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Tennessee's anti-discrimination agency board getting reset after complaints against former director

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WPLN
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Rachel Iacavone

The Tennessee Human Rights Commission will look a lot different this fall after state lawmakers gutted the board. The agency is in charge of enforcing the state’s anti-discrimination laws. The move comes after complaints involving the agency’s former director, who resigned while being investigated for misconduct.

Last September, after a Human Rights Commission board meeting, Commissioner Julius Sloss returned to his office and was met with a surprise when he opened his email.

“In that email they brought certain concerns and allegations against the director,” Sloss said.

Sloss is speaking about former Executive Director Beverly Watts.

“There were allegations that profanity was used in giving out instructions allegations that a person had to get permission to go to the bathroom,” Sloss said. “I mean just, you know, just kind of some crazy, crazy things.”

The Tennessee Department of Human Resources investigated the claims and found them to be credible after talking with several staff members. Watts denies the allegations but chose to resign anyways.

But it still reflected poorly on the commission, which investigates housing and business discrimination complaints in the state.

One investigation caught the attention of Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, who says they unfairly penalized a business owner in his district. So, he decided to disband all its members.

“When they get out of line and are not doing the work we told them to, that’s when it’s our responsibility, on behalf of the citizens, to step in and get it corrected, and that’s what this bill seeks to do,” Todd said.

The measure would require that the commission be reset this fall.

Commissioner Sloss isn’t a fan of the breakdown of the new appointments. Currently, the governor has five picks, and the speakers of the House and Senate have two apiece. This gives the legislature up to six. Sloss thinks that’s too much power.

Still, Sloss says, it’s better than Republicans wanting to get rid of it altogether, which was their first impulse. Doing so would allow the Biden Administration to oversee discrimination investigations.

“What our argument was to the legislature was: at least, you still have some say so, as to how things are run,” Sloss said.

Once the governor signs the measure, which he’s expected to do, a new commission will be seated Sept. 1.

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