New approaches to job discrimination Baltimore County panel works for higher profile

July 28, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Armed with a new law protecting employees of small companies -- though still without the power to assess monetary damages -- Baltimore County's Human Relations Commission is trying to raise its profile with community meetings and new business contacts.

New Chairman Harry S. Johnson, 43, a partner at one of Baltimore's most prestigious law firms, has set in motion an aggressive public effort intended to get the county's ethnic and economic groups talking to one another.

Johnson's hope is that by reaching out to businesses, schools and neighborhood leaders, he can strengthen the commission, even though its inability to levy monetary damages has caused debate on its effectiveness.

"Baltimore County is increasingly diverse," said Johnson. "We have to highlight the strengths from that diverse community."

Energetic and optimistic, Johnson has come up with such ideas as offering diversity training to mall store owners whose workers deal with teen-agers, and starting "a dialogue with the business community -- something that promotes business."

That's an approach popular with the business-friendly administration of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who appointed Johnson to the new post in March -- but who opposes giving the commission the power to make those who discriminate pay for their victims' losses.

Ruppersberger helped streng- then the commission last year by backing legislation giving the commission jurisdiction over companies with fewer than 15 people. Those not satisfied with the county commission's actions can appeal by filing suit in Circuit Court.

But he remains opposed to giving the commission power to assess money damages. He worries that would be an unfriendly signal to business and notes that the Maryland Human Relations Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have such authority.

"By reaching out to the business community, they can probably help us, instead of us trying to catch somebody," Ruppersberger said.

Still, the commission -- which handled 352 cases over eight years has less leverage against violators than do similar bodies in Baltimore, and Prince George's, Howard and Montgomery counties, which can order compensation for lost income.

The Baltimore County commission can only order such remedies as a promotion or job transfer.

State Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a 10th District Democrat and the county's only African-American state senator, said having the power to assess money damages is important. "The lack of cases considering the size of the county doesn't mean a lack of need," she said. "People are going on to the Maryland commission because they've got remedies."

Although Johnson and commission Director Celestine Morgan DTC say they would like the authority to make violators pay, they know that's not in the political cards. "My agenda clearly is not to go in and try to step on people's toes," Johnson said.

He noted that 85 percent of the commission's cases during the past six years have been resolved through negotiation with the staff -- often including a monetary settlement -- and only two cases have been appealed to the full commission for a hearing.

But former Director Maurice C. Taylor, the commission's director for five years, said the high number of settlements is due mainly to Morgan's personal skill as a negotiator. "If Morgan left, we would have a graveyard of injustice," he said.

Johnson's push to revitalize the commission comes in response to long-standing complaints by members who said the panel had virtually no staff or power.

Although the 15-member commission's new public action plan isn't complete, the group held a neighborhood-based meeting May 20 in Halethorpe. Another is planned for White Marsh in February.

In choosing Johnson, Ruppersberger picked someone with legal experience in complicated discrimination cases.

Johnson represented Baltimore's housing authority in 1995 against a discrimination in housing lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that charged that poor black people were segregated in city public housing. The suit was settled.

A Havre de Grace native who has a view of downtown Baltimore from the 12th-floor law offices of Whiteford, Taylor and Preston, he has no illusions about discrimination.

"When I walk about in a sweat suit on a weekend, I'm not going to be treated differently than people in the city are," said Johnson. "We know discrimination is not dead. We still have a long way to go."

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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