THE DISTRICTS antidiscrimation law is one of the most comprehensive in the country. The four-year-old statute that bans discrimination in housing, employment, education and public accommodations significantly broadened the definition of "public accommodation" to include banks, savings and loan associations and the credit offices of stores. And the regulation enlarged the scope of the outlawed forms of discrimination to include an astonishing array of new categories. It is against city law to discriminate on the basis of any of the following: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, family responsibilities, physical handicaps, source of income or place of residence or business. This sweeping legislation, approved by the city council in 1973, attests to the official concern then for a strong law. Unfortunately according to a D.C. auditor's report, the agency charged with enforcing that law, the Office of Human Rights, has been a dud.
The auditor's report states that the human-rights office on the average takes twice as long as the law directs to decide whether a complaint of discrimination has merit that its investigative staff performs far below the agency's own standards; that the addition of new staff has had "no appreciable effect" in reducing the agency's backlog; and that there is a serious lack of communication not merely between the Office of Human Rights and the Commission on Human Rights (the appointed body that hears and decides most discrimination cases), but also within the commission itself. Apparently - and incredibly - James W. Baldwin, OHR's director, and J. Leon Williams, the commission chairman, never discussed with each other or with the full commission the draft of the report they had received.
Most of these complaints aren't new. On the contrary, they're depressingly old - and familiar.But clearly, this bureaucratic inefficiency and incompetence shouldn't be allowed to continue. Despite Mr. Baldwin's criticism of the auditor's methods and his assertion that his agency has improved during the last year, we think the report confirms the need for a real shakeup. It could begin with the appointment of a new OHR director who won't tolerate the efforts that currently are being deemed satisfactory. ANd it could continue with Mayor Washington's filling the five positions on the 17-member commission that have now been vacant for months. Council member John A. Wilson's public-services committee is scheduled to hold hearings on the OHR budget next month. We hope it uses the occasion for more than a budget review. No matter how strong the language of the human-rights law, that law is pointless if it's not being properly enforced.