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Civil rights agency budget cuts decried

Partisan politics harmful, many say

WASHINGTON -- After saying her goodbyes to a dying relative at a local hospital, Carlette Jones drove home to Aurora, Colo., and found an eviction notice on her front door.

For months, a white neighbor had contended that Jones's yard was dirty, but ignored the fact that ''a white neighbor across from me . . . kept an open refrigerator on the patio," said Jones, who is black and Hispanic. The neighbor also said Jones's children were too loud.

''My kids weren't loud," she said, recalling the 1991 conflict. ''I'm Trinidadian and Mexican, and I look Mexican. She nitpicked because I'm a minority."

The manager of the townhouses dismissed Jones's protest, as did the City of Aurora. Finally, she called the Denver regional office of the US Commission on Civil Rights, where a worker guided her step by step through the filing of a discrimination complaint. Jones took photos of the neighbor's mess and of oil leaking from the car of the woman who had complained of filth. In the end, a judge ordered the complainant to pay Jones $2,000.

The government officials Jones said came to her rescue will soon be gone. Mired in a deep budget crisis, the commission will shutter the Denver office and one in Kansas City, Kan., in October, laying off six people.

The move will force anyone with a federal civil rights complaint in those districts to seek help in the commission's Chicago office. The Denver office covers Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, while the Kansas City office oversees complaints in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri.

There are few state and local civil rights commissions with adequate staff, and lawsuits are expensive, civil rights advocates say.

''Without them, I could not have done what I did. You hear of programs to deal with discrimination, but you don't know how to reach them or exactly what to do if your case goes to a hearing or whatever," Jones said. ''That office is for all people, not just blacks or Mexicans. It's very, very important."

Some say the office closings are a harbinger of the slow death of the civil rights agency, which, riven by partisan politics, long ago strayed from being the ''conscience of the federal government," as President Dwight D. Eisenhower intended when he created it as part of the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

The commission has been plagued by political power struggles and by fighting among its Republican and Democratic members. Conservatives in Congress kept its budget at $9 million for most of the 12-year term of Mary Frances Berry, the liberal chairwoman who left the commission in December. That is $3 million less than its budget during the Reagan administration.

Berry, however, continued to spend as though the commission had sufficient funds, holding meetings nationwide even as the agency failed to pay rent to the downtown Washington YWCA, where it is headquartered.

The Denver and Kansas City offices are being closed to help make up for a shortfall of more than $135,000, said Kenneth L. Marcus, the agency's staff director. Marcus also recommended the release of four staff members total from the four remaining field offices -- in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and the District of Columbia -- a proposal he withdrew after objections from Capitol Hill.

The commission would be blinded by the move, said Carole A. Barrett, chairman of the agency's North Dakota state advisory commission. Analysts are the region's ''eyes and ears," she said. They work with advisory committees, investigate claims, and write the reports that fulfill the agency's mission of reporting on discrimination and civil rights abuses.

The Denver office represents more Indian reservations than any other office. It has generated reports about problems that continue to plague Native Americans, including poor education, alcoholism, and suicide. Indians also have brought numerous land disputes with the federal government to the commission office.

Indian activists say the office's role is especially important since Elsie Meeks, the only Native American on the commission, left when her term expired last month. Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, said the office plays a role in ensuring that discrimination complaints ''cannot get swept under the rug," and she questioned ''the wisdom of closing an office that has achieved notable results despite having only a three-person staff that serves six states."

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