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Out of the Closet and into the Basement

Erie's top official tried to keep gay civil rights protection from the county. Now he's about to do away with the local civil rights commission altogether

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"We're in effect out of business," says William McCarthy, chair of the Erie County Human Relations Commission, which hears complaints about local discrimination in jobs, housing and public accommodations. The HRC is now just a name stenciled on a locked, dark door in the basement of the Erie County Courthouse, McCarthy reports -- a spot that was never its office in the first place. A nearby sign directs complainants to a telephone in the hallway, which connects to a secretary in the county's personnel office -- someone with neither the expertise nor the time to handle complaints, he says.

 

Last December, McCarthy, members of the city and county council and local activists agitated to add civil rights protections to the county's human-rights ordinance. (See Levine: "No Sale," Jan. 23, 2002.) County Executive Rick Schenker, a former leader of the Christian Coalition in Pennsylvania, said such a move would not be seen as "business friendly," but finally acquiesced.

 

By July of this year, says McCarthy, Schenker had convinced the HRC director to resign and then refused even to post the job to be filled, subsequently moving the HRC to its fake basement location.

 

A Nov. 13 press release on Schenker's county Web site touting money-saving measures announces, "Next year, we will propose in our budget to eliminate the Human Relations Commission since the state and federal governments also provide identical services (State Human Relations Commission and EEOC)" -- the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

 

Wrong on two levels, says McCarthy. (Schenker did not respond to a request for comment.) Most importantly, the state's civil rights ordinance does not yet include protections for gays. The state HRC even held a hearing in Erie this fall, telling residents it was not equipped to handle Erie's complaints. The state HRC sometimes takes years to resolve its backlog of cases. Erie's HRC has been able to clear cases in 90 days, McCarthy says. Nonetheless, Erie officials have already begun simply to forward Erie cases to the state.

 

The Erie HRC has a $50,000 budget, and Erie County, McCarthy acknowledges, is having budget difficulties. But McCarthy proposed to Erie County Council a new way of funding and running the HRC back in July: cutting the county's contribution in half (to $25,000), adding $20,000 from the City of Erie (since pledged by the mayor), and changing a few rules to allow the HRC to do federal fair housing investigations -- and thus become eligible for Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds that would actually give the HRC more money than it had before. McCarthy also proposed a study of the HRC's efficacy and whether it truly duplicates other state or county services.

 

"If an independent study comes back and says, 'Oh, you don't need an HRC,' then the county should put us out of business," he says.

 

Schenker's move to put the HRC out of business may actually meet with defeat. City and county councils and the mayor have all said they support the HRC. And McCarthy believes that, with the recent electoral victory of an additional Democrat -- one who put the continued health of the HRC on his platform -- and the fresh support of several Republicans, they now have a veto-proof council.

 

Ironically, for all the concern Schenker and others had before gay civil rights protections were added one year ago -- that the HRC would be overwhelmed, dealing with gay rights violations -- "not one" complaint has been submitted to the HRC alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation, McCarthy reports. "All that ridiculous rhetoric -- 'We're going to be flooded with complaints' -- it was all just fiction," he says.

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