HALLOWELL (AP) – Patricia Ryan recalls the day precisely, June 4, 1979, when she became executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

“I told them I thought I would stay for five years,” she says with a smile. “They agreed that was a good commitment of time. And here I am.”

Pat Ryan is still on the job, presiding over operations at a small agency whose duties have broadened and caseloads have grown but whose mission is still pretty much the same.

“Twenty-five years later, we’ve seen things change a lot,” Ryan said during an interview in her small office at a state complex a couple of miles outside the capital.

In the early years, cases presented issues that now might seem black and white.

“Then, we were looking at cases where employers, especially in the law enforcement end of things, were saying (or) running ads like measure up like a man,’ women can’t be police officers or they can’t be prison guards, it’s not the kind of job for a woman,” Ryan said.

Other complaints involved employers who said pregnant women shouldn’t be working.

“There was no concept of sexual harassment. That was just kind of a thing that if it happened, you either put up with it or you moved on,” she said.

“We didn’t have a statute that protected families with children in housing. The Maine Human Rights Commission certainly didn’t enforce whistleblower’s protection act claims or workers’ comp retaliation claims. All of that came later,” Ryan added.

Once the agency received about 320 charges every year. That’s up toward 800 now. Formerly, there was a staff of 10, with five investigators. The commission now has a staff of 12, with 3 1/2 investigators.

Cases these days are often multilayered.

“Almost every charge that’s filed has more than one basis, rather than just being a sex discrimination charge – race and religion, or disability and age. Some of the investigations are more complex,” Ryan said.

“Disability is still our largest category of complaint. Through the 80s and into the 90’s, sex discrimination (and) disability would fluctuate back and forth. Both of those two were the largest numbers,” Ryan said.

Disability has comprised the largest number of cases for the last few years. Sex discrimination is second and whistleblowers third. Age, race and retaliation are the three next, and those six together comprise 95 percent of what the commission does, its executive director said.

The agency itself, established in 1971, defines its purpose this way: “The Maine Human Rights Commission’s mission is to ensure equality of opportunity by vigorously enforcing laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, education, public accommodations and credit.”

Policy is set by five commissioners who are nominated by the governor, subject to Senate confirmation and paid $25 per meeting.

The commission tries to resolve complaints with the parties themselves, but is authorized to go to court when settlement efforts fail.

“The Maine Human Rights Commission has earned the respect of both sides, which is a tribute in large part to Pat,” said Peter Lowe, a Lewiston-based management lawyer who represents public and private sector employers before the commission.

Crediting commissioners with being open-minded and attentive to details, Lowe added, “my clients approach the commission with confidence that they will be fair.”

State Rep. William Norbert, D-Portland, who chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and works with the Augusta-based Disability Rights Center, gives Ryan equally high marks.

“She’s terrific, Norbert said. “She’s committed to human rights, she’s committed to the process.”

Moreover, he said, “she does a lot with a little. We’ve tried to protect her budget over the years, but it’s not been possible. … I have concerns about how much more we can ask them to do without more resources.”

In the past year, Commission Chairman Kim Millick wrote in the agency’s new annual report, “the commission saw an increase in the number of new charges and the number of charges closed decreased. It’s becoming increasingly difficult with limited investigative resources to reduce inventory and conduct timely investigations as required by law.”

According to the fiscal 2004 annual report of the commission issued this month:

-84 percent of charges brought before the commission cited employment discrimination. Housing cases made up 9 percent.

-Disability, sex, and whistleblowers’ allegations made up 70 percent new charges. Another 25 percent cited age, retaliation and race.

-Sexual harassment charges comprised 45 percent of all sex discrimination charges.

Ryan, 60, of Brunswick, served as chairwoman of the Maine State Personnel Board before joining the state human rights agency. A member of the Joint Standing Committee to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she is co-chair of the State Immigrant and Refugee Resettlement Task Force.

Holding a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Syracuse University, Ryan previously was a personnel administrator for Polaroid in Cambridge, Mass., and worked as a projects coordinator for the Center for Natural Areas, formerly affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.

Married, Ryan enjoys bicycling and kayaking. She is a native of Pennsylvania’s Amish country.

As one of the nation’s longest serving human rights agency administrators, Ryan’s happy where she is.

“It’s the best job there is. I mean, every day is a challenge and every day there’s a reward,” Ryan said.

Maine was the first state in the nation to require mandatory training in sexual harassment in the early 90s and Ryan said it “turned out to be one of the smartest things, I think, that we’ve done as a state.”

Since then, she said, employers have expanded that requirement to do sexual harassment training “on all kinds of discrimination issues.”

On the Net:

Maine Human Rights Commission: http://www.state.me.us/mhrc/index.shtml

AP-ES-09-20-04 1306EDT

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