Officials say fixing CHRO case backlog requires more staff

Despite new legislation aimed at helping the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities streamline its operations, key officials say further action may be necessarily if the agency is to deal with a massive backlog of cases reported this month by auditors.

The report from state Auditors John C. Geragosian and Robert M. Ward found that 56 percent of the complaint caseload closed in 2007-08 and 2008-09 took longer than the statutory deadline of 370 days. That involved 738 out of 1,326 complaints in the first year and 633 out of 1,127 in the second.

The agency wrote in the audit that over those two years staffing levels dropped from 103 to 73.

Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and former Rep. Andrew M. Norton, CHRO chairman for the past five years, both said that while the new legislation could be helpful, the commission needs funds to reverse a reduction of nearly 30 in staffing over the last few years.

“I think the issues at CHRO are greater than can be addressed just by this legislation,” Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield and co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday. He was referring to a measure drafted by his committee that makes several changes to allow swifter processing of complaints. Among the changes in the new law:

  • Empowering the CHRO executive director to identify cases in which no reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred exists.
  • Narrowing the conditions under which the commission must reconsider a complaint.
  • Allowing the commission to dismiss a case if the complainant fails to attend a fact-finding hearing.

Former Rep. Andrew M. Norton, CHRO chairman for the past five years, agreed that while the new legislation is helpful, staffing is a crucial need. The commission is budgeted this year for 80 positions but has only 75 filled, with the remainder frozen.

“The agency has been understaffed and underfunded for years,” Coleman said. “And I think some of that is by design.”

The commission, which has a $7.1 million General Fund budget this year, receives the bulk of its complaints from women and from racial and ethnic minorities. “That particular community, in terms of numbers and political influence, has not really been a strong community.”

Certainly not as strong, Coleman added, as the “influential and powerful” business community that has no interest in seeing a well-funded CHRO.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who closed an inherited deficit approaching $3.7 billion for the 2011-12 fiscal year with a combination of state employee concessions, program cuts, revenue growth and more than $1.5 billion in new state taxes, said Tuesday that he wouldn’t make “any blanket statements” about agency requests for more funding next fiscal year.

“There undoubtedly will be emergency situations that evolve,” the governor said. But “I think we’ve got to about how we can do more with less.”

But Norton said, “The fact of the matter is we have been getting by with less” and the complaint backlog has swelled.

For example, he said, CHRO Executive Director Robert Brothers Jr. currently fulfills the tasks of his own job, as well as those of three other frozen positions: the assistant director, a top legal counsel post, and a field operations director who is responsible for overseeing the commission’s four branch offices.

“To see a decent uptick in the process, we would need to see more staff,” Norton added.

“In this time of unprecedented economic challenges, we need the CHRO–a watchdog agency that is mandated to enforce the laws against illegal discrimination,”

“The enforcement of the state’s anti-discrimination laws require a serious commitment of resources,” said Cheryl Sharp, a veteran CHRO litigator and steward for Local 2663 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “Although the CHRO is charged with enforcing the anti-discrimination laws and its statutory responsibilities have increased significantly over the years, the agency has lost more than 25% of its staff in the last four years, and the agency has not been authorized to refill critical positions.  The CHRO has attempted to be proactive, ‘to do more with less’ by streamlining its processes.”

Sharp also agreed the new legislation isn’t sufficient to eliminate the need for added staff.

The ranking House Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. John W. Hetherington of New Canaan, said alternative solution to increasing the CHRO budget might be for the legislature to re-evaluate the agency’s mission.

Established in 1943 as the Interracial Commission and renamed the Commission on Civil Rights in 1951, the CHRO received its current name from the legislature in 1967.

According to state auditors, about 85 percent of the commission’s caseload involves employment, with 10 percent related to housing and the remainder tied to credit, discrimination involving services and other matters.

But Hetherington said that while the concern over insufficient resources is valid, he suspects the agency’s mission has broadened beyond the original purpose envisioned by the legislature. “There really ought to be a vigorous review of their mandate,” he said. “Let’s try to tighten up their mission first before we look at new spending.”