Commission on Human Relations meets again, puts off more delicate decisions

Today, the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations met for the umpteenth time to discuss their search for a new Executive Director.

Pittsburgh’s CHR is a law enforcement agency which derives its authority from the City Fair Practices Provisions found in Article V, Chapters 651 through 659 of the Pittsburgh City Code. These provisions make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, family status (housing), age, ancestry, national origin, place of birth, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, handicap or disability, [or] retaliation

Four months ago, the painstakingly reassembled Commission showed signs of trouble in its process of selecting a new Executive Director. The Personnel Committee continued to have strained relations with the rest of the Commission. Last month, they all thought they had come together on an agreeable selection. But alas, that applicant had withdrawn their interest.

Before we report on the fallout from the inevitable closed-door Executive Session, the Comet has some advice:

1)  This will be the first new executive director in “four decades”, and under a very newly constituted board. If there are indeed any walls between the Personnel Committee and the full Commission, they ought to come down. The past prior Commission Chair went on and on at one meeting about the importance of the Personnel Committee and how things have always been done.

2) Mayor Bill Peduto’s liaison to the Commission, Chief Urban Affairs Officer Valerie McDonald-Roberts, ought to be playing a helpful role. While it might not be appropriate for her to pull strings for Directorship applicants, she can always offer wisdom. “Tell me about this friction, my little doves! And now, from my years in government and politics, let me tell you stories about how people I very much admire have handled stumbling blocks like these.”

3) If there are any unwritten rules about what kind of individual “gets to be” the Director of the City Human Relations Commission, the board ought to be having those conversations, straight out. In executive session at least.

4)  Roberts Rules of Order usually dictate that everybody gets a turn to speak to an issue, before anybody speaks twice. That includes the chair. This is a general complaint with local government bodies, but suffice to say there are problems here. Referencing one’s own physical proximity to the agency Solicitor, furthermore, does not make one’s argument very much more convincing.

An Interim Executive Director from within the agency is handling day-to-day CHR business.  When it had briefly appeared as though they had found a consensus Director, its new Chair was enthusiastic that we should expect great things. Today’s more uncertain meeting may turn out to be the straw that breaks something’s back.

Are you ready? Let’s see what happened…

After nearly two hours behind closed doors, CHR Board Chair Winford Craig convened the public quorum briefly to announce that CHR was tabling a motion to offer the Executive Director job to another of the finalists until its September meeting. (August is recess.)

Craig said afterwords he thinks it important that any new director start off with the support of a lot of the board. Vice-Chair John Tague similarly expressed a desire to move forward with new leadership without significant divisions.

In terms of theatrics, past prior board Chair Leah Williams-Duncan made several bold choices. After reporters were ushered in and settled, but before the Chair began public proceedings, she exclaimed to no one in particular, “You know, I’m just so glad I have so much power on this commission!” in a withering sarcastic tone.

Later, a beat after the Chair adjourned following his announcement of the tabled motion and as reporters approached the commissioners, Williams-Duncan turned to commissioner Amanda Rubio and quite audibly informed her that “I truly am sorry if you are sensitive,” in some sort of blindside ambush of a put-down.

Rubio at a previous meeting first raised how it felt like board members were discussing a “firewall” between its Personnel Committee and the full body, an idea which caught currency. It was another meeting at which Williams-Duncan defended the precedents and processes of that committee, and that more information had been exchanged between it and the full Commission than was being alleged.

When asked by the Comet whether a new pool of applicants for the job of executive Director might ultimately be solicited under a new process, Craig answered, “Anything’s possible.”

MORE: The P-G’s Chris Potter runs another detail.

12 thoughts on “Commission on Human Relations meets again, puts off more delicate decisions

  1. Anonymous

    What happened to all those books and processes and exciting things the transition team put together? When will the ethics board do anything?

    1. Bram R

      According to that Transition Report dated Dec. of 2013, the HRC would benefit from… 1) More funding 2) Increased community awareness 3) A full commission [Done! But it took considerably longer than 90 days) 4) A Youth Task Force 5) The publication and disclosure of more of its public hearings, though there are legal complications.

      More recently, some HRC members expressed a desire to provide counsel to the Affordable Housing Task Force, the City Land Bank, and all that good stuff. But acquiring a fully capable new director has been a clear obstacle.

      I’ll have to ask about the dormant Ethics board.

    2. Anonymous

      Seems like everything else with this administration. Lots of fan fare and good press coverage and then nothing. Lots of defunct boards and commissions and those that do function are packed with supporters and committee people. In line with everything this administration done, rather than hire a director for HRC, they are more worried about who the candidates are connected to. The witch hunt continues. When will the adults come back to the party?

      1. helengerhardt1

        As a member of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, I urge citizens to hold us to account in our hiring of an Executive Director.This Commission was granted special powers by the Home Rule Charter so that we might serve as check and balance within local government, to protect those members of our community who are most vulnerable to discrimination. With power comes responsibility. An HRC Executive Director should have demonstrable experience, expertise, and commitment to uphold civil rights laws and relevant Pittsburgh codes that forbid discrimination in employment, housing and public accomodations. An HRC Executive Director should maintain political independence as the Commission holds individuals, developers, landlords, businesses, institutions, Authorities, AND local government to anti-discrimination law. The Human Relations Commission should never serve any political faction or camp, but only the rights of the protected classes of Pittsburgh.

        Decisions of an Executive Director of the Pgh HRC will directly affect equitable access and opportunity for the most basic practical needs. We Commissioners are hiring a professional for a high-ranking City government position. We should meet high standards in job search process. The CVs of the remaining finalists for the HRC Executive Director position are being withheld from Commissioners after repeated requests, including by the Vice-Chair of the Commission. Without the chance to examine the withheld employment materials of HRC Executive Director applicants, we cannot make an informed decision.

        As an activist, advocate and writer, for years I have criticized government officials and institutions for not being transparent and accountable. When my own research raised serious doubts and questions about comparative qualifications of the remaining finalists, when basic employment information was withheld from the full Commission by a small, internally divided Personnel committee of four, when I was asked to vote on only one candidate without the information that would allow me to make a responsible decision, I was obligated by the standards I’d preached in the past to demand a more accountable, informed process so that we might hire the most qualified candidate possible.

      2. helengerhardt1

        Also, @Anonymous who commented on August 2, 2015 at 9:25 am, I absolutely share your concern that members of boards and commissions often seem expected to act as proxies for elected officials that appointed them, or for the Networks of political influences that helped to place them in these positions of public responsibility. I promise you that I know that my own obligation extends to resisting any influence by any elected official or networks of interests with which I have been allied in the past, including the Mayor that appointed me. I will support the positions of such allies when they act in accord with justice, equity, and transparent, inclusive, accountable democratic process – I promise you I will continue to resist ANY interference with a responsible, accountable process for the hiring decisions for the Executive Director, whether from within or from outside this Commission.

        Commissioner Helen Gerhardt

      3. Bram R

        Anon 9:25:

        1) When were “the adults” ever at the party? No, seriously?

        2) I think a new Director’s knowledges, abilities and experience should be excellent enough to make any discussion of “connections” to Party or personal politics moot. Do we have one of those? She seems industrious and productive, but I don’t see anything particularly germane to running a discrimination-law enforcement agency, much less one that is eager to enhance focus on housing-related issues.

  2. Bram ReichbaumBram R

    UPDATE: According to Helen Gerhardt, Leah Williams-Duncan, the Chair of the Personnel Committee, has moved to put Gerhardt “on trial” next week for leaking to the press the name of the applicant they are considering, and boot her from the Commission.

    I was in the room at this meeting. Commission Chair Winford Craig clearly slipped up and stated the applicant’s name, Patricia Rogers, just before calling for the vote to table the motion to offer her the job. I immediately asked P-G reporter Chris Potter, “Did he really just say her name?” and he replied, “Yeah.” And this time the P-G printed it.

    (It was a weird inversion of what happened at the prior meeting. The commission had voted to offer the position to a Mr. Fred Brown, a fact which I instantly tweeted. After a heartbeat, Chair Craig begged, “Oh wait wait, media, please don’t report that because he might not accept the position!” At that time, Potter assented to the request — but I had already tweeted it and figured “What the hell, it’s their fault.” Then when Brown declined to accept the offer, after some consideration I deleted the tweet. And so next month I opted not to report immediately about the Rogers offer.)

    Anyway, Williams-Duncan is as clearly as you please putting Gerhardt through the wringer for 1. disagreeing about Rogers, 2. for criticizing the Personnel Committee — specifically charging that they 3. have not circulated the CV’s of any of the job applicants – including the one they’ve been asked to vote to hire – to the rest of the Commission, despite repeated requests even from Commission Vice-Chair Tague.

    Pittsburgh deserves that this tin-pot political Boss on the Commission on Human Relations be put in her place… but frankly it concerns me just how many Boards, Authorities and Commissions this sort of garbage is still taking place upon. Somebody should be coaching new and existing board members on how to wield their power effectively and responsibly… so that it doesn’t take them 18 months or more to start figuring out how not to get bullied.

    1. Bram ReichbaumBram R

      CORRECTIONS to the above comment, written by me:

      1. Again according to Helen Gerhardt: neither is CHR Commissioner Leah Williams-Duncan current chair of its Personnel Committee, nor did she request the special meeting of the CHR in order to discuss Gerhardt’s alleged improprieties. Tim Smith is chair of the Personnel Committee, and formally requested the special meeting perhaps to discuss what to do, perhaps not to “boot” her.

      The Comet deeply regrets those two errors.

      2. One reason this has been handled especially awkwardly (can’t I just edit the above comment?) is that the Comet is undergoing a Redesign. You may have experienced significant Delays in loading the page, as well. Sorry for the lack of functionality while we are Under Construction.

      3. Yes, I Bram Reichbaum, when blogging at the Comet, use the “Royal We”. It is easier than referring to oneself in the third person.

      4. It is very interesting that Mayor Bill Peduto and Council appointed and confirmed Helen Gerhardt, a Known Blogger, to a significant city commission. And that bloggers are known for trying to let people know how things Really Operate, even as they try to do so responsibly without violating what are very clear Legal and ethical boundaries.

      And so I think this is just a very interesting moment that we can all pause to appreciate.


    2. Bram ReichbaumBram R

      And a quick correction to the parenthetical: the P-G’s Potter informs me he didn’t “assent” (accede?) to the Board’s hasty request to embargo the name of Brown; rather the P-G just didn’t have “time/room” to run an HRC story that day.

      1. Bram ReichbaumBram Reichbaum Post author

        … and now, six weeks later, I’m told this post was a lively subject of debate at today’s (9/14/15) meeting.

        Although I immediately corrected the sole, minor inaccuracy in the above account mere hours after it was published, I stand by my description of Duncan as a “tin-pot Boss” based on her arrogant and tyrannical behavior as Chair at a previous meeting, and on her inexplicable repeated defenses of the Personnel Committee’s exclusionary “process” which had not been employed in ages and never for Executive Director searches.

        I can’t guess what she thinks is the function of her 14 fellow commissioners, if she sincerely thinks the Chair gets to interrupt and shoot down others’ comments, rule proposals out-of-order upon their introduction, shut down all discussion of any subject at her pleasure, and brazenly insult her fellow commissioners.

        And I would remind her that public officials occasionally must tolerate negative views expressed about them in the public.

        Go run for magistrate a few more times, Leah. Sooner or later you’ll crack 25% of the vote.

  3. David Passmore

    If the City of Pittsburgh really lucked out, Sarah DeCesaris-Kinter would stay on as Executive Director of the CHR (acronyms…the HRC is the Historic Review Commission, whereas the Commission on Human Relations is more commonly represented as CHR). I have no idea if Sarah wants that job, or not…I just know that the City just isn’t going to find someone better qualified, more knowledgeable, or more deserving of a permanent executive role with the CHR. All of those considerations might succumb to political ones at the end of the day, which is a real shame, but hardly would surprise anyone. This is a Commission that actually stands a chance of making a real difference for the better, with the right leadership. I have no reason to doubt the intentions or qualifications of the people who are being considered, rather I have every reason to publicly recognize Sarah as possessing those qualifications in ample supply…and I’m unsure why a further search would be necessary, let alone a semi-public one that drags on for more than a year.

    The Boards, Authorities and Commissions should not serve as some sort of Patronage Pachinko, but that is often the case, regardless of who sits where in positions of leadership in the City-County Building. Some people involved with municipal government are actually qualified for and deserving of their positions, and you hope their contributions can be recognized, valued, encouraged and sustained. Good leadership should, if nothing else, set about learning to better facilitate these contributions.


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