WORCESTER – City Manager Eric Batista has denied the Human Rights Commission access to documents related to police misconduct, hate crimes, and payments made to settle allegations of civil rights violations.
The Human Rights Commission met on Monday night, where commissioners were informed of a recent meeting between the city manager and the Commission Chair, Ellen Shemitz, Vice Chairperson Elizabeth O’Callahan, and Commissioner Guillermo Creamer.
In a memo to the commission on Nov. 6, Batista instead seeks the commission to make recommendations on:
- The creation of a Worcester Equal Employment Opportunity Policy and a revision of the Affirmative Action Policy;
- Pay equity for City of Worcester employees;
- The creation of education materials on topics such as fair housing, workplace harassment prevention, and addressing implicit bias; and
- Addressing reported patterns of discrimination and harassment against Worcester Public Library staff from members of the public, including residents who are unhoused, dealing
with mental health issues, and/or substance abuse issues.
Commissioners present at the meeting relayed to the full commission that Batista said that due to the Department of Justice Investigation, the commission reviewing cases of police misconduct would be redundant.
The Human Rights Commission sets its own agenda and priorities, which are not the purview of the city manager. A court ruled in 1976 that “a municipal ordinance which established a human rights commission gave the commission the power and duty to receive and investigate complaints of violations of civil rights, a complaint charging excessive use of force by police was within the scope of the commission’s authority to investigate.”
The Department of Justice announced a pattern and practice investigation in November 2021. That investigation seeks to identify patterns of misconduct and discriminatory policy within the police department. It does not investigate individuals. The investigation is civil, not criminal.
The Human Rights Commission is the only public body in Worcester that conducts any meaningful independent inquiry of the conduct of law enforcement officials in Worcester. It also has the power to conduct its own investigations, but does not have the staff to do so.
The City Council Standing Committee on Public Safety has legislative jurisdiction over the police department. Since being appointed the chair in 2016, City Councilor Kate Toomey has never had an agenda item related to police misconduct. City Council committees also have no power to require testimony of any city employee nor the power to require that testimony under oath.
The Mayor of Worcester has the sole authority to appoint city councilors to its committees. This Week in Worcester asked Mayor Joe Petty’s office if he anticipated any changes in the Public Safety Standing Committee in the new term. The Mayor’s office responded: “All of the committees are subject to review and change after each election, especially considering we have two new City Councilors.”
The City of Worcester Charter also restricts the actions of city council in oversight of the city manager and executive branch of municipal government.
Per the rules of the city council and the city charter the role of the Committee Chairs has jurisdiction over the items referred to it by the city council. Rule 47 is very clear that the chair only has jurisdiction over the items referred to it by the city council or reports that are brought forward from the city manager for a review, public hearing and committee recommendations. The committee chair does not have authority to direct employees of the city manager and this is very clear in section (City Charter Section 2-3 Prohibitions – Neither the city council nor any of its committees or members shall direct … officers and employees in that portion of the service of the city for whose administration the city manager is responsible).
The city council nor its committee chairs have not authority (Section 3-2 Power and Duties of the city manager: To supervise the administration of the affairs of the city … and the city manager may make such recommendations to the city council concerning the affairs of the city as he/she may deem necessary and desirable).
Seven years ago, when the Department of Justice pattern and practice investigation findings were announced in Baltimore, their mayor discussed a litany of policy changes with implementation underway. It appears the City of Worcester will begin its reform then.
Editor’s note: Added information on Worcester City Charter on 11/14 at 10:20 AM