Meeting of February 22, 2005 to Vote on Authorization of Funds
I voted to put the FY 2005 State and Local Budget Allocations and the Contract for Continuing Health Unit Services on the agenda for a Commission meeting because I think it is critical that as the government agency entrusted with enforcing civil rights for the nation we increase our public presence and public accountability and that as a Commission we improve the access we have to information so that our votes are more knowledgeable. Conducting our business in public so that stakeholders and our employees know what we are doing and sharing more information both within the Commission and with the public will make the Commission's work more responsive, responsible, and transparent.
For those of you who may not know, the Commission uses a notational vote system for many of the matters that it has under consideration. The notational vote system, whereby each Commissioner submits a written vote, is useful for many routine items, but, by its very nature, a notational vote does not allow for debate and discussion by the Commission as a body, and, thus, limits the public's ability to observe our deliberations and our votes. Through the notational vote system, a member of the Commission may vote to place an item on the "agenda" for a Commission meeting, thereby requiring the Commission to meet and deliberate before a vote occurs.
Public meetings should be a regular part of the Commission's work. I am troubled that in my time as a member of the Commission we have held so few meetings. By my count, we have held four public Commission meetings in the fifteen months I have been here. All but one of those meetings were called in response to my putting an issue on the agenda during the notation vote period. I think our employees and the public would benefit from having more access to the Commission's deliberations and work, and I hope to work with my colleagues to increase our public presence.
To that end, there are several other issues that have also been placed on the agenda, both by myself and by other members of the Commission. These items, however, do not appear on today's agenda, which was set by the Chair, as all meeting agendas are. The Chair and I have begun to talk about a meeting for one of these outstanding issues. It is my hope that the others, especially the time sensitive issues, will be brought up for meetings quickly as well.
As important to me as sharing information with the public is the idea that we should share information within the Commission in order to allow Commissioners to reach fully informed decisions. I understand that there has been a longtime tension, spanning administrations, over the proper roles of the Chair and the members of the Commission. I believe that members of the Commission have a responsibility to determine policy positions taken by the agency. I respect that Title VII makes the Chair "responsible on behalf of the Commission for the administrative operations of the Commission." Running the administrative operations of the agency is a difficult job in the best of circumstances, and the Chair needs to be able to fulfill this role.
But this power is not without limits. I know in recent years that there has been much deference and control given to the Chair over many operations of the agency, including budget formulation and implementation. The Commission's budget is now one-third of a billion dollars, the largest for any civil rights enforcement agency within the federal government. I believe that how this budget is allocated is a question that should be put before the Commission as a body, because control over the budget of the Commission is, in effect, control over our civil rights policy.
All four of us, as members of the Commission, took an oath of office, where we swore we would "well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office." I believe this imposes on all of us a fiduciary obligation to ensure that the taxpayer dollars spent by the Commission are consistent with our mission and dedicated to our fundamental purpose of enforcing the laws with which we are entrusted. I believe that we, as members of the Commission, are entitled to basic information about the operations of the Commission, information that in many instances is freely shared among employees of the agency.
But basic information has not been forthcoming. When I asked for information about what decisions have been made by the Chair about how our 2005 funds will be spent, in order to inform my decisions on the pending budget allocations, I was denied this information by the Chief Operating Officer. In this instance I was not challenging the ability of the Chair to make these choices, even if I do believe that the Commission as a body should be the one to make these decisions. All I wanted to know is how the public monies that fund this agency are being spent this year, as decided by the Chair without input from members of the Commission. I find it both outrageous and unacceptable that members of the Commission, appointed by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the United States Senate, are denied basic information that is within control of the staff of the agency. I call on the Chair to change this policy so members of the Commission can obtain basic information to make informed choices on the operations of the agency.
Turning to the two items on the agenda today, I have had a difficult time deciding how to vote on these packages, even though I strongly support both programs.
I know that without FEPAs we simply would not be able to process the charges we receive in a timely manner. And for many parts of the country, FEPAs are the only civil rights outposts. I think the health center does excellent work, and I recognize that it provides essential services to our employees, increases the agency's productivity, and helps move us towards the goal of being a model workplace.
Rather, in both instances my concerns stem from the fact that the Commissioners have been asked to vote on budget allocations without any information about the rest of the allocations in the budget and how these items fit in the context of our operating budget. This would be like you deciding to buy a car without first checking how much money you have in the bank, how much you owe to other people, what other bills you have outstanding, and where else your money is being spent. In short, it is fiscally irresponsible.
It is even more strange to be asked to approve allocations without budget information given the constant fiscal shortages we face, the minuscule proposed increase in our fiscal year 2006 budget, our continued hiring freeze, and our willingness to spend money on non-mission essential work, such as our new awards for employers and the national contact center.
I am especially concerned by the FEPA allocation both because of the large amount of money it represents and because of the variety of proposals that have been presented. This is the third version Commissioners have received for our approval. The first one, like this one, funded FEPAs at the maximum level set by Congress in our budget, which has been our regular practice for many years. The first version was removed from consideration before the Commission could vote on it. The second allocation proposal reduced the FEPA allocation by approximately 1.7 million dollars 1 million of that was simply removed from the FEPA budget and $700,000 was placed in a special fund to be controlled only by the Chair as she saw fit, even if these special projects were not FEPA related. The overall reduction in funding and the novel creation of a discretionary fund for the Chair caused me to place this matter on the agenda so that I could discuss it publicly with my colleagues. Now, we have been presented with a new allocation, that once again funds the FEPAs at Congress' maximum and does not contain the Chair's fund. But this only raises more questions that I hope to have answered at this meeting.
I look forward to a vigorous and public discussion of these issues.
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