Garrett: ‘Eyes & Ears’ Needed

WHEELING – If City Council votes to slash the Wheeling Human Rights Commission’s budget by almost 90 percent as City Manager Robert Herron has recommended, Executive Director Theresa Garrett will find herself looking for a job for the first time in almost 26 years.

Reaction from Garrett and commission Chairwoman Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner to that recommendation, which would cut the commission’s funding from its present level of $66,000 to just $7,000 when the new fiscal year begins July 1, ranged from disappointment to bewilderment.

“I’m speechless that this administration wants to do away with the eyes and ears of this commission,” said Garrett, who has held the position since 1987.

The city established its Human Rights Commission in 1962 to investigate complaints of discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. The commission’s budget came from the general fund until the early 1990s, according to Garrett, but has been funded entirely with federal Community Development Block Grant money since.

As the city’s overall CDBG entitlement has declined in recent years, so has the commission’s budget, leaving Garrett as its only paid employee. But she pointed out the city began the current fiscal year with a cash carryover exceeding $1 million, and she doesn’t understand why restoring the commission to the general fund has not been discussed as an alternative.

“I’m just a little bit confused on the rationale. … I’m not sure what else I can say,” she said.

Most of the money freed up by slashing the commission’s budget would be distributed among Wheeling Health Right, the Soup Kitchen of Greater Wheeling, the Greater Wheeling Homeless Coalition and the Seeing Hand Association – organizations that had received CDBG funds previously but were not funded this year.

City officials have said they don’t plan to dissolve the commission, which is established by ordinance and is composed of nine unpaid volunteers. But the proposed budget covers little beyond office supplies, advertising and postage – no personnel or office rent – leaving Jacowitz Chottiner wondering who will perform day-to-day functions of the commission if Garrett’s job is cut.

“It’s not clear at all to us how the city’s planning to have us reconfigured. We don’t know what our role is, because without an executive director it will be extremely difficult to function,” she said.

Herron said Thursday the commission would continue to exist as a board and would be able promote human rights through community outreach, but its role as a law enforcement arm of city government investigating discrimination complaints essentially would come to an end.

“Those complaints would be forwarded to the state Human Rights Commission, just as they are in other cities around the state,” said Herron.

But Jacowitz Chottiner does not believe the state agency will be able to provide those services “as effectively and efficiently” as the local commission.

“I feel that this is a very sad day for the citizens of Wheeling. … Terri Garrett is an amazing asset to our city, and if the budget goes through as proposed and her position is cut, it will be a great loss for Wheeling,” she said.