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Amid bias case glut, agency leader resigns

Published Sep. 27, 2005

After an audit finds poor management, the head of the Florida Commission on Human Relations quits.

The state commission charged with investigating discrimination claims has ousted its executive director amid findings that poor management has led to a "virtually insurmountable" backlog of cases.

Executive Director Ron McElrath, 52, quietly resigned last week after an independent audit found that complaints to the Florida Commission on Human Relations are not being resolved in a timely fashion, staff is underused and work is unevenly distributed.

Auditors gave the commission a grade of D+.

McElrath, who took over the commission in 1991 after heading Clearwater's Office of Community Relations, defended his tenure and said the backlog was caused by factors out of his control.

"This is my heart _ this is my life," McElrath said in an interview from his Tallahassee home on Tuesday. "But if people have different agendas, and every month it's a fight, you have to evaluate that."

The commission named Derick Daniel, formerly the deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Management Services, as its interim executive director.

The Florida Commission on Human Relations acts as the state equivalent of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, investigating complaints involving gender, race, age, religion, disability, housing and other forms of discrimination.

The commission determines whether there is probable cause to believe that discrimination took place, and, if so, it attempts to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. Plaintiffs who are not satisfied may also proceed to a hearing before an administrative law judge.

But Commission Chairman Whitfield Jenkins said that victims of discrimination may have to wait years to have their complaint investigated.

As of March 31, the commission had a backlog of 2,501 employment discrimination cases that had been open for more than 180 days. As of February, 893 of those cases had been open for more than two years.

Auditors estimated that, assuming no additional employment discrimination cases were filed, it would take 1.9 years to clear that docket of cases and bring resolution to the people who felt victimized enough to complain. But the commission receives an average of 103 new complaints each month, said Daniel, the interim executive director.

Jenkins said the problems at the agency were first brought to his attention by Department of Management Services Secretary Thomas McGurk, a member of Gov. Jeb Bush's administration.

McGurk complained that people with discrimination complaints were having a hard time even getting information about the status of their cases, Jenkins said. Indeed, auditors noted that both McGurk's agency "and the Governor's Office have little confidence in the commission."

After the 12-member commission saw the results of the audit, members thought a "leadership change was needed," Jenkins said.

"If the soldiers are not fighting, we look at the general, and that's the circumstance and fate of Mr. McElrath," Jenkins said.

It wasn't the first time McElrath, an ordained minister, found himself under fire.

In 1997, current and former employees alleged that McElrath hired 17 members of the church he attended, showed favoritism toward church members in his employ and displayed statues of Jesus and manger scenes during Christmas time.

While McElrath admitted to hiring members of his church, it was eventually determined that he had not violated any state personnel rules.

Even Jenkins acknowledged that some of the backlog stems from issues outside of McElrath's control. For instance, the commission now deals with complaints of discrimination from the disabled community, a category Jenkinspredicts soon will outnumber all other complaints combined. Jenkins also said it took some active lobbying on the commission's part to convince the Legislature in 1998 and 1999 to significantly increase the agency's staff and budget.

McElrath says the commission had other problems. He said high turnover has led to a less experienced staff that cannot process cases as quickly. In addition, he said thoughtful investigations sometimes take longer than 180 days and that commission board members have added to the staff's duties by embarking on race relations initiatives and community forums.

Auditors praised McElrath's plan for solving the caseload problem, but McElrath said he believed "the decision had already been made" to force him to resign.

Bush spokesman Justin Sayfie said that the governor did not know why auditors said the governor's office had lost confidence in the commission.

Backlog in cases

The Florida Commission on Human Relations investigates complaints involving discrimination involving race, age, sex and other areas. Its budget has increased over the last few years, but the commission continues to experience a backlog in cases.

Fiscal Agency No. of Claims Cases

year budget workers filed closed

'96-'97 $2.6-million 48 1,224 458

'97-'98 $2.7-million 48 1,335 739

'98-'99 $3.5-million 60 1,443 696

'99-'00 $4.1-million 72 n/a n/a

By the numbers

2,501 Backlog of cases as of March 31, 2000

103 Average number of new claims filed per month

1.9 Length of time auditors believe it will take to clear

years up backlog of employment discrimination cases,

assuming no new cases are filed