Local HRC Says State Too Slow

WHEELING – About six weeks after the Wheeling Human Rights Commission referred a potential discrimination complaint to its state-level counterpart, the complainant has yet to see any progress in her case, Executive Director Theresa Garrett said.

That woman, who Garrett said contacted the Wheeling office Monday, is one of several people told to seek help from the West Virginia Human Rights Commission or the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in recent weeks. The local commission has not been accepting new complaints amid doubt it will be able to resolve them before it loses 89 percent of its funding on July 1.

“She hasn’t heard anything from the state Human Rights Commission,” Garrett said.

Commissioner Chuck Hood said the state HRC is a “class act,” but is dealing with funding and staffing issues of its own as the local commission prepares to shift much of its responsibility to the state agency. As a result, he said, residents will have to understand they can no longer expect the prompt response they are used to receiving.

“That’s not the way it’s going to work from a state perspective. … I don’t want to say they’re overwhelmed. It’s just additional work for them to do,” Hood said.

Hood said the state commission’s executive director, Phyllis Carter, told him her agency recently lost two of its investigators – positions that will remain vacant until at least June 30, unless Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin rescinds the temporary hiring freeze he imposed on state agencies last month in response to sluggish tax revenue collections. And like many state agencies, the Human Rights Commission is facing a 7.5-percent budget cut for the upcoming fiscal year.

Commission Chairwoman Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner added Carter told the local group it takes the state HRC an average of 3 months just to decide whether it will accept a case.

The Human Rights Commission will learn its fate next week, as City Council is expected to vote May 7 on its plan to allocate federal Community Development Block Grant funds for the 2013-14 fiscal year. With significant cuts to the CDBG program over the last few years and another reduction expected this year, City Manager Robert Herron’s proposal would take all but $7,000 of the funding the commission now receives and distribute it to several nonprofit agencies, including Wheeling Health Right, the Soup Kitchen of Greater Wheeling, the Greater Wheeling Homeless Coalition and the Seeing Hand Association.

Garrett, who stands to lose her job July 1 if council approves the plan, said she’s had noticeably fewer people contact her office in recent weeks, and attributes the decline to the cloud under which the commission’s been operating recently.

“People aren’t calling because they don’t believe we’re going to be able to help them,” she said.

With a couple of pending cases recently closed via conciliation agreements, Garrett said just one, a complaint of racial discrimination in employment, remains open. Tuesday was the deadline for the complainant to submit additional evidence, and Garrett expects a decision soon on whether there is probable cause to proceed.

“Basically, we’ve pretty much cleaned up everything,” Hood said.

In other business, the Rev. Robert Romick has resigned from the commission due to a recent move to Ohio, Garrett said. By law, commissioners must reside within city limits.

Mayor Andy McKenzie appointed Romick to the commission in 2010. His departure leaves the commission with eight members – Hood, Jacowitz Chottiner, Shawn Fluharty, Diana Bell, Ronald Scott Jr., the Rev. Ralph Dunkin, Cynthia Hutchison and George Blum.

Commissioners set their next meeting for 3 p.m. May 28, a day later than usual due to the Memorial Day holiday.