Group Faces Hard Times

WHEELING- Although concerns about funding and employment cuts have dominated recent discussions of the Wheeling Human Rights Commission, longtime Executive Director Theresa Garrett wants the public to know she remains focused on the commission’s appointed task of investigating alleged discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

With a 17-percent budget cut – from $79,573 annually to about $65,897 annually – forcing the departure of longtime senior staff associate Beth Czerwonka as of the end of June, Garrett is now the commission’s lone paid employee, though Arnold Kuhl – a trainee whose salary is paid by the National Council on Aging – works in the office about 20 hours per week. The transition has been difficult, Garrett said, as she has been forced to assume many of Czerwonka’s secretarial duties.

In the early stages of that transition, she acknowledged, the added stress likely was not lost on some of the people who inquired about filing a case – a couple of whom, she believes, may have elected to turn to the state Human Rights Commission for help instead. But Garrett said things are getting better, and she wants people to know the commission stands ready to make sure all Wheeling residents have the equal opportunity to obtain a job, a decent place to live or the services they require.

“We will work through this funding issue, and will continue making investigating discrimination issues our No. 1 priority,” said Garrett.

From July 2011 through this past July, the commission fielded 3,336 contacts from the public.

The majority of those, 2,270, came via email, 709 by phone, and a total of 357 combined letters, walk-ins and “out-of-office” contacts.

During that same period, the commission investigated 13 formal complaints – 10 new filings and three cases carried over from the 2010-11 fiscal year, making it the commission’s second most active year since Garrett was hired as executive director in 1987.

All but one of those, a complaint of possible racial discrimination related to housing filed on Sept. 13, has been resolved. For the 12 complaints that were resolved during the fiscal year just concluded, an average of about eight months passed between filing and final resolution.

Of those, two were withdrawn – both at the request of the complainant – at the commission’s most recent meeting Monday. Two were dismissed because the complainants refused to cooperate after filing the complaint, four were dismissed after an investigation resulted in a determination of no probable cause and four were settled prior to an investigation being launched.

Garrett said the commission currently has two open complaints. One new case – another complaint of racial discrimination in housing – was filed Aug. 3, the only new complaint filed since the beginning of the new fiscal year July 1. Though she said that may not seem like much to the general public, she drew a comparison to police or firefighters – while they may not be called upon to douse a blaze or solve a murder on a daily basis, she said, it requires a substantial commitment of resources when they are.

Formal complaints “are what I consider ‘fires’ or ‘murders,’ because they require a lot more mental and physical work” than an inquiry that doesn’t lead anywhere, Garrett said.

A substantial number of inquiries, she noted, come from people whose problems do not fall under the commission’s jurisdiction – for example, a tenant’s refusal to pay rent, or a landlord’s failure to complete a necessary repair in a timely manner.

But the commission may only get involved if the issue involves discrimination based on race, religion, nationality, gender, age, disability or familial status. Once Garrett determines that an inquiry fits that bill, the potential complainant is asked to fill out a background information form – which is available at the commission office or downloadable on the city’s website – – providing specific details of the alleged discrimination.

Garrett then prepares a formal complaint based on that information, sends a notice to both the complainant and respondent and assigns the case to one of nine commissioners. Every attempt is made to keep each commissioner’s caseload even, though potential conflicts of interest can sometimes impact assignments.

The commission, members of which are appointed by City Council and serve on a volunteer basis, is comprised of Chairwoman Rabbi Beth Jacowitz-Chottiner, Chuck Hood, Cynthia Hutchison, the Revs. Robert Romick and Ralph Dunkin, Diana Bell, Ronald Scott Jr., Shawn Fluharty and George Blum.

After receiving notice of the complaint, a respondent then has one week to submit a detailed, written statement or rebuttal to the charge or apply for an extension. Garrett said a single, two-week extension almost always is granted.

The investigating commissioner then schedules a fact-finding conference, which is where Garrett estimates that “85 to 90 percent” of complaints are settled. According to Garrett, such “conciliation agreements” can range from something as simple as a verbal apology to monetary settlements in the thousands of dollars.

“We have found that in at least half the cases, the owners of the company, or the owners of the housing establishment … haven’t been apprised of what’s going on from their employees, or there’s been a miscommunication. … This gives the commission and both parties the opportunity to meet face-to-face and resolve the issue.”

If no resolution is reached, however, the assigned commissioner launches an investigation, which may include requests for documentation and interviewing witnesses. After the probe is complete, the commissioner will make a determination as to whether there is probable cause to believe discrimination occurred.

If a finding of probable cause is made, Garrett said, another attempt to conciliate the matter is made. If that fails, the commission chairperson assigns three commissioners – one of whom must be a practicing attorney – to a hearing panel.

That panel presides over a public hearing that Garrett said is conducted much like a trial – the city solicitor acts as prosecutor and evidence and witness testimony are presented. If the panel decides it is warranted, it is empowered by city code to grant various types of relief, including back pay, reinstatement to a job from which a complainant was unjustly fired, or access to the facility or services which the complainant had been denied.

The last time a case reached that stage, Garrett said, was November 2006.

The hearing panel’s ruling can be appealed in circuit court, but she said no judge has overturned any of the commission’s rulings during her 25 years on the job.

Garrett said one of the reasons the commission plays an important role in the community is that its services are available free of charge no matter a complainant’s income level. There are other ways of seeking relief, she said, such as filing a civil lawsuit, but the commission often deals with cases that aren’t as attractive to lawyers as, for example, a high-profile personal injury suit that could result in a large punitive award.

“Discrimination issues are not real moneymakers. … There are some attorneys who will take the cases no matter how small they are,” Garrett said. “But I’ve found most attorneys will recommend the HRC to their clients.”