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Human Rights Dept: A Vacuum Of Power

Human Rights Dept: A Vacuum Of Power image Human Rights Dept: A Vacuum Of Power image
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Legally protected human rights are hurting in Ann Arbor, suffering from sluggish administration, tired blood-in government, shortages of money and lack of visibility in the community . As a result, discrimination and prejudice based on race, religión, sex, marital or educationai assoetation and sexual preference is likely to continue in this community. The two main bodies set up to protect people's rights here are the Human Rights Department and the Human Rights Commission; both suffer from vacuums of power. The Department is delegated some real power from the city, but Iacks the initiative and funds to fully use it. The Commission, on the other hand, due to political manucvering, was set up as a token board without much real power. The Human Rights Department, though the key to effective rights protection in the city, has not in its few years of operation become the effective forcé once hoped for. Much criticism for this has centered around the director, James Slaughter, who was appointed four years ago when the department was formed. Two of the more vocal critics are Human Right Commissioners David Cahill and Colleen McGee (also first ward city councilperson, who both believe that Slaughter has devoted too much attention of the department to black discrimination and has thus slighted the other minority groups, siich as women, gays, etc. Slaughter, who is himseif black, denies that any one minority group receives more consideration or higher priority than any other. He readily admits, however, that he believës that it is blacks who suffer the most discrimination. He states, "1 think a black gay person who happens to be a women has a greater problem than a white person who is gay and a woman. if you're black, you just have more problems." Statistics seem to bear this out. In the yearly period from September 1972 to September 1973, 50 complaints were filed with the city. Of these, 38 were based on race, and the rest were cases of sexual discrimination. And despite the passage of the Human Rights Ordinance last year, which has extended protection to married persons, students, and gays, the complaints coming in since trien are still racial and traditionally sexual in nature. McGee believës that the department should take a more active role in informing the city of the existence of discrimination, and that citizens should be reminded, especially in the case of gay persons, fhat it is iliegal. The Department rarely publicizes its cases, and thus the public isn't aware of where discrimination is being uncovered or what type of remedial action is being taken. Due to this lack of information, many people probably don't even realize that such a city department exists to handle complaints of prejudicial behavior. STRUCTURAL POLITICS But the Human Rights Department does exist, and is receiving about $100,000 a year from the city to perform its duties. The current staffis headed by the director, Slaughter, who rtwkes more than S20 thousand a year in his role. There are currently four others in the department, including two field investigators, who average over SI 3 thousand a year in salary. A third investigator recently left the department, and has not been replaced. Slaughter has attempted to add two new positions to his staff, one of a research statistician for improving the Affirmative Action program, which encourages employers to hire more minorities. The other is that of clerk steno, to assist the statistician and to perform other clerical duties. The City however is tight on money, and has continually vetoed the quests. Slaughter, McGee and Cahill all agree that the laek of funding has hindered the effective operation of the Human Rights Department. The city has also denied money in recent years for full fledged hearings on compfaints; thus most of the cases handled by the Department are being conciliated, dismissed, referred to the State, or left open, rather than ajudicated, as is possible. Slaughter admits that, "Technically, we're not as effective as we couid be." One of the reasons that the city is tight with funds for the HRD is because the liberal Department is quite impopular with the Republican administration. Besides refusing to créate two new positions, and allowing a third one to be phased out, the city is also planning no increases in salary for the staff of the department. This is in contrast with the recent pay raises given the pólice, and the 3% recently offered in negotiations with other city employees. And keeping the technicai effectiveness low merely gives the Republicans a rationalizaton at a later date for cutting back funds even more. Another problem with the Department as headed by Slaughter is that while action is taken on complaints that come in, the city-run office doesn't independently seek out or pursue cases of discrimination, as was done by its predecessor, the old Human Relations Commission. Admits McGee, "If Slaughter's pressed, he will follow through on a complaint. He does a good job if forced to look into a problem." However, she believes that he isn't aggressive enough to go further, a sentiment echoed by Cahill. JfURISDICTION IN DOUBT Another basic problem handicapping the department is the matter of jurisdiction over a case. For instance, the HRD has been unable to prosecute the University in cases involving salary discrepancies among men and women, because as a state-run institution, the city apparently can't regúlate it. Slaughter explains that complaints against the U are thus turned over to the State Office of the Equal portunities Employment Agency, where action can be taken. Of more importance ís current impending action against Chrysler, for the firing of nine employees who complained that they were descriminatorily fired. Chrysler has decided to fight The Fair Employment section of the city ordinance on the grounds that it can not pre-empt the state iaw on employment practices, which is not quite as clear as Ann Arbor's human rights ordinacne. If Chrysler wins, the Human Rights Department's back would be broken, as they would lose power they currently hoid over employers. Slaughter believes therefore that it is vital that the city wins; a victory of this sort strengthening the authority of the HRD for future cases. Meanwhile, the department's counterpart, the Human Rights Commission, struggtes on to define its abilities. For the most part, it is non-active, its commissioners suffering from an understandable lack of direction and purpose. It is not allowed to deal with any specific cases of discrimination, rather,it can only deal in generalities. The Commission has been effective, however, in some instances where it has been aüowed to act. Last year, it looked into city newspaper policy of segrepting help wanted ads by sexual genre, and an end result was the abolishment of such classification. Most recently, the city has finally authorized it to investígate gay discrimination by the pólice, and the commission is showing signs of Ufe once more. GAY DISCRIMINATION lt is particularly the problems of discrimination facing Ann Arbor's gay community which has drawn the most at tention to the human rights situation in recent months. The infamous Rubaiyat situation, many will recall, involved gay demands for legal action against the Rubaiyat for refusing to allow gay women to mingle and dance on the premises. Under the Human Rights ordinance, discrimination in housing, employment and public accomodations is illegal. - A complaint was thus made to the Human Rights Department, which did indeed recommend to the City Attorney, Edward Pear, that the Rubaiyat be prosecuted for discrimination. In f'act, David Cahill states that the department here "excelled",even aggressively pursueing the investigation. Actually, it was the refusa! of Attorney Pear to prosacute which prevented the matter from going to court. An important factor here is that under the Human Rights Ordinance, sexuallybased discrimination is a misdemeanor, and as such, is a criminal matter requiring a good deal of concrete evidence to ensure conviction. Other forms of discrimination are civil matlers. and only need a large weight of evidence favorable to the complainant in order for a settlement to occur. In the case of the Rubaiyat. rmich evidence from witnesses was presented, but Pear publically stated that there wasn't enough to successfully prosecuie. Tliis move was protested by HRP and others, and a resolution was presented before City Council to force Pear to act. The move was defeated by the Republican majority. The former city attorney, Jerome Lax, a liberal under a Democratie city government, was more sensitive to gay discrimination, and was more willing to move quickly and affectively to try cases in court, win or lose. Edward Pear, on the other hand, was appointed by the conservative Republicans, and his thinking thus follows the party iine of his employer. Big Boss Stephenson, which has conciuded that homosexuality is weird and wrong. Pear alone holds the power of ability to prosecute, and thus many gays who are discriminated against will now not even bother to complain to the city, feeling thal lo do so would be futile with Pear in the driver's seat. There is one notable exception here. Two gay employees who were recently fired from the Ann Arbor Inn due to their sexual orientation did complain to the city and legal action is currently underway. Pear, due to the public backlash from the prior incident, will succumb to pressure this time. Also, the evidence involved in the firing ís expected to be weighty enough to make court action obvious. HUMAN RIGHTS HfSTORY Discrimination watchdogging began in Ann Arbor in 1957 with the establishment of the Human Relations Commission (HRC), a city group formed to investígate complaints of discrimination, and to attempt conciliatory action - but with no real enforcement power. At that point, discrimination was basically recognised as racial or religious in nature, and the HRC was fairly effective in promoting the notion of non-discrimination in its day. In its short-lived history the old Commission: Helped persuade the community of the need for low cost public housing, and supported "scattered sites" for such housing. as opposed to segregated sites, Pressured the City Board of Education to hire more black teachers, Created an employment placement service to help minorities find jobs, and Sponsored hundreds of discussion meetings in private homes to help edúcate community people on the evils of discrimination. However, HRC ran into brick walls in the late sixties with the pólice, as they began to investígate discrimination complaints made against the city's cops. After a series of heated arguments, the power to investígate city organizations was taken from HRC,' which was then broken into two groups, the Human Rights Department and the Human Rights Commission. The Investigation of the pólice and other city officials was a power eventually turned contmued on page 21 The city has denied money for hearings on human rights complaints; thus most of the cases of discrimination are being conciliated, dismissed, or left open, instead of being firmly acted upon as designated by city law. Human Rights continued from page 7 over to an ineffeclive city-appointed grievance officer. The new Department was made, in part, strongei thun the prior HRC, because it now had the enforcement power to hold hearings and levy fines against offenders, as well as conciliate disputes. The commission on the other hand was to be an advisory board, to recommend ways of improving those city programs which dealt with discrimina tion. The commission was to set up its own operating rules to achieve these goals. In light of what was achieved in the past, it is unfortunate that the present Human Rights Department has been unable to fully utilize the potential which it has. Director Slaughter acknowledges that minority rights have not made as much advancement in the last few years as had been made in the mid and late sixties. He states that the Department is " not as effective as I'd hoped we would be, although we have improved." WHAT TO DO How should people utilize this vital service? Colleen McGee details how, in the following passage from the latest issue of HERSELF magazine: "If you do feel that you have been discrimina ted against by un employer or a potential employer, or by a landlord, or by a place of public accomadation, you can do several things. The first is to ask to speak to the supervisor of the person and explain to him or her what behavior you think is in violation of the ordinance. Then. cali the Human Rights Department and ask to speak to a field investigator... Explain your problem and ask if they think you might have the basis for a formal complaint. If not, they can at least make a phone cali to the other person to clarify the situation." It's basically up to the community to force the Human Rights Department to opérate at full efficiency. Through pressure, publicity and more utilization of the service it offers, the Department can be made more effective in nature. Human rights for all individuals and groups in Ann Arbor could then become a lot closer to reality.