Suit Claiming Bias Against Hispanics Is Settled

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

The City of Manassas and the Manassas school system reached a settlement with the Equal Rights Center this week, almost a year after the District-based organization filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming it unfairly targeted Hispanics while enforcing zoning codes meant to curb overcrowding.

"We certainly don't believe that the city engaged in any discriminatory action," Manassas City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes said. "But we believe the residents will be better served by having . . . this litigation resolved."

Hughes said the city spent six months negotiating with the ERC, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of 11 Manassas residents. All parties concluded that an outside settlement would be less costly than going to trial, he said.

The city's settlement, which the City Council approved 5 to 1 Monday, directs the city's insurer to place $625,000 in an escrow account to cover damages and attorneys' fees for the plaintiffs. As part of the settlement, Manassas has eliminated its "overcrowding hotline" and implemented a new overcrowding inspection procedure. The city must also hire a housing manager and advocate to address housing discrimination concerns and provide fair-housing training to various employees.

The city's insurer will also pay $60,000 to Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a Virginia-based organization that filed complaints about the city's overcrowding procedures to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Hughes said that although the money is coming from the insurer, the city has been notified that its insurance premiums might rise 2 to 5 percent next year.

"I don't feel the city did anything wrong," said council member Marc T. Aveni (R), who cast the dissenting vote. "There was no targeting of any individuals; it was simply based on overcrowding complaints. We've set a bad precedent for other outside groups to come forward and accuse us."

The settlement with the school system was approved during Tuesday's School Board meeting. The insurer will pay $150,000 to cover damages and attorneys' fees claimed by ERC, HOME and the plaintiffs.

"We think this is a very positive step toward making Manassas a more fair and open community for all its residents," Equal Rights Center Executive Director Donald L. Kahl said. "The terms of the settlement agreement were worked on very closely by the city, the School Board and the Equal Rights Center."

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria in October, claimed the city violated the Constitution, the federal Fair Housing Act and various civil rights laws while trying to curb overcrowding.

Civil rights activists were concerned about an "overcrowding hotline" the city established in 2004 as well as an ordinance passed in December 2005. The hotline allowed people to anonymously leave tips about neighborhood overcrowding, and the ordinance -- which was repealed in January 2006 -- changed the definition of "family" in the zoning code so that, essentially, households were restricted to immediate relatives.

The lawsuit also alleges that the school system disclosed confidential information about at least 52 students to city inspectors. The lawsuit claimed that the information was used to target Hispanic families, which violates state and federal laws, according to a summary on the ERC Web site.

School Board Chairman Arthur P. Bushnell said that the board was not aware those disclosures took place until the lawsuit was filed and that the person who disclosed that information has left Manassas schools.

Bushnell said Manassas Superintendent Gail Pope has since revised the regulations on handling confidential student information and will oversee the training of employees to ensure the new guidelines are followed. Pope will also redefine the duties of the school system's community liaison to better serve the city's "growing immigrant population," Bushnell said.

The complaints brought against the school system and the city's anti-crowding efforts were investigated for almost two years by officials from the U.S. Department of Justice. Hughes said the department agreed to stop all investigations after the settlement; however, the court will retain jurisdiction for three years, enforcing all settlement agreements.

Payments to the plaintiffs will be made within 10 days of the settlement. Hughes said that he is not sure when Manassas will fill the housing manager position required in the suit but that the city has budgeted for the position, with a salary of at least $53,000.

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