Newell: Many unanswered questions surround Human Rights Commission charter change

Effort to give the City of New Orleans human rights enforcement authority hampered by confusing language

Newell Normand
October 31, 2019 - 7:15 pm

One of the issues on the ballot in the November 16 election is a change to the home-rule charter for New Orleans aimed at creating a local human rights commission. It's mission would be to safeguard all individuals in the city from discrimination, and to exercise all powers, duties and functions provided by applicable state law. Such a commission already exists today, so what's the difference? Whats the upside and downside for local business owners and operators?

Newell invited Mason Harrison, Chair of the Greater New Orleans Human Rights Coalition, and WWL-TV Political Analyst Clancy Dubos onto the program Thursday morning to discuss.

Newell directed the first question to Harrison. "What makes this different than what actually exists today?"

"There is a Human Relations Commission (HRC) that exists right now," Harrison said, "And it has been in existence for the past thirty years. The difference between that and what we're proposing now through the administration of Mayor Cantrell and the City Council is that the Human Rights Commission would have enforcement authority for the laws already on the books as it relates to discrimination for a set of protected classes. Right now, the HRC is an advisory board, which the US Commission on Civil Rights has called merely a 'quasi-law enforcement agency.' We believe its very important to shore up our ability to sanction bad actors when it comes to perceptions of bias to ensure our city remains a welcoming location."

"Why would it be in the best interest of the city from a monetary standpoint to engage in this activity when we know we have the same type of commission at the state level as well as the Federal EEOC?"

"Excellent question. The reason is, it once again puts New Orleans at the forefront of her sister cities. In the late 1980's, 1990's, New Orleans led the way in the creation of a HRC, which was really forward-thinking for a city in the South. Right now, it's time to continue that tradition by creating a HRC that actually has enforcement authority. It positions us very, very well, and it is in keeping with the very reason why the NBA brought the 2016 All-Star Game to New Orleans from North Carolina. We want to make sure people know we're a welcoming city, and that that is codified in law."

Newell pressed Harrison on how the processes we have in place now would actually be different should this ballot initiative be voted into law. "I went to the Code. The Code provides for almost every provision we're talking about - they have the ability to do that now. I'm a little mystified as to what it is we're ultimately trying to accomplish. The only difference here is that to make any finding executory, it goes to the Civil District Court. It's a process that utilizes the Court as well as the Commission in order to reach these conclusions. For the life of me, I haven't been able to figure out why that's not working."

"It's not working because we know that for the last 30 years, there have been members of this community who have attempted to have their complaints of perceptions of bias adjudicated by the HRC and they have been discouraged from doing so, because under previous administrations, there's been this idea that nothing can be done about it."

"What empirical data do we have to support that? You're telling me under the Landrieu, Morial administrations, they actually took a stance to discourage people from advocating for themselves as it relates to discriminatory practices?"

"Not at all," Harrison said. "I'm saying the way the process was carried out was not one that was complete, full and in keeping with the abilities of the office as we see them right now."

"Is that a function of who's appointed to the board,"Newell asked, "or a function of the inherent process? When I look at the Code, all the provisions are there."

"Save for the one that you mentioned," came the answer.

Clancy cut in: "There are already at least three places to go when people feel they've been discriminated against. There's the State of Louisiana HRC, there's Civil District Court, and Federal District Court. So we're now adding a fourth place... the concerns that a lot of people have are about the process. I don't have a problem, and people I talk to that are like-minded don't have a problem with the concept of making sure that people who are discriminated against have access to some place that can help them get justice or relief. The HRC does not have adjudicatory authority, that is true, so the question really becomes, do we change the name of the HRC, and go beyond a name change and give them adjudicatory authority? When you came to Gambit, you said the HRC would not have enforcement powers, but you've said several times in the last few minutes, you said they would have enforcement powers. You said they had to go to court to get enforcement."

"Under the Human Relations Commission," Harrison answered. "I forgive you if there's a confusion in terminology, they are similar, under the Human Relations Commission there is not adjudicatory authority. What we are proposing would provide that."

"Do they have enforcement powers?" Clancy asked.

"The Human Relations Commission does not."

Later in the program, Vincenzo Pasquantonio called in - he is the current director of the Human Relations Commission.

"This is very much a complicated discussion. The first thing I did want to say, very clearly, is that any Human Rights Commission as the state law currently allows is intended to be administrative processes. They are not adjudicatory bodies. I don't even use the word 'enforcement' when talking about it. The Civil District Court is the enforcement authority. The objective of an administrative process is just to create a doorway whereby in a free and accessible manner, people can file a complaint and get help navigating a complex bureaucratic process. Hopefully, this resolves either in mediation or at the lowest possible level. Secondly, the commissioners that are appointed function more like a board of directors. The Commission would have staff that are qualified to perform mediations, are professionally certified, have training to do these types of investigations and examinations of the facts. This board passes the motions. It's not really a situation like you'd have with the City Planning Commission, sitting there as an adjudicatory body and people are summoned before them, in which case I can certainly understand the concern."

Newell concluded, "In regard to promoting the rights of the LGBTQ community, my record speaks for itself. My issue is with the process, how do we make sure we do this right? A lot of times, our intentions come back and bite us somewhere, and we end up overcoming a whole lot of gruff if it's not sacrosanct. The moment folks start to feel like they're being abused, questions start to be asked and its a lot harder to regain the public's trust if you lose it, and you gotta work three times as hard. That's my concern."

Hear the entire interview in the audio player below.

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