Mayor Bloomberg's 12 new human rights commissioners (plus one holdover held their first meeting on January 29. The session started with controversy and went on to focus on "doing more with less," as Commission Chair Patricia Gatling put it.
The agency, cut 80 percent in the Giuliani years, received a slight increase in the budget passed in June. But since then it, along with all other agencies, has been asked to cut its budget for this year as well as for the coming fiscal year. That has spurred the commission to try to get grants from the federal government and others to expand its work.
When I expressed interest in covering the meeting, Betsy Herzog, the director of public information, told me not to expect any fireworks. But just as the meeting began, Rabbi Avi Weiss and others from the Coalition for Jewish Concerns stood up to vociferously protest the appointment of Commissioner Omar T. Mohammedi, an attorney in private practice who is the general counsel for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The protesters said the American-Islamic group "condones terrorism" and have called for a City Council investigation into MohammediÂ´s appointment. Mohammedi refused to comment for Gotham Gazette, but his biography on the commission's web site does not mention his work for the Council for American-Islamic Relations.
Commissioner Haskell Lookstein, a rabbi, had previously expressed concern about Mohammedi's involvement with the, but seemed to have reconciled himself to serving with him by the time of the meeting. George Spitz, a community activist and Orthodox Jew who attended the meeting, presented a letter to Gatling hailing the MohammediÂ´s appointment, writing that he "will provide much needed representation" for the Muslim community. Spitz said that he checked out the group's web site "and found nothing of a bigoted nature."
Police led the demonstrators out, and the meeting resumed. But the controversy continued. Ed Skyler, Mayor Michael BloombergÂ´s press secretary, called Weiss and the other protestors "extremists". This prompted an editorial in the conservative New York Sun criticizing Sklyer and commenting, "Mr. Mohammedi has so far refused to answer questions from the press about CAIR or about what he thinks of Hamas, Hezbollah, the American Jewish Committee or the World Trade Center bombing."
The meeting, though, proceeded to other matters. Gatling and her staff of deputy commissioners told the unpaid commissioners what the agency was doing. The commissioners serve as advisors and also make determinations on civil rights rulings made by an administrative law judge.
Deputy Commissioner for Law Enforcement Avery Mehlman chronicled the commissionÂ´s efforts in 2002 to resolve the huge backlog of complaints and to deal with "systemic discrimination" in the city. This included sending out newly hired testers (former police officers) to see whether landlords were violating the city's human rights law. Combating discrimination against women and people with prior criminal records was also cited as a priority. For example, the agency is working with Princeton University on testing the extent to which people coming out of prison face employment discrimination.
"This agency hasn't been a litigation agency," Gatling said, but she is working to change that. For example, the human rights commission is seeking a change in the cityÂ´s human rights law that would allow the agency to go to state court to pursue discrimination cases.
Given the agencyÂ´s limited resources, Deputy Commissioner for Investigations Cliff Mulqueen said that the agency "is trying to contract with [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] to pay us" to handle housing discrimination cases.
Deputy Commissioner for Public Affairs Lee Hudson reviewed a broad range of programs at the agency, including a current survey of discrimination against Muslims, Arabs and South Asians that is available on the agency's revamped web site. It is available in six languages (in two, English and Arabic, on the web site) and so far more than 500 surveys have been returned.
The seven neighborhood human rights offices are being consolidated into one in each borough. And a new computerized system to track case is being developed. All the satellite offices will be able to use it.
For the first time, the agency is developing compliance guidelines for the newest category covered in the human rights law, "gender identity and expression." People of transgender experience have been protected from since early last year.
General Counsel Randy Wills proposed a new set of by-laws for the commission, including moving from meeting once a month to once every four. While that prospect and Gatling's commitment to one-hour meetings was welcomed by some, it was not adopted as the New York Times reported. Privately, some commissioners expressed the desire to meet more frequently to fulfill their obligations "to foster mutual understanding and respect among all persons in the City of New York and to encourage equality of treatment for, and prevent discrimination against, any group or its members."
Defending Affirmative Action
On April 1, high school and college students from around the nation will stage a Civil Rights March to the Supreme Court to "defend affirmative action and save Brown v. Board of Education." It is being organized by the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary (BAMN).
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (57 on Time-Warner; 109 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.