Committee Favors Preserving Human Rights Commission’s Authority

The ongoing upheaval at the Wheeling Human Rights Commission may not include relinquishing authority to its state-level counterpart, after all.

On Monday, City Manager Robert Herron presented a draft of a new ordinance to replace the one city officials enacted to create the commission more than 50 years ago. City Council Rules Committee members Eugene Fahey, David Miller and Robert “Herk” Henry voted unanimously to recommend the full council pass the legislation – but not before striking a key element that would have stripped the local HRC of its ability to resolve cases of discrimination in housing, employment and other matters.

Herron said the changes he proposed reflect council’s decision earlier this year to cut the local commission’s budget by 79 percent, and would avoid a duplication of services offered by the West Virginia Human Rights Commission. However, local commission members point out it takes months for the state agency to decide whether to accept a case, and complainants would have to travel to Parkersburg or beyond for face-to-face conferences – a system they believe unfairly burdens those who can’t afford to miss work or hire an attorney to pursue their cases in court.

The turnabout came at the urging of Mayor Andy McKenzie, despite what he viewed as mixed signals from commission members on whether they can carry out their current duties with a $14,000 budget.

During Monday’s meeting, McKenzie said he previously asked commission members how much money they needed to function, and they responded by requesting a budget increase. But facing the prospect of losing their authority, he said, commission members now say they can make do with less.

“I’m a little confused on what they can and can’t do. … I’d like to see them try it for a year,” he said.

Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner, who chairs Wheeling’s HRC, said their response to the mayor’s question was intended to convey at what level they believed they could operate most “effectively and efficiently.”

“If we can’t have that, let’s not decimate us,” she said.

With the commission’s ability to hear cases intact, the most substantial change under the new ordinance would involve staffing. The executive director position, under joint supervision by the HRC and City Council, would be eliminated, replaced by a secretary whom Herron would have sole authority to select.

Herron said he intends to assign those tasks to an existing city employee, as is the case with city advisory boards such as the city’s Planning and Historic Landmarks commissions. But his original plan basically would have limited those tasks to answering the phone, and he was unsure following Monday’s meeting whether the responsibility of assisting commission members with formal complaints would be too much for an existing employee to absorb.

“We’ll have to see how it goes,” Herron said.

The commission’s budget crisis already has prompted the resignation of longtime Executive Director Theresa Garrett, who at best would have faced a reduction to part-time status. Her last day will be July 31.