Thursday, January 31, 2008
Former HRC chair gets silent treatment from committee
By J.J. SULLVAN III
A longtime commissioner on the Middletown Human Rights Commission (HRC) initiated another round of legal action against the township, alleging to be the victim of retaliation for her consistent advocacy of equal rights.
At the Jan. 6 reorganization session, Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger and Township Attorney Bernard Reilly told Dr. Carolyn Schwebel, a 17-year member of the HRC, her term was allowed to expire because of pending litigation.
However, according to court records, the litigation mentioned was resolved on Aug. 1, 2007. The town has yet to implement certain measures required by the settlement.
After receiving the silent treatment from the Township Committee at the Jan. 22 meeting, Schwebel decided she would challenge the validity of the reasoning offered by township officials.
Schwebel's attorney claimed her civil rights were abridged when the committee used past litigation as the basis for denying her another term on the advisory board.
Under the First Amendment, citizens are protected from retaliatory actions for participating in litigation.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
Schwebel's attorney, Anthony J. Brady, sent a letter dated Jan. 24 to both township officials and the case mediator, Judge James D. Clyne of Benchmark Resolution Services, LLC (BRS). According to the Aug. 1 settlement, issued by Judge John J. Hughs, any future grievances between the township and Schwebel are first sent to BRS for "binding arbitration."
In the letter, Brady alleged the township had deprived Schwebel of constitutionally guaranteed liberties. "[The township] retaliated against [Schwebel] in her First Amendment and [Law Against Discrimination [LAD)] rights by not reappointing her to the HRC…which they admitted was done because of her filing this civil rights suit," Brady wrote.
According to court documents, the Aug. 1 settlement finalized an agreement, ordering the township to prepare for eventual compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The settlement issued by Hughs ended a three-year legal battle between the township and Schwebel's advocacy group, Advocates for Disabled Americans (AFDA). The status of the litigation has become the major point of contention between township officials and AFDA attorneys.
According to the letter, Brady said the township had failed to fulfill the obligations defined by the settlement. "[The township] has not honored said agreement by failing to post on the township Web site until [mid-January] the name of their ADA coordinator and the actual agreement," he wrote. Middletown allegedly missed two ADA deadlines, twice failing to submit 60-day progress reports. "[The township] is liable for the $10,000 penalty for each failure," the letter said. The township owes $20,000 in fines for missed deadlines, according to Brady.
When Schwebel asked the committee last Tuesday to elaborate on the reasons for her dismissal, the governing body remained silent. Schwebel's questions drew mute stares from the Township Committee.
During the Jan. 22 committee meeting, Township Attorney Bernard Reilly said the status of pending litigation prevented the committee from responding to Schwebel.
Reilly responded on behalf of the committee, refusing to discuss any specifics regarding Schwebel. The failure of the committee to discuss the matter marked a major departure from the previous meeting, where the litigation was openly discussed among the board.
During the reorganization session, the governing body tabled Committeeman Patrick Short's motion calling for Schwebel's reappointment, 4-1. Reilly and Committeeman Sean Byrnes agreed on the necessity of private discussion before a final decision. Both foresaw potential conflicts regarding Schwebel's involvement in unimplemented litigation.
Short was surprised Schwebel failed to gain reappointment, taking issue with certain generalizations used by Scharfenberger, which Short claims distort the actuality of the reappointment process. "I was surprised [Scharfenberger] chose to use the term 'we' as a reference to the Township Committee when designating those behind the decision not to reappoint [Schwebel]. In fact, other members of the board, including myself, were not consulted regarding appointments."
Short was prevented from making further comments on the issue. "I now must refer all questions regarding the HRC to [Reilly]. I can only say what has become public record; I made a motion to reappoint [Schwebel] to the HRC," he said.
According to Schwebel, the HRC has suffered from her dispute with the township.
Commissioner Susan Spradley resigned from the voluntary board at the Jan. 24 HRC meeting. "Not only did [Spradley] make substantial contributions through her dedication, her absence symbolizes the current lack of representative diversity," Schwebel said. Spradley, an African American, was one of the only remaining minorities left on the HRC, according to Schwebel.
Schwebel feared for the future of the HRC. "The township uses [the HRC] as window-dressing. The committee wants us to meet and talk without taking any action," she said.
The former school psychologist said the HRC, an 11-seat commission, has been reduced to six members. "Of the six remaining members, two are contemplating resigning from the board," she added. Those who remained members chose not to elect a replacement for Schwebel, leaving the position of chairperson vacant in a gesture symbolic of the commission's support.
A state mandated advisory board, the HRC is "cloaked with whatever powers the mayor and Township Committee grant to it," according to a copy of the guidelines provided by Schwebel. The guidelines regulating HRC procedure explicitly define the parameters of the commission's authority. The role of the committee subjects the commission to the expansive discretion of the governing body regarding expectations and duties, the guidelines said.
The same guidelines also bestowed extensive responsibilities upon the HRC. According to various letters and meeting minutes, Schwebel and the HRC believed themselves to occupy a substantial role in township affairs.
Schwebel believed the proactive initiatives fostered by the HRC contributed to a perception among committee members that the advisory board was overstepping its established boundaries.
Certain instances provide examples of the repeated attempts by Schwebel, in her capacity as HRC chair, to offer advisory assistance regarding the development of township regulations and policy. "The HRC was very vocal with the committee in terms of requesting projects. We never received any input," Schwebel added. She said her avid advocacy might have contributed to the decision to allow her term to expire.
When Schwebel was reappointed to the HRC on Dec. 31, 2004, she was involved in pending litigation against the town regarding the March 2004 complaint. The dispute went unresolved until August 2007, just as her three-year term came up for renewal.
Other evidence suggests the committee may have given the HRC little consideration. The current committee wholly determines the attention given to the HRC, the guidelines said.
According to the minutes from the Feb. 23, 2006 HRC meeting, members of the commission were not provided copies of the township's employee handbook until it was available to the general public. "[Schwebel] reiterated that, for over a year, [the HRC] has reviewed policies and notified township officials that township (Equal Employment Opportunities/Affirmative Action [EEO/AA]) nondiscrimination policies need to be updated," the minutes said. The commission drafted an official letter to former Mayor Thomas Hall in July 2005, saying the HRC wished to provide input before the adoption of policy.
Schwebel alleged township officials discouraged cooperative efforts with the Board of Education. "[Hall] said the HRC went outside its parameters when requesting information from school officials. In reality, we helped schools gather and process information during our attempts to increase a representative amount of minority teachers in [Middletown public schools,]" she said.
Regardless of the outcome of current litigation, Schwebel plans to attend every HRC meeting. "As long as there is a commission, I will be a part of it," she concluded, asserting her perfect record of attendance would remain unblemished.