At the beginning of July, Allegheny County Council approved an ordinance banning discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Part of this ordinance includes the creation of a county Human Relations Commission that will investigate claims of discrimination.
“I feel there is important work to do. It’s important that every single level of government be cognizant of what is going on and make sure their level of government promotes rights for everyone,” said commission member Justice Cynthia Baldwin. “I look at it as a positive thing especially since we are trying to promote diversity in our city.”
Baldwin has already been appointed to the seven-member commission alongside Barbara Daly Danko, Mark Noway, Sara David Buss and LaTasha Mayes. Council is still in the process of selecting the seventh member of the commission.
“I think that my background shows why I am so interested in being a part of the commissions,” Baldwin said. “Having been on the bench for 18 years, having done constitutional work in many of the developing nations, I’ve always been interested in making sure people’s right weren’t taken for granted.”
The ordinance was approved by an 8-6 vote and has since been amended to exclude religious, charitable or fraternal organizations, making them exempt.
Similar commissions exist at the federal, state and city level, but District 13 County Councilwoman Amanda Green, who proposed the ordinance, said these commissions don’t protect sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. She added having a commission at the local level would make the organization more aware of the needs of the community.
“Even though you do have some protections for some classes at the state level, all classes aren’t covered,” Green said. “And you have a local commission versus going to an agency that’s not as close to the community and maybe they’ll even have a quicker resolution.”
Green said investigating an alleged instance of discrimination begins with taking evidence from the charging party such as documentation or witness testimony. Although a resolution can be made if the commission believes there is a high probability that discrimination occurred, Green admitted resolutions are easier to reach if the respondent admits to the claim.
If the commission determines a violation has occurred, there are several different options for resolution, including a possible fine for the perpetrator.
“Now that there’s been a violation, we have to have some redress so we’ve got to get the (respondent) to comply with the law and we also have to make the person whose been injured whole,” Green said. “There is ultimately a procedure to go to court for enforcement. Is there any financial loss from the discrimination? Maybe all the person who has been aggrieved wants is for the person to say they’re sorry.”
Green said the council does not anticipate any added financial cost from the commission because its members are unpaid volunteers and will be supported by the council’s law department.