Human Rights Dept. Defended

As part of an ongoing investigation into the question of why the City of Tulsa spends over $500,000 per year on a Department of Human Rights, Tulsa Today spoke with Paul Zachary Public Works Deputy Director and Councilor Jack Henderson to see why the City of Tulsa needs the department and continues to increase funding even as police and firefighters are being reduced.

Previous investigations have shown there are many different state, federal, and county entities that handle Human Rights complaints.  We have also learned that the current director Dr. Lana Turner-Addison also works for the Tulsa School Board and feels that the department is vital to the City.  Still there are questions.

Paul Zachary, Deputy Directory of Public Works, is in a unique position to see up-close how the bid process works and what kinds of discrimination could be apart of getting a contract for the City.  Likewise, Councilor Henderson, former president of the local chapter of the NAACP, is familiar with the complaint side of compliance with Title 5 (Tulsa’s local section of the charter dealing with various boards and commissions; including the Human Rights commission) and Title 6 (Federal Civil Rights law) discrimination cases.

After the regular Council meeting on Thursday August 12th this reporter sat down with both gentlemen to see if I could get some understanding as to why the City is in the Human Rights business, why we have to grow government to achieve these goals, and what benefits might the citizens expect.

Tulsa Today:  Why did the Council choose to fund two new Human Rights positions from a one-time land sale from the county without forethought of how to fund them in future?  Is there some emergency that requires these positions get monies that could be used elsewhere in the City?

Jack Henderson: That is how any position in the City is funded.  We have to get the money from somewhere, and in this case, there is only one new position.  One of the positions was previously funded, but during the Budget Approval cycle, it was de-funded.  Secondly, the Human Rights department needs these compliance monitors because of the increasing caseload that will be expected now that the Disparity Study has been completed.

Tulsa Today:  What purpose does the Human Rights department serve that is not already being served by the county, state, or federal governments?  Why do we need a Human Rights department?

Jack Henderson:  The Human Rights department is something that we need to be able to handle discrimination cases against the City and/or contractors who will bid or work for the City.  When I was President of the local NAACP we had many times when a company would hire a minority worker, just to be able to say they were in compliance with the law.  Then when the work was done and the records that show who did what, the minority worker was on leave, or moved to a different project or something like that.  I would come to the City and the City Attorney’s office would say that there had to be a disparity study before any action could be taken.  Now, we have spent a lot of money on this study and the state and federal offices that receive the majority of these complaints will hold us accountable for it.

Paul Zachary:  We would need personnel to handle the incoming complaints in any event.  How the system works is that a person or group generates a complaint; the complaint is then given to the state, the feds, and the City.  Then they (state or feds) hold us accountable to get the work done to fix the issue.  The state does not come up here to investigate complaints, neither do the feds; instead, they put the responsibility on the city/municipalities to solve the issue or face prosecution or legal liabilities.

Tulsa Today:  So, If a person or group has a complaint about a public sidewalk that is not handicapped accessible, you’re saying that without a City Human Rights department, the City would be at risk of being held liable or non-compliant with the law?

Paul Zachary:  Not exactly, the Human Rights department are the persons who make sure the complaint is addressed, and then taken care of in the proper manner.  The complaints will come in from Inhoffe’s office, or Sullivan’s or the D.O.J. and they have to be handled by somebody.  Without a Human Rights department, we would have to have workers in Public Works working the cases anyway.  The Human Rights department is the City’s way of handling this need, but is still needs handling.

Tulsa Today:  Why wouldn’t the state send down compliance monitors for a complaint they received?  Why is it the City’s job?

Paul Zachary:  The state will not send down a person to investigate a claim.  They will send it to us, and expect us to handle it.  Most of the time they handle the larger complaints, such as corporations who do have the proper handicapped access to facilities, etc.  Think of the Human Rights department as the clearing house for the complaint process.  As it is currently, the entire process is not something that has active ongoing investigations where compliance monitors are searching for violations.  Instead, it is a very complaint driven area.

Jack Henderson:  Also there is going to be an even more increasing need due to HB 1804.  Illegal immigration cases and the like are going create an larger case load to work through.

Tulsa Today:  So, even with the 30 plus agencies at the federal level all with Human Rights departments, local regional offices in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Missouri; and with the ability to find who to report to and how to file a report, the Human Rights department is the receptacle of all complaints for the City?  How did we function before 1995 when the Human Rights department was created?

Jack Henderson:  I was not here in 1995, and do not know what actions were taken before then.  However, yes, we as a City are left liable and held responsible by the other governments for violations of Title 5.

Paul Zachary:  I imagine that someone would have gone to the City Attorney, but I do not know for sure.  The Human Rights department handles the complaints, but also acts as an independent third party.  If someone has a complaint about discrimination in the bidding process, it looks better if the same department is not investigating the claims.  Human Rights is completely autonomous from any other department and has a director that reports directly to the Mayor.  This structure ensures that the complaints that we do receive can be treated fairly.

Continue to check back with Tulsa Today in the coming weeks, as we continue in our investigation.

About the author:
Aaron Sheppard is a long time believer in smaller government and responsible use of tax dollars.  As a former City of Tulsa employee who worked in the Finance Department assisting in production of the Annual City Budget from 2001 to 2004, he experienced first hand the differences in what happens behind the scenes and what makes the news. He has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix and has worked in the private sector since 2004.  Sheppard may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it for news tips.  Comments on this report are welcome below.