Stronger enforcement of anti-bias law favored Women voter league asks Ruppersberger to act

August 31, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's human rights board, empowered to investigate bias but powerless to award money to victims, should be handed financial firepower, says the League of Women Voters.

The county should root out discrimination on its own -- not hand the task to state or federal agencies -- says the League, which is urging a change in county law.

The county's Human Relations Commission has authority to investigate allegations of bias in private industry. But it cannot impose financial damages -- no back pay, no lost benefits, no punitive damages for victims of bias.

By contrast, rights groups in Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard counties can -- and do -- award financial damages.

To win financial damages in Baltimore County, a discrimination victim would have to go to state or federal agencies. But if the case involves an employer with fewer than 15 workers, employees are required to use the county agency.

After The Sun highlighted the issue this month, the county's League of Women Voters wrote to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III.

"We believe it is important for Baltimore County to take care of its own discrimination problems rather than having the complainant go to state or federal agencies," says a letter written by league President Anne H. Lee.

"We very much hope that this ability to provide monetary relief will be put on your legislative agenda for our representatives during their next session in Annapolis."

In an interview yesterday, Lee said, "We've had a strong position for years of supporting a strong Human Relations Commission. And quite frankly, I hadn't realized the powers were so limited."

The group's position echoes that of Maurice Taylor, chairman of the Human Relations Commission and an advocate for change in a county that is rapidly diversifying.

"I'm pleased that the League of Women Voters sees the injustice in the current law," he said.

"In effect we can't punish [violators]. We can tell them you're bad, don't do that. But we can't compensate minorities and women who file a complaint and there's reasonable cause the discrimination takes place."

Ruppersberger remains reluctant to broaden the commission's scope.

"We're not going to create another layer when the state and federal governments can do it themselves," said Ruppersberger spokesman Michael H. Davis. "Especially at a time we're downsizing government."

For cases involving small employers that may fall through the cracks, Davis said the door is still open for change -- but only if Ruppersberger is convinced it's necessary. Even then, the spokesman said, Ruppersberger is concerned by the potential impact on small businesses.

But the momentum for change is escalating. The board was granted some enforcement powers in 1989. Now, for instance, the group can order a company to rehire a worker or direct that a loan be granted.

"Frankly, it took a long time for them to get as far as they are now," said Lee. "And we're moving slowly. But we're moving."

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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