The Charlottesville Human Rights Commission meets tonight ten days after City Council held the first reading of a proposed change to the ordinance that would expand their ability to investigate discrimination claims.
“It will just give us a little more teeth to investigate and make judgments against Fair Housing law violations in the city,” said City Councilor Michael Payne said.
Charlottesville City Council voted 3-1 on May 20, 2013 to create the Human Rights Commission, with Mayor Satyendra Huja abstaining at the time. The Commission was an outcome of a city initiative called the Dialogue on Race. Since then, the Human Rights Office has been through two directors and is currently led by Todd Niemeier.
Council was briefed on potential changes to the Human Rights ordinance that could expand the powers of the Human Rights Commission.
City Councilors had already had the opportunity to ask Niemeier questions through what city staff refer to as “2-2-1” meetings where elected officials get briefings without forming a quorum required that would trigger Virginia’s public meeting laws.
“During our 2-2-1’s, I heard some basic questions about what the ordinance was, what is the function of the Commission and the Office of Human Rights, especially maybe just reiterating that for the public as well,” Neimeier said.
The Commission is seeking many changes to the ordinance to give them more power to investigate claims of discrimination.
“The contents of the ordinance are based on state and federal human and civil rights law,” Neimeier said. “And what the ordinance does is that it provides processes for us to address unlawful discrimination within the city.”
The Human Rights Office is within the City Manager’s office and has three main tasks. One is to receive phone calls, emails, text messages, and walk-in visitors from community members who have claims. Another is to do outreach to make sure people know the office can do.
“In addition we do education and awareness around issues of discrimination,” Neimeier said.
The third role is to support the Human Rights Commission, which is set up to hear appeals if staff has determined a complaint is not valid. The Commission’s powers are fairly limited.
“They can either recommend that they go back to mediation or they can recommend to the city attorney that a civil action be filed on behalf of the aggrieved party,” Neimeier said. “But they can only recommend that. They can’t grant any relief. They can’t grant monetary relief, injunctive relief. None of that. That’s not within the power of the Commission.”
Now the Commission wants to change the ordinance in part to expand their investigative reach.
“We added language to make the ordinance substantially equivalent to federal Fair Housing law,” Neimeier said.
That would allow the Office of Human Rights to be able to enter into a Fair Housing Assistance Program workshare with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That will bring complaints into the Charlottesville office that may have originated elsewhere.
“So that’s an additional responsibility but the federal Fair Housing Office will support us by providing training and guidance, funds for capacity building when we first start out in that work share agreement, and we also get reimbursement for handling complaints of discrimination and those reimbursement rates vary depending on how the complaint is resolved,” Neimeier said.
That will also allow the Office of Human Rights to enter into conciliation discussions as a third party directly involved with cases. The bar to making a finding also will change.
“The standard changes from probable cause and above to reasonable cause because that’s how federal law refers to the determinations in a case,” Neimeier said.
Under this proposed change, if staff believed there is no reasonable cause for an alleged violation, the Commission could hear the appeal and they could make a determination. Under the proposed change, the office can issue a charge against a violator.
“Once a charge is issued, it’s basically a description of the violation and it’s a statement that a civil action will be filed by, in this case, the City Attorney’s office on behalf of the aggrieved person,” Neimeier said.
Neimeier repeated that he has had conversations with Councilors about these in private meetings. Once the ordinance is adopted, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will review the city’s application.
City Councilor Michael Payne said the last City Council had directed the Human Rights Commission to make these changes. He supports them.
“It will just give us a little more teeth to investigate and make judgments against Fair Housing law violations in the city,” Payne said.
Payne also wanted to know what the budgetary needs would be to add positions to deal with an expanded workload. The city has already committed one-time money from the American Rescue Plan Act for one new position.
“That will allow us to hire an intake counselor as well as an investigator,” Neimeier said. “Right now we are a two-person office.”
That will also increase the ongoing budget heading into the future when the federal funding runs out. Niemier said he is working now to get a job description for the intake position. He said the federal workshare program will increase the workload.
Mayor Lloyd Snook said the ordinance needed to clearly outline the responsibilities for landlords or others who would be potentially under investigation.
“The part that most needs to be written as a fourth or fifth grade level is the part that says what you can’t do,” Snook said.
Snook said he was able to ask around 20 questions during his 2-2-1 with Neimeier. He also urged caution in proceeding too quickly without doing due diligence.
“Most of the time when we have made hasty decisions, when we have done something that we didn’t fully vet, fully think through, fully edit, we’ve been dissatisfied with the results,” Snook said.
After more discussion, Snook suggested no vote be taken at the meeting.
“Having said all of that, anybody else have anything else they want to say or should we basically table this until the 21st and take it back up then with whatever new drafts or anything else we may come up with,” Snook said.
Yet, the item is listed on the agenda for Council’s meeting for a second reading, and on the consent agenda. I have a question out to the city about that.
In the meantime, the City Human Rights Commission meets tonight at 6:30 p.m. The packet includes recent minutes as well as a report for November. From this we learn that the Human Rights Office has received six complaint this year for housing discrimination in Charlottesville and two in Albemarle. (download the meeting packet)
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