Members of the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission took solace Wednesday that the agency will have lasted 50 years at least on paper.
Commission Chairman Mari Fagin gaveled the commission's meeting to a close for the last time as members talked about efforts to close the agency by June 30 and transfer its duties to the state attorney general's office.
“I feel as though I've conducted a funeral today,” Fagin said.
Commissioners had planned to discuss whether another meeting was needed next month, but a letter from the attorney general's office made it clear that would not be necessary.
“The attorney general's office stands ready to take on the mantle of civil rights enforcement in the state of Oklahoma on July 1,” wrote First Assistant Attorney General Rob Hudson. “We will be formally announcing the staff and structure of the office of civil rights enforcement in the coming days. As our office will be carrying forth all of the duties and functions of the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission, it is the opinion of this office that continued meetings of the commission after June 30 are unnecessary.”
Legislation repealing the creation of the Human Rights Commission, under a measure signed into law by then-Gov. Henry Bellmon in 1963, was to have been acted on this year. But time ran out on the session's last day before it could be taken up in the House of Representatives.
“It will be abolished now in the next legislative session in 2013,” Fagin said. “Perhaps it was meant to have a 50-year life even though the last six months it will be lifeless.”
A bill passed and signed into law last year eliminates the agency and places its duties with the attorney general's office. It was part of the governor's plan to consolidate several agencies.
Effective July 1, the attorney general's office will be handling the commission's duties, which include investigating complaints of discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability and age. The commission also accepts, serves and reports on complaints of racial profiling based on race and national origin.
“I view this as being such a tragedy because, while the office of civil rights enforcement will accept complaints and handle them, there are other important responsibilities of the commission that have not been assigned and I'm concerned that they will not be fulfilled,” Fagin said.
Those duties include educating Oklahomans about their civil rights, working to promote better relations between racial groups and helping diffuse racial tensions, she said.
John Carrington, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, said the last day for him and the other 10 employees in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa offices will be June 29. Carrington, who worked 18 years for the commission — the last two as executive director — had no immediate plans. He said he was unsure whether any of his staff had applied for jobs with the attorney general's office.
“I just encourage everybody, if they feel discriminated against, to contact the attorney general's office,” he said. “That's the procedure and that's what they should do.”
An employee with the Oklahoma Historical Society took pictures during the nearly 30-minute meeting, which ended with Fagin giving framed letters of commendation from Gov. Mary Fallin to the commissioners.
“I'm 62 years old and this is the first time I've ever got my walking papers,” Commissioner Steve Bruner said.
Sam Vasquez, who served on the Human Rights Commission from 2003 to 2009, called it a sad day in the state.
“The Human Rights Commission is the backbone for the people,” he said. “I'm talking about all races. The governor is making a mistake.”
Commission Vice Chairman Neil McElderry said he hopes the attorney general's office will act on human rights complaints after June 30.
“That's a good question for a lot of people: Are they going to accept complaints or are they going to bury them?” he said. “I'm hopeful: even the Republicans have potential sometime.”
McElderry said it was wise to have an independent commission. Placing the duties with the attorney general will make it harder for state employees and others to come forward with complaints, especially against state agencies, he said.
“This is a big setback for human rights in Oklahoma,” he said. “A lot of us never thought this day would come.”