ruff's ruling and the Department has still not issued a new finding, despite repeated assurances that it is coming down "soon." Those assurances have been repeated to me today; I'll believe it when I see it.

We raised the question of reestablishing OHR as an independent, Cabinet-level agency during the 1996 elections. We are pleased to report that this goal enjoys the public support of Councilmembers Allen, Brazil, Chavous, Evans, and Schwartz. We are raising it in the Ward 6 special election, and it appears that most candidates also favor that objective.

Late last year, we discovered a draft document indicating that the Barry Administration was thinking of burying the Office of Human Rights as a very small piece of the Office of Personnel. We declared this plan unacceptable. Now we presume the plan is dead, if only because it would cost the District the $105,000 it receives from the EEOC each year for closing cases covered by federal anti-discrimination laws. We understand that Larry King has told you, Mrs. Patterson, that a new reorganization plan that includes OHR will be formally submitted to the Council for approval in March. We will look at this plan carefully and expect to testify on it.

Thank you for your consideration.


See March 1997 testimony on mandatory mediation

See related letter from Councilmember Schwartz

See November 1996 testimony on Draper nomination

See related testimony from April 1996

See letter to DC Council on committee jurisdiction