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Friday, June 15, 2007

Souza and Asmundson Propose to Strip Civil Rights Protections from Seminal City Ordinance

The Davis City Council in 1986 passed one of the most sweeping anti-discrimination ordinances in the country. This ordinance put Davis on the forefront of civil rights protections in the nation. The ordinance would then be re-affirmed by a vote of the public.

The ordinance protected individuals on the basis of “race, religion, color, ancestry, age, national origin, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, disability or place of birth…” It granted “The fundamental rights of citizens include the right to live unfettered by unreasonable discrimination and this right is consistent with the American ideals of individual freedom, liberty and responsibility for one's own actions.” Moreover it placed the responsibility with government “to take action to prevent such discrimination.”

In addition to the sweeping scope of the protections, it provided three core enforcement mechanisms to ensure that this ordinance was not merely a paper tiger. In 10.06.050(a):
“any person whose rights are violated pursuant to this chapter may bring a civil action against person or persons engaging in such violation. Upon a finding of liability, the court shall award actual damages…”
Second, (b) allows:
“any person who commits an act in violation of any of the provisions of this chapter” to “be enjoined therefrom and from future violations by any court of competent jurisdiction.”
While both of these provisions are essential, they both require court action. Court action has two fundamental drawbacks. First, it is not a speedy process—meaning it may take a period of years for the court to issue a finding. Second, it is an expensive process, thus people of modest means have difficulty retaining quality counsel and even more difficulty following through on the lengthy and expensive court process. However, the city of Davis, visionary as it was, created a third option that would mitigate this problem. They empowered a government body—the Davis Human Relations Commission with the power to investigate and mediate complaints of discrimination.
Section 7A-15 (c)Any person who believes he or she has been discriminated against in violation of the provisions of this ordinance may file a request to have the human relations commission investigate and mediate his or her complaint. The commission may adopt rules of procedure to accommodate the needs of such investigation and mediation. A complaint to the commission shall not be a prerequisite to filing a civil action under this section, and the findings and conclusions of the commission issued in response to such proceedings shall not be admissible in a civil action. (Ord. No. 1359, § 1 (part).)
When the current Davis City Council reformulated the Davis Human Relations Commission, they sought to strip much of the previous power that they once had. As a result, they passed a resolution making the HRC strictly an advisory body, without the ability to investigate complaints. It was pointed out last fall by Councilmember Heystek that the resolution passed by the Council by a 3-2 vote (with Mayor Greenwald and Councilmember Heystek dissenting) was at odds with the anti-discrimination ordinance.

Council again by a 3-2 vote, decided to send the question back to the subcommittee of Councilmembers Ruth Asmundson and Stephen Souza (rather than staff) to determine what to do with the anti-discrimination ordinance. On Tuesday, they will take up the issue as a full council.

The report concludes:
“The subcommittee recommends that Section 7A-15(c) of the city’s Anti-discrimination Ordinance should be deleted.”
Furthermore, they argue that this is not a fundamental problem for civil rights enforcement:
“The Subcommittee believes there is an adequate web of resources available to individuals.”
This view is actually based on a very limited understand of the ordinance and the scope of protections under the ordinance. In effect, the council decision (and there is little doubt what the council decision will be given that Councilmember Saylor has been the most fervent about abolishing the powers of the HRC and oversight), will strike the major enforcement mechanism in the ordinance, leaving only judicial remedies as a possibility for an aggrieved individual. As we discussed, due to the prohibitive costs and general lack of ability for individuals to file suit, there is no legitimate recourse an aggrieved individual of modest or even moderate means possesses.

To understand this, we should look toward the Buzayan case, which is now two years old following the initial incident in June 2005. And yet, a full two years later, the federal trial has not yet begun. Moreover the family has already spent in the hundreds of thousands of dollars on court costs. While the Buzayans can afford these costs (with a great deal of strain and burden even on their finances), the average person simply cannot, which means they are effectively without remedy.

The council subcommittee is arguing that there are other available remedies. In fact, I can think of one and they really cite only one, the police ombudsman, an entity which is completely untested and not codified into the ordinance. The anti-discrimination ordinance intended to look well beyond the scope of police activities. In fact, that was likely only a very minor perceived role for the HRC. Over the years, the HRC has been involved in a very wide variety of cases most of which were not directly related to police activities.

There is to my knowledge no other such mechanism to fulfill the role formerly played by the HRC. What avenues are available for some of the other complaints that arise other than going to court? Does the council insist that the court and litigation is the only remedy? Wasn’t the HRC created precisely as a means to avoid court action?

The HRC was the only body existing that had the ability to both listen to complaints aired in public and investigate and report their findings publicly. The city council has claimed that they have such powers, but the city council does not act as an investigatory body. Their job is primarily a policy making body that acts on recommendations from the various commissions that do the leg work? Does the City Council really want to subsume the role played by the former HRC to both hear and investigate complaints of discrimination not just against the police, but throughout the community? This does not seem a practical stance and yet this is exactly what Steve Souza claimed last fall when this issue arose during the time at which the commissions were reformulated.

Some have suggested that there should be a private/ independent HRC to fulfill this function, but the force of government is precisely what is needed to mediate and resolve issues and complaints of discrimination and there needs to be an available remedy outside of the courts which are costly to both plaintiff and the city and lengthy. In fact, in the language of the anti-discrimination ordinance cited above, the ordinance SPECIFICALLY charged government as having a primary role to play in the enforcement of these provisions.

As it stands now, there is no remedy for complaints in the ordinance. The council has not codified the ombudsman into the anti-discrimination ordinance. And there are no remedies for discrimination complaints outside of police complaints.

Imagine Brown v. Board of Education without the ensuing civil rights legislation to give that decision and subsequent decisions actual teeth that can be used by federal, state, and local governments to enforce civil rights legislation—that is precisely what the current council majority's subcommittee is recommending doing with the Davis Civil Rights ordinance—it lays out provisions but offers no enforcement mechanism outside of the costly court system.

The council majority is in effect making the civil rights ordinance exactly what the authors of it sought to avoid—making it a paper tiger ordinance. For the average person who charges discrimination, there is now no effective means by which to redress their grievances outside of the lengthy and costly court process.

The saddest part I think is that this is a huge step backwards in the fight for civil rights. Davis was once on the forefront in the nation on civil rights, just as it had been on the forefront of a number of progressive issues during the seminal progressive era. One by one the current council majority of Asmundson, Saylor and Souza is undoing the great work of the giants who came before them. And the citizenry of Davis to this point have offered hardly a whisper of protest. Unfortunately it may take a major case to re-infuse our commitment to civil rights in Davis and that is the saddest part. Many in this city believed that this was a hard-earned but accomplished victory. Now the very members who claim to be liberals, are about to undo this victory.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting