The number of people alleging that they’ve been discriminated against in matters of housing, employment and other areas is down significantly one year after the city made cost-cutting measures to the program that investigates such complaints.
City officials confirmed that the number of cases that have been investigated under the city’s Human Relations code has fallen from 17 in 2009 to three in 2010.
The drop comes after city commissioners at the beginning of 2010 eliminated the two City Hall positions that were responsible for overseeing the Human Relations Code. Commissioners, though, directed that the program that allows people to file complaints continue, but that it be handled by an attorney in the city prosecutor’s office.
Nearly a year later, city leaders believe the public may not have gotten that message.
“We thought we did a good job of informing the public, and we made concerted efforts to inform the public,” said Toni Wheeler, the city’s director of legal services. “But it looks like there is some confusion.”
The process has had some glitches. In gathering information for this article, the Journal-World discovered that one area of the city’s website — the section titled Where to File a Complaint — still listed the place to file a complaint as 947 N.H., which is the address of the office that has been closed. Other parts of the website did state that the city prosecutor’s office, which is at 1006 N.H., was now the place to file a complaint. Wheeler said the mistake would be fixed immediately.
Wheeler said the city now is considering doing more advertising and perhaps inserting messages in the city’s utility bills to make sure residents understand that there is still a place to file complaints locally. But Wheeler said the city must be careful in its promotion efforts because she does not want to encourage people to file frivolous complaints.
“But we continue to have a strong commitment to this,” Wheeler said. “The City Commission made it very clear that it wants us to continue to enforce and educate the public about this important law.”
The Human Relations Code makes it illegal to treat people differently in matters of employment or public accommodations because of a person’s race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, ancestry, or sexual orientation. The state has a similar law, and people can file a complaint at the statewide level. But city leaders have argued there needs to be a local process as well. In addition, the state does not have a law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Members of the city’s Human Relations Board are not entirely sure why the number of complaints has declined so much. James Dunn, a local landlord and a member of the board, said it may be that people don’t feel comfortable going to the city prosecutor’s office, which has more of a law enforcement feel than the city’s old human relations office did.
“They may, for whatever reason, feel a little more intimidated going to the Municipal Court offices,” Dunn said.
People don’t necessarily have to go to the Municipal Court office to file a complaint. The city has a telephone line — 832-3310 — that accepts inquiries on the code. The city also has several online complaint forms that can be accessed at www.lawrenceks.org/legal/complaint_filing.
The city estimated that cutting the two Human Relations positions would save the city about $170,000 per year in salaries and expenses. Mayor Mike Amyx was the commissioner who expressed the most concern about eliminating the positions at the time. But now, Amyx said he still wants to give the new system time to work.
“I think there is some information that probably still needs to get out to the public, and I’m sure we’ll do that,” Amyx said. “I’ve always believed having this function available locally has been very positive for the city.”