Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron said he plans to propose legislation next month that would strip the city Human Rights Commission of its authority to hear discrimination cases following council's Tuesday decision to cut almost 80 percent of the department's funding.
But he said city leaders would listen to commissioners' ideas to continue accepting cases instead of referring them to the state Human Rights Commission, even though the local commission's only paid position would be reduced to part-time status.
After receiving about $66,000 for the current fiscal year, the HRC had asked for an increase to almost $93,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds - the sole source of its budget since the early 1990s - for the coming budget cycle. The $14,000 council approved for the commission is double the $7,000 amount Herron originally proposed, however.
"It's a step in the right direction, and it is my hope that we will continue to be able to serve residents by hearing cases locally. ... I think it is feasible for the commission to be involved in hearing cases, even with a part-time director," said HRC Chairwoman Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner.
Herron said if council approves the changes he is proposing, Wheeling's human rights laws will more closely resemble those in Morgantown and Charleston, where municipal human rights commissions no longer have the authority to accept complaints. The part-time employee would work 16 hours a week, mainly answering phones and helping to direct potential complaints to the state commission.
"That's the game plan now. ... Certainly, we'll give (Jacowitz Chottiner) the chance to discuss that," he said, noting such talks have yet to take place.
Morgantown's ordinance explicitly states its HRC must inform potential complainants that it "does not have the power to accept formal complaints of illegal practices. Any individual claiming to be so aggrieved shall be referred to the West Virginia Human Rights Commission for investigation and adjudication of the complaint."
As Wheeling's HRC is now constructed, Herron sets the pay rate for Human Rights Commission personnel, but commission members are responsible for oversight and hiring decisions. He said he doesn't anticipate that changing.
HRC Executive Director Theresa Garrett has held her position since 1987, but she said she would be willing to accept a part-time position, noting she doesn't work for the commission "for the money."
"I told the Human Rights Commission that I would help them in any possible way, shape or form. ... I'm not going to abandon the Human Rights Commission, not after 26 years of everything we've built here," she said.
Whoever the part-time employee is will move to the City-County Building, however, as Herron said the city does not plan to renew its lease for the commission's office space on the third floor of the courthouse annex on 16th Street as of July 1.