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Rights Panel Urged for N.D.
By Ellen Crawford
The Fargo Forum - 11/10/1999

North Dakota is doing a poor job of enforcing laws against discrimination, an advisory panel charges.

The state's human rights act is broader than federal laws, yet few people know about it because it hasn't been well-publicized and lacks enforcement methods, contends Carole Barrett, chairwoman of the North Dakota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The committee released a 78-page report in Fargo Tuesday on the state's civil rights enforcement efforts.

"Essentially, people have nowhere to go if they have a discrimination complaint," Barrett said.

The committee recommends the state fund a study to determine the extent of discrimination and establish a human rights commission to investigate discrimination complaints and enforce the laws. The committee said the commission also should be able to do mediation, conciliation and dispute resolution, give information and technical assistant to victims of discrimination, employers, housing providers and other entities covered by civil rights laws and act as a clearinghouse for statewide civil rights matters.

North Dakota is the only state without a human rights commission, Barrett said.

"We have good laws," said committee member John Olson, a former state legislator from Bismarck. "If we don't have an enforcement body, we're just giving lip service to those laws."

North Dakota legislators have balked at establishing such a civil rights commission. House Majority Leader John Dorso, R-Fargo, said Tuesday that he believes they are unlikely to change their minds.

The 1999 Legislature defeated measures for a civil rights commission, voting instead to expand the duties of the state Labor Department to include investigation of housing complaints. The agency already investigates complaints of job discrimination.

"I think there is generally a fear in the Legislature of setting up another bureaucracy," said Dorso, who is giving up his seat in the state House to seek the GOP's nomination to run for the U.S. House. "Those in the Legislature believe the Labor Department deals with those types of issues and if there is a need for expanding that role, that is the proper place to do it."

The state Department of Labor, however, is a black hole of Calcutta for complaints, said another committee member, Fargo attorney Mark Schneider. "The complaints go in and nothing comes out."

In 1995, for example, 117 complaints were filed and the department found only one case of probable discrimination, he said.

The committee said a human rights commission wouldn't be as costly as some legislators fear because federal funding is available. Committee members said the state could come up with some funding as well by reorganizing and consolidating various agencies' efforts to combat discrimination.

North Dakota's labor commissioner, Tony Clark, said the numbers were misleading. He was appointed to the labor job in September.

During the agency's last reporting period, which ended Sept. 30, it opened 95 new investigations into workplace discrimination complaints. They ran the gamut from sexual and racial discrimination to age discrimination, Clark said.

Ninety-six cases were closed, including 19 where the employee accepted a money settlement, Clark said. In all, the settlements added up to more than $136,000.

The Labor Department works to resolve complaints without reaching a probable cause finding, Clark said. Employers who are informed that an investigation is going against them usually opt to settle, because a probable cause finding could mean federal intervention in the case, he said. Settlement terms are confidential.

"They can always say to us, 'Take a hike,' but that's not a good position for an employer to be in," he said.

Gov. Ed Schafer said he too does not see the need for a civil rights commission in the state.

North Dakota could do more to make people aware of who can help them, but "that shouldn't require a whole new level of bureaucracy," the governor said Tuesday.

"I don't think we need to reinvent the wheel to get that done," said Schafer, a Republican.

Former state Sen. Donna Nalewaja, R-Fargo, another member of the committee, said she is confident the board's report will convince lawmakers previously opposed to a civil rights commission to reconsider.

A major concern for many, she said, was the cost of running such an agency. But Nalewaja said federal money is available to help commissions operate and that state funding could be minimal.

"I'm more hopeful than I've ever been before," she said.

The committee also recommended that cities and counties consider establishing human relations commissions to help mediate and resolve local conflicts, promote diversity, document cases of discrimination and educate people about discrimination laws and what to do if they feel they are victims of discrimination. In addition, all state agencies receiving or administering federal funds should publicize their procedures for filing complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and other related civil rights provisions that prohibit discrimination in federally funded programs, the committee said.

Some material from The Associated Press was included in this story.

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