HRC to City: Please, Hear Us Out

Members of the Wheeling Human Rights Commission are about to wrap up their only remaining open case as they brace for a massive funding cut – but members do not believe the case has to be their last.

Following City Council’s decision earlier this month to slash the commission’s annual funding by almost 80 percent, City Manager Robert Herron has said he plans to propose changes to city code by June that would strip the commission of its authority to settle formal discrimination complaints and direct the department to forward all potential cases to the state Human Rights Commission in Charleston. But during the Wheeling HRC’s meeting Monday, Chairwoman Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner said she hopes to schedule a conference with city officials so commissioners can plead their case – that they already serve as unpaid volunteers and are capable of making do with less.

Commissioner Diana Bell said she doesn’t understand the rush to diminish the group’s role when the nine appointed members already serve as unpaid volunteers.

“We can still do all of our duties. … I don’t see a need for that to change,” said Commissioner Diana Bell.

The $14,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant money City Council voted to provide the HRC is only sufficient to fund a part-time employee, although 26-year Executive Director Theresa Garrett has said she’s willing to stay on even with reduced hours.

And even under those circumstances, commissioners believe they can continue investigating discrimination complaints.

“We can do it right here, and it’s not going to cost the city any money,” said Commissioner Chuck Hood.

The local commission stopped accepting new cases about two months ago amid the uncertainty over its future role. Garrett said she has referred seven potential new cases to the state HRC in that time, and in the commission’s only remaining open case, the complainant has just a few days to request a review of a no probable cause finding.

If city officials ultimately decide to reduce the local commission’s authority, Garrett said Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services Inc., a federally funded nonprofit agency, has expressed interest in expanding its reach into West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle. This organization could provide free advocacy for Wheeling residents with cases pending before the state HRC. However, the group is primarily concerned with fair housing and would not get involved in cases of discrimination in employment or public accommodations.

“It’s only one area. It doesn’t solve everything, but at least in one area it offers more than someone blindly sending mail to an empty hole,” Jacowitz Chottiner said.

The commission’s next meeting is set for 3 p.m. June 24 on the third floor of the courthouse annex.