Future Of HRC Director Unclear

WHEELING – Theresa Garrett will be living in limbo until Tuesday.

As the only paid employee heading up Wheeling’s Human Rights Commission, Garrett’s job could be in jeopardy due to funding issues and the decision of Wheeling City Council.

She, along with the volunteer commission members, will learn Tuesday if the city administration plans to recommend funding to keep Garrett in her position.

The city’s HRC has been the center of contention and debate for several years during city budget-making time.

Some city officials believe the HRC is a duplication of services already provided by the state Human Rights Commission, which is headquartered in Charleston. Over the past few years, the city department has been whittled down from three employees to one – Garrett.

According to Garrett, she has answered more than 3,000 calls, complaints or inquiries in a year’s time regarding local human rights issues that range from employment discrimination to problems between tenants and landlords.

She maintains most of the people who contact her office do not have the means to travel to Charleston or Fairmont or other areas of the state to rectify a human rights issue at the state level. She said the majority of cases that come across her desk are ironed out through talks and education at the local level.

Human Rights Commission Chairwoman Rabbi Beth Jacowitz-Chottiner said if local citizens are forced to take their complaints or concerns to the state HRC, the complainant and respondent would have to travel to Charleston or elsewhere in the state to have their case heard.

“Only if it comes to a public hearing would they come to Wheeling,” Jacowitz-Chottiner said. “And only 10 percent of cases end up in a public hearing. We need to be here for the people and without (Garrett) in the office, I don’t know how the commission would operate.”

She also said that since learning of the HRC’s funding issues, a concerned citizen has established a Friends of the Human Rights Commission Facebook page.

“People care about this. They want to be able to talk with a person about their concerns, not just get a recording with the hopes that someone will help them,” Jacowitz-Chottiner added.

HRC commissioners recently voted to submit budget requests to City Council that include $69,450 for personnel – $38,273 for Garrett’s salary, $11,000 for a part-time assistant and the remainder for Garrett’s benefits.

The remainder, $23,492, would be used to cover operating costs including office rent and miscellaneous expenses. Commissioners also would require funds to cover travel expenses to conferences and training events.

The commission office has been funded solely through the federal Community Development Block Grant program for years, but had received general fund dollars in the past. The commission office is located in the City-County Building Annex.

City leaders are projecting a significantly smaller CDBG allocation to work with in the new fiscal year. Mayor Andy McKenzie recently received a request from Health Right officials to restore CDBG funding to that agency and other non-profits serving city residents.

With limited funding, council may have to choose between funding the HRC or dividing funds among the nonprofit agencies.

HRC members have been brainstorming in recent months in an effort to identify another revenue source to continue Garrett in her position. To date, they have had negative results. The commission’s next meeting is set for 3 p.m. Monday at the HRC office on 16th Street.

The Wheeling HRC was created by city ordinance and it would require another ordinance to dissolve it. City Manager Robert Herron on Friday would not comment on specific funding recommendations contained in the city’s proposed 2013-14 general fund budget, but reiterated that the HRC would remain in place.

“There are no plans to dissolve the Human Rights Commission, but there could be changes to funding,” Herron said.