Civil Rights Agency Closings, Cuts Decried

Carlette Jones of Aurora, Colo., turned to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to file a discrimination complaint against a neighbor, who was then ordered to pay Jones $2,000.
Carlette Jones of Aurora, Colo., turned to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to file a discrimination complaint against a neighbor, who was then ordered to pay Jones $2,000. (By Matthew Staver For The Washington Post)
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005

After saying her last goodbyes to a dying relative at the local hospital, Carlette Jones drove home to Aurora, Colo., and encountered an eviction notice at her front door.

For months, a white neighbor had complained that Jones's yard was dirty but ignored the fact that "a white neighbor across from me . . . kept an open refrigerator on the patio," said Jones, who is black and Hispanic. The neighbor also said that Jones's children were too loud.

"My kids weren't loud," she said, recalling the 1991 conflict. "I'm Trinidadian and Mexican, and I look Mexican. She nitpicked because I'm a minority."

The manager of her group of townhouses dismissed Jones's protest, as did the city of Aurora. Finally, she called the Denver regional office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where a worker guided her step by step through the filing of a discrimination complaint. Jones took photos of the neighbor's mess and of oil leaking from the car of the woman who had complained of filth. In the end, a judge ordered the complainant to pay Jones $2,000.

The government officials who Jones said came to her rescue will soon be gone. Mired in a deep budget crisis, the commission will shutter the Denver office and another in Kansas City, Kan., in October, laying off six people.

The move will force anyone with a federal civil rights complaint in those districts to seek help in the commission's Chicago office. The Denver office covers Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, while the Kansas City office oversees complaints in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri.

There are few state and local civil rights commissions with adequate staff, and lawsuits are expensive, civil rights advocates say.

"Without them," Jones said, "I could not have done what I did. You hear of programs to deal with discrimination, but you don't know how to reach them or exactly what to do if your case goes to a hearing or whatever. That office is for all people, not just blacks or Mexicans. It's very, very important."

Some say the office closings are a harbinger of the slow death of the civil rights agency, which, riven by partisan politics, long ago strayed from being the "conscience of the federal government," as President Dwight D. Eisenhower intended when he created it as part of the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

The commission has been plagued by political power struggles and by fighting among its Republican and Democratic members.

Conservatives in Congress kept its budget at $9 million for most of the 12-year term of liberal Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, who left the commission in December. That is $3 million less than its budget during the Reagan administration.

Berry, however, continued to spend as though the commission had sufficient funds, holding meetings nationwide even as the agency failed to pay rent to the downtown Washington YWCA, where it is headquartered.

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