Human Relations Commission hopes Neuman review brings a boost of power

When someone complains to the Anne Arundel County Human Relations Commission about housing or employment discrimination, commissioners are powerless to do much about it.

That's the impression the commissioners themselves have, and they say it affects how people perceive their ability to help.

"Our complaints are probably low because people know that we don't have any enforcement powers," said Yevola Peters, a special assistant to the county executive who serves as the county government's human relations officer.

For instance, commissioners can encourage mediation between parties in dispute on a human relations or personnel matter, but have no enforcement powers. They can't even compel a business or employer to show up and give their side of the story.

As a result, Peters said, the commission handles no more than a few dozen complaints each year. Through the first three months of 2013, they had just nine.

But members are hoping a review ordered by County Executive Laura Neuman will lead to new laws strengthening the commission's powers — something they've sought since 2010. This month, Neuman tasked her chief administrative officer, Karen Cook, with reviewing the county's anti-discrimination efforts and the Human Relations Commission's work.

While a top-level review might not be greeted by some agencies, Peters said it's "very much" welcomed by the commission. That's because currently, she said, the county has no anti-discrimination law. Even if there were one, the Human Relations Commission would be powerless to enforce it.

The most common complaints members hear are related to alleged job discrimination, followed by fair-housing issues and accommodations for people with disabilities.

For example, an employee might claim that he or she was fired because of race, gender or sexual orientation. Or potential renters might allege that they were denied an apartment unfairly. In such cases, the commission tries to bring parties together to work out a solution through mediation, Peters said.

Yet even when the commission is able to mediate a settlement, it has no enforcement powers. If one party refuses to do what was promised, nothing can be done, said Barbara Maginley, chairwoman of the Human Relations Commission.

In those instances, the commissioners must refer residents to the state's Commission on Civil Rights or to federal agencies for help.

"I don't want to be a referral agency," said Maginley. "I want to do some good for the residents of Anne Arundel County."

The Human Relations Commission has sought stronger enforcement powers for several years. In 2010, it produced a report outlining commissioners' concerns, to no avail.

"It was presented to the former county executive [John R. Leopold]," Peters said. "Up until … January of this year, the commission had received word there would be legislation." But in January, Leopold was convicted of misconduct in office and eventually resigned.

His replacement, Neuman, met with commissioners shortly after she took office. Her spokeswoman, Tracie Reynolds, said Neuman was surprised to learn that the county has no compliance officer and thought the process could be improved.

While no specific changes have been announced, Neuman said in a statement that she wants "to take a closer look at the responsibilities and authority of the commission in order to determine if we are utilizing the agency in the most effective way."

No timetable has been set for the county's review.

Maginely said she hopes the process will result in changes that will give the Human Relations Commission more authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws and settle complaints.

"Taxpayers deserve to have that service locally," she said.

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