Civil Rights Agency Closings, Cuts Decried

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.

The Denver and Kansas City offices are being closed to help make up for a shortfall of more than $135,000, said Kenneth L. Marcus, the agency's staff director. Marcus also recommended releasing a total of four staff members from the four remaining field offices, in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and the District, a proposal he withdrew after objections from Capitol Hill.

The commission would be blinded by the move, said Carole A. Barrett, chairman of the agency's North Dakota state advisory commission. Analysts are the region's "eyes and ears," she said. They work with advisory committees, investigate claims and write the reports that fulfill the agency's mission of reporting on discrimination and civil rights abuses.

The Denver office represents more Indian reservations than any other office. It has generated reports about problems that continue to plague Native Americans, including poor education, alcoholism and suicide. Indians also have brought numerous land disputes with the federal government to the commission office.

Indian activists say the office's role is especially important since Elsie Meeks, the only Native American on the commission, left when her term expired last month. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said the office plays a role in ensuring that discrimination complaints "cannot get swept under the rug," and she questioned "the wisdom of closing an office that has achieved notable results despite having only a three-person staff that serves six states."

State advisory committee chairpeople who report to those offices voice suspicions that the commission's newly appointed conservatives, including Marcus, are carrying out a Republican mandate to close the agency.

"They had a conference call with all the state advisory committees' chairpersons, and all they did was talk about the budget," Barrett said. "We were asking them about the work of civil rights, and Ken Marcus said they were . . . still considering what comes under the aegis of civil rights. And I was like, 'You don't know what civil rights are? And you're the director?' " Conservative commissioners strongly deny such claims and say they want to carry on the agency's work.

At a meeting last month, commission Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds and member Peter N. Kirsanow, both Republicans, complained about the commission's inadequate budget and said bad management under Berry led to the current crisis.

Union representative Vanessa Williamson said that employees are deeply worried about keeping their jobs and that morale is low. They expected change when Reynolds came into office touting reform, but Williamson said his budget ax is cutting too close to the bone.

Ten employees were slated to lose their jobs under the reorganization, a 20 percent decrease in the agency's workforce of 51, but the commission voted to suspend the action.

John F. Dulles, director of the Denver office, offered to pare his budget by $54,000 to save it, but Marcus rejected the proposal, said Barrett, the North Dakota adviser. Dulles declined to comment for this article, citing an order from Marcus that other staff members called unprecedented.

Politics had nothing to do with the layoffs and office closings, Marcus said, noting that liberal commissioners Michael Yaki and Meeks joined conservatives in unanimously approving changes. But Yaki and Meeks said they questioned every aspect of the plan, and voted to approve it as a compromise to ward off deeper cuts.

LeRoy Gomez said he does not care about political bickering. He said he needs help in his continued fight with the city of Fort Collins, Colo.

When police officers stopped two Mexican boys on their way home from school in 1993 and forced them to lie face down in the snow, Gomez turned to the Denver civil rights office.

"The city was giving us the runaround. They would schedule meetings and cancel them," Gomez said. Dulles "called them and things happened," he added. "They said to me, 'Why did you call those people?' And I said, 'You didn't do anything, so I got others involved.' This is why we need people like John."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company