WASHINGTON – The four Republican members of the now equally divided U.S. Civil Rights Commission are boycotting Friday's monthly meeting because they say the panel's controversial chairwoman is trying to hijack the meetings by holding them out of town.
"It's very clear that she's thwarting the Democratic process here," complained Republican member Russell Redenbaugh, whose seat was vacant for six months before Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., finally re-appointed him in July. His return to the committee brought the once Democrat-dominated panel to a 4-4 split.
He and the three other Republican commissioners say they will not be attending the planned meeting in Delaware Friday, contending that they never got a chance to vote on the measure, and that Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, a Democrat, is trying to make meetings more difficult to attend because she resents the loss of her control.
And, said Republican Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom, Berry and her staff "don't want the Washington-based media around or the House Oversight Committee around," referring to the spate of bad publicity surrounding the commission this year due to Berry's reluctance to accept the appointment of Republican Peter Kirsanow until a judge forced her hand in a ruling last spring. In April, the commission was the target of a congressional oversight hearing about whether the panel's leadership systematically squashes dissent, mismanages its budget and pushes the majority Democratic agenda.
Last month, the commission held a field hearing in Detroit, for what the staff called a forum on discrimination with the strong Arab-American community there. This month, it will be meeting with state advisory committee officials from West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware in Wilmington, Del., on regional racial issues. At the same time, they will be listening to concerns from a panel of community members.
Nathea Lee, a spokeswoman for the panel, said members who suggested that Berry was diverting the panel on these trips were flat-out wrong, that the panel voted in the spring to conduct meetings "on the ground" and that members who planned to boycott were just hurting themselves.
"This is something that commissioners agreed to in May," said Lee, who works for McKinney and Associates, the private firm that handles public relations for the commission. "The commissioners are free to raise whatever issue that want at the meeting; when they're not there they won't be able to raise their issues."
(The hiring of the Lee's firm was also a source of consternation this year from Congress, which Staff Director Les Jin defended by saying the $180,000 fee was money well spent even though the commission has its own internal public affairs department.)
Berry, nor Vice Chair Cruz Reynoso, returned calls for comment.
Redenbaugh and Thernstrom complained that the meetings "in the field" were sparsely attended, and that the members were only notified a month in advance where and when they would be held. They were just told that the October meeting is to be held in Jackson, Miss., they said.
"They aren't the meetings that allow us to do the work our statute compels us to do," said Redenbaugh. "Sure, it's more fun go around and talk to people, do a Bill Clinton, feeling everyone's pain. You don't have to prepare or study, just show up. I don't think we should spend our time doing that."
Republican members said the panel voted in May to take the commission out on the road throughout the year, but it was never established how many times, where or when.
"No one told us why were going to Wilmington. All they said was [we] were going to Wilmington because the chairwoman and staff director said we were going," said Redenbaugh.
He believes that if the same vote were taken today, "it would not get a majority," particularly since Republican members were in a 4-3 minority in May. The commission vote to hold field hearings was a 4-3 split down party lines.
Lee said members should not fear any neglect of the commission's official business, which will be taken care of during the early part of Friday's Wilmington meeting. As for the notification, she said: "There is no conspiracy to keep Republicans out of the loop. The commissioners get a month's notice on where the meetings will be held. The panel gives them as much advance notice as possible."
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission was established in 1959 by the Eisenhower administration to protect the voting rights of blacks. While it has a $9 million annual budget, the panel has no enforcement powers. Instead, it has the authority to call hearings and subpoena witnesses, hear discrimination complaints and publish reports. It meets 11 times a year.
So far this year, the commission has traveled to Florida twice to hear complaints about alleged racial discrimination in the election system, to Detroit and now to Wilmington, at a hefty price tag, say Republican members.
"We've got a fiduciary responsibility to Congress," said Thernstom, who said she might join other members in teleconferencing into tomorrow's meeting, but will protest by not voting.
"It is extremely expensive having the staff running around like this," she added, noting that it would be cheaper in most cases to have witnesses come to Washington to testify.
Les Jin, staff director for the commission, did not return phone calls Thursday requesting information on the cost of the trips.