WHEELING - It appears the Wheeling Human Rights Commission's authority to investigate complaints of discrimination would be limited - but not eliminated entirely - under proposed legislation before City Council.
Under the ordinance, which is up for first reading before City Council during its meeting at noon Tuesday, the local commission would have 10 days after receiving a formal complaint to decide whether to accept it or forward it directly to the West Virginia Human Rights Commission. Should it choose to retain the complaint, the local commission would have the authority to launch an investigation to determine whether probable cause exists to substantiate the complaint, and if it does, "immediately endeavor to eliminate the unlawful discriminatory practices ... by conference, conciliation and persuasion."
"In case of failure to eliminate through conciliation and conference such practice or in advance thereof, if in the judgment of the Commission circumstances so warrant, the Commission shall cause the complaint file to be immediately sent to the State of West Virginia Human Rights Commission" for adjudication.
That would replace language in the current ordinance empowering the local commission to conduct a public hearing during which it would review evidence, hear testimony and render a judgment that could include 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.
No case before the Wheeling HRC has reached that stage since 2006, and former Executive Director Theresa Garrett previously said "85 to 90 percent" of complaints are resolved through conciliation. Garrett retired at the end of July.
Another provision of the proposed ordinance automatically would require the commission to forward complaints involving the city of Wheeling directly to the state HRC. The legislation also would reduce the commission's membership from nine to seven.
The board currently has one vacancy, created several months ago when former commission member the Rev. Robert Romick moved out of the city, but it's unclear who else would be out.
Following council's decision to reduce the commission's funding - paid entirely through federal Community Development Block Grant money - by nearly 80 percent, City Manager Robert Herron in July proposed legislation that would have prohibited the local commission from accepting cases entirely in favor of forwarding them to the state HRC.
However, City Council's Rules Committee relented, recommending during a July meeting that the full council allow the local commission to retain the authority to accept cases.