CHRO would lose affirmative action role under proposed reorganization

It is a bill with a title so bureaucratic and so long it seems to defy anyone to actually read it. But Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was told the other night he should give it look, because it seems to accidentally gut affirmative action within state government — and deliberately weaken a civil rights agency.

Debra Freund, the director of diversity and equity for the Department of Children and Families, told Malloy at a town-hall meeting this week that the bill, as written, seems to wipe out all affirmative action regulations.

“I am aware that assertion has been made,” Benjamin Barnes, the governor’s secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, said Thursday. “That is not our intent in drafting the bill.”

The bill also ends the role of the autonomous Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in reviewing and approving the affirmative action plans of every state agency. Instead, the Department of Administrative Services would have that responsibility.

Barnes said that was very deliberate.

“For a couple of reasons: One the quality of the plans has been very spotty,” Barnes said.

But diversity and equity officers in state government, as well as some legislators and CHRO representatives, say they object to ending an independent review of affirmative action plans. In effect, they said, the administration would be reviewing its own efforts toward promoting affirmative action.

“This is comparable to removing OSHA from the oversight and enforcement of safety requirements” in the workplace, said Valerie Kennedy in public hearing testimony submitted to a legislative committee on behalf of CHRO.

Cheryl A. Sharp, an attorney with the agency, said in her testimony that giving the review function to the Department of Administrative Services would create an inherent conflict.

The agency did not respond to a request for an interview Thursday.

The Government Administration and Elections Committee approved the bill last month, one of several reorganization bills that the administration concedes needs more work.

Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, the head of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said that a provision undercutting CHRO was buried in a reorganization bill.

“First of all, if you are going to do something to CHRO, I think it needs to be very transparent,” he said. “When you go in and make a change like that, I think it needs to be something that everyone knows you are doing. “

The legislation is one of the bills the administration has proposed to consolidate 87 agencies into 51.

It is called An Act Concerning The Transfer of Functions From the Departments of Public Works, Information Technology, Public Safety and Education and the Judicial Selection Commission to the Department of Administrative Services and Department of Construction Services.

Barnes said he was having a staff attorney review the measure to ensure it did not negate all affirmative action regulations, but the administration believes that giving the responsibility for reviewing affirmative action plans still belongs with DAS.

As for CHRO, he said, “they maintain their independent role in monitoring compliance.”

Holder-Winfield said affirmative action plans remain necessary to ensure equal opportunity in state government.

“In 2011, we still have all the same issues we’ve always had,” he said.

Holder-Winfield said the administration has yet to have a conversation with the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus about the bill. And the governor, he said, has not yet met with the caucus.

“I would hope, particularly, because this affects minority communities, and I happen to be the head of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, I would hope at some point they would recognize they might want to have a discussion,” he said.