HRC Holds First Meeting in Months

The Wheeling Human Rights Commission saw its two newest members sworn in Tuesday and held its first official meeting since July, when budget cuts forced significant changes in the group’s operations.

Prior to the meeting, City Clerk Janice Jones administered the oath to new appointees Steve Novotney and the Rev. Don Marsh, appointed by Mayor Andy McKenzie to assume the seats vacated by the recent resignations of Cynthia Hutchison and the Rev. Robert Romick. They joined Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner, Chuck Hood, Diana Bell, George Blum and Shawn Fluharty to make seven of nine commissioners present – the first time the group has achieved a quorum in five months.

Meetings scheduled in August and November were canceled, and the group failed to muster a quorum in September and October. Commission members Ron Scott Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Dunkin were absent Tuesday.

With its vacancies filled, the commission was able to get down to business of regrouping amid the financial upheaval created by an 80-percent budget reduction for the current fiscal year. That resulted in the absorption of former full-time Executive Director Theresa Garrett’s duties by the city’s Economic and Community Development Department, as well as a new ordinance passed by City Council giving the commission case-by-case discretion over whether to attempt to mediate a discrimination complaint or send it directly to the West Virginia Human Rights Commission for adjudication.

“I think it’s important to note … that we worked together on this and got it done,” Hood said of the commission and city leaders.

On Tuesday, the commission discussed how to spend its $14,000 budget for the year, down from $66,000 in 2012-13. Given the new structure of the commission’s operations, they decided to move a total of $3,200 that had been budgeted for office supplies and “administrative” costs and spend their budget as follows: $8,200 for advertising and publishing, $2,000 for training, $2,000 for travel expenses and the remaining $1,800 for telephone, postage and photocopying costs.

Melissa Thompson, an employee of the Economic and Community Development Department, reported that she has distributed a few complaint forms to residents since becoming the office contact person for the HRC, none of which has been returned. That led Hood to express concern that people may be frustrated by a lack of guidance.

“I don’t want to see anybody turned away because they do not understand the form,” he said.

Economic and Community Development Director Nancy Prager assured the commission her staff is accustomed to assisting residents in filling out various paperwork, and things will be no different with Human Rights Commission-related matters.

Bell and Fluharty suggested it may be helpful to schedule commission members to be on call in case a potential complainant needs further guidance, or to schedule a particular day and time to have someone available for that purpose. Jacowitz Chottiner thought it may be easier to have a couple members stay behind for an hour or so following the commission’s meeting each month to assist residents who may be thinking about filing a complaint.

In other business, resident Frank Calabrese told the commission he believes it needs its own executive director to function properly, and urged members to try and raise funds for that purpose.

He said he’d be willing to donate the first $1,000 if they chose to move in that direction.