Strained Relations | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Strained Relations 

Pittsburgh's commission charged with investigating worker complaints hasn't been working smoothly itself

Some members of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations can't seem to relate to each other anymore.


The 14-member appointed commission, whose job it is to resolve discrimination complaints in employment, housing and public accommodations, has been involved in internal disputes for months, to the point where one commissioner has recently resigned and another was allegedly asked to resign.


"The mayor appointed us for four years," notes Frances J. Barnes, who says the commission voted to request her resignation in a closed "executive session" in September. While she objects to the idea of resignation -- "I have two years left," she points out -- she says it was simply illegal for part of the commission's meeting to be hidden from public view.


"I don't believe that Frances Barnes has the best interest of the commission in her heart," commission Chair Robert McClenahan told City Paper -- an allegation he offered the commission repeatedly this fall.


The dispute began with Barnes' request to make the housing committee, which she chaired, officially a permanent part of the commission. It has been only a temporary "ad hoc" committee -- albeit for the last 20 years. Her fellow commissioners nixed the move.


"You would have thought I was asking for the stars," Barnes says. "It is still an ad hoc committee."


Denying Barnes' request "wasn't a rational decision. It was an emotional decision," says Mark Stein, who was appointed to the commission at the same time as Barnes and resigned in early December. As he wrote to Mayor Tom Murphy early in December: "My resignation was prompted by my discontent with the manner in which Commissioner Barnes is being treated, and my lack of faith in the commission's ability to function impartially given its current configuration."


As early as a year ago, Stein offered similar statements to the commission in writing: "[W]e are charged with the responsibility of addressing breakdowns in human relations in the City of Pittsburgh ... So it bothers me to have sat here, a member of our city's Commission on Human Relations, and to have listened to -- and participated in -- accusations of slander, threats, and pronouncements of judgment, which had the appearance of disregarding those same rules of procedure and fairness. ... A potential rift or build-up of anger or frustration among us is more unsettling to me than the fighting among the city's School Board members, since Human Relations is itself our very purpose of being here."


Since the seemingly trivial dispute about a committee, the disagreements have devolved into accusations by Barnes of voter fraud during the commission's fall election of officers -- she says her vote went missing, while the commission chairman says it was there -- and just the same as everyone else's.


Other commissioners were suspicious that Barnes prompted a federal evaluation of the commission's housing work in June that found it "sub-standard." Barnes was subsequently frozen out of participation on any committee -- another illegal move, she says.


"I have been relegated to 'Commissioner-without-portfolio,'" she told city council recently.


Aren't these exactly the sorts of disputes the commission was designed to rule on? Says commission head McClenahan: "That's the irony."



"I have been in the struggle everywhere I have gone," says Frances Barnes -- as a black person concerned about housing discrimination in the United States.


In October 1965, Barnes and her husband Roland appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court their case against two Rockville, Md. developers from whom the couple tried to buy a housing plan lot. The late Roland, employed as principal of a Rockville elementary school, was attempting to move his family there from Washington, D.C., to avoid the daily 44-mile round trip. Both Barneses were professionals, with doctorates in education.


Roland Barnes' deposit was returned by local real estate agents when (according to later testimony) the agents "knew that defendants were unwilling to sell a lot in the development to a Negro." After threatening a lawsuit, the Barneses were promised an equal house on an equal lot. Instead, their Supreme Court suit later contended, they were offered a smaller lot where, the developer later testified, it was "quite obvious" that the family "would be seen the least." Nonetheless, the couple lost their case.


Since then, Frances Barnes says, she has been chair of the education committee of the state Real Estate Commission, where she advocated successfully for the creation of an ethics course for landlords and real estate agents, among other civil rights work. At the commission, she says, she's still "the new kid on the block." Most other commissioners "have been in there 30 years, 15, 10. I have come in asking questions and saying, 'This is what we're supposed to be about -- why aren't we doing this?'"


From records of commission meetings, it appears some of the other commissioners see her as meddlesome at most, or as a stickler for unnecessary rules at the very least.


The federal evaluation -- about the commission's participation in the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Fair Housing Assistance Program -- is a case in point. Fair Housing brings the commission both money and training. HUD found that Barnes had "impeccable credentials" and that "her standing and credibility in the civil rights community also constitute a public relations and education/outreach asset." HUD cited the commission's own reports to indicate that it "lacked credibility in the community." HUD concluded that the commission wasn't fully following HUD rules. "Barnes has, instead, been marginalized in the PCHR, to its detriment," HUD added.


Commissioners were more than suspicious about the HUD evaluation. That it came "suddenly," noted Commissioner Elizabeth Pittinger during a commission meeting, "speaks for itself."


"They said I was siccing HUD on them," Barnes says. "I said: 'Have you read what you are supposed to be doing? It's spelled out ... in the federal regulations, and you're not doing it.'"


By the commission's September gathering, even Barnes' efforts to change something in a previous meeting's minutes were being overridden by the group. The executive session came toward the end of that first fall assembly. "They pass [a resolution] out to all of us," Barnes recalls. "It says, 'The executive committee hereby reprimands Commissioner Barnes and asks her to resign.' Of course, I'm having no part of it. They passed out a ballot and voted to uphold it. They said, 'Now you are resigning.' I said, no, I am not." Commission members are appointed by the mayor and approved by city council. Only the mayor can remove a member for "just cause," as the rules state.


It's not the purported request to leave that upset Barnes most -- it's the fact that it happened in secret. The commission has a mandate to do its business in public, Barnes notes. Anything less is in violation of Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act, she maintains, which allows special closed-door meetings-within-meetings only to discuss issues of employment, property, litigation, college admissions decisions and discussions of possible legal violations.


Commission chair McClenahan will not comment on the executive session -- expressing only disappointment that a fellow commissioner has spoken about private matters.


Through their year of such distracting tempests, has the commission remained effective?


"I think there's a need for the organization," Stein says. "I think there's a big need." Director Charles Morrison -- head of the permanent staff of investigators and administrators at the commission -- reported in November that while employment discrimination complaints for 2003 thus far were "down considerably," housing complaints were actually up a fraction.


"I think the breakdown is with the commissioners," Stein adds. "Dr. Barnes and myself all came on to the commission at the same time. There was no mentoring, no welcome, no 'this is how things are done.' Part of the problem is members who have been on for 30 years. There's a kind of intolerance of change."


Barnes' voice rises most indignantly when disputing McClenahan's characterization of her efforts on the commission to date: "He doesn't know what's in my heart."



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