Skip to comments.Palm Beach County Republicans Betrayed again by RINO Leadership!(My Title)
Posted on 12/04/2002 6:04:42 AM PST by Jacvin
Gay-rights law quietly passed
By J. Christopher Hain, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Wednesday, December 4, 2002
WEST PALM BEACH -- With not a word of discussion and not a peep from the public, Palm Beach County commissioners quietly enacted sweeping new protections against job discrimination sought by the county's gay community.
A law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in both private and public workplaces was approved in September after a carefully orchestrated lobbying campaign that successfully avoided any public debate of the controversial topic.
The law was initiated by then-Commissioner Carol Roberts, a longtime gay-rights advocate who has a gay son. At the time, she was actively courting gay and lesbian voters in her unsuccessful race for Congress. Vaguely worded as a legal housekeeping item on the agenda, the law's summary sheet never mentioned the addition of "sexual orientation" to the county's Equal Employment Act.
Commissioners approved the change on Aug. 20 and again on Sept. 10, the same day Miami-Dade County voted down a turbulent effort to repeal a similar gay-rights ordinance in a campaign that drew national attention.
The Palm Beach County ordinance slipped past the county administrator, religious groups and the news media. Word got out well after the vote, when the law was reported in the gay press and on the Web site of a group that pushed for passage. To some, the deliberate lack of discussion raises questions about how committed the county commission is to open government.
"In the state of Florida, we believe in openness in public decision making," said Robert Meyers, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics, a government watchdog group. "It does seem kind of bizarre that this could go through without even a blip on the radar screen."
Groups opposed to such protections were particularly outraged. "I think it was deceptive," said John Brooks, local Christian Coalition chairman, who said he had no inkling that the law was under consideration. "I would have been there, if we had known."
The new law allows anyone in the county to file claims against an employer of 15 or more workers for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, marital status or family status -- adding those categories to the existing list of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age and disability. A claim can lead to a county demand for compensation of lost wages or legal action seeking other damages. Nationwide, 239 municipalities, 11 states and the District of Columbia have anti-discrimination ordinances protecting gays and lesbians in either public or private employment, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, an advocacy group. The state of Florida has no such law, but 14 Sunshine State cities and counties do.
Here, county commissioners found the law not worth a single spoken word in two public meetings. "When you talk about discrimination, certain things aren't debatable," Commissioner Addie Greene said. "We're more open to accepting people's different types of lifestyles." Hush-hush strategy
Keeping it quiet was exactly the strategy adopted by the group pushing the measure, the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. The council had previously failed to get the same law passed. "It becomes a huge public spectacle, and it gets in the way of focusing on good public policy," said Jamie Foreman, president of the council, a nonpartisan gay-rights organization.
By contrast, a similar measure passed last month in Orlando after seven hours of debate and a 4-3 vote. And this week the Palm Beach County School Board postponed a decision on whether to include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination policy for students after opponents asked for more time to consider the change. "We wanted to approach this with a fresh perspective," Foreman said. "We talked one-on-one with commissioners."
Roberts set the stage for passage at a July 23 meeting, just as the commission was breaking for lunch. All she said was that she wanted the language of two ordinances -- No. 95-1 and No. 95-31 -- "to conform." When it was placed on commissioners' Aug. 20 agenda, the law's cover sheet said only that it would make the protected classes consistent in the equal employment ordinance (No. 95-31) and fair housing ordinance (No. 95-1).
Only the proposed law itself told that the protected class covered "sexual orientation," "marital status" and "familial status." Prior to the meeting, commissioners had each received a letter from the human-rights council letting them know Roberts would bring up the issue.
The council had sought Roberts' help while she was aggressively courting gay and lesbian voters in her bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw. Roberts, however, said her political ambitions played no part in her decision. "It was the right thing to do," she said. "This was just a coincidental thing." Roberts contended the agenda item was written like any other. "We didn't treat this any differently than we do any other ordinance," she said. Assistant County Attorney Tammy Fields said she wrote the agenda item the way Roberts requested it. "Our office tries as much as possible to stay out of the politics," she said. County Administrator Bob Weisman said he didn't realize what the ordinance was about until told last week by a reporter. "Frankly, the way it came up, it was kind of like housekeeping," Weisman said. "I never had a question asked of me of any kind by the commissioners."
Victory largely symbolic Commissioners said not a single word Aug. 20 or three weeks later during a public hearing on the day of the Sept. 10 primary, a review of the meeting tapes showed. Fields said she was surprised at the lack of debate. "I certainly expected a crowd," she said. Harry Lamb, director of the Palm Beach County office of equal opportunity, said the lack of public debate wasn't unexpected. "We don't have the vocal opposition here that we've seen in other counties," he said. "I like to think the county's more forward looking." In 1990, Palm Beach County became the only county in Florida to approve protections for gays and lesbians against housing discrimination. That effort succeeded after intense lobbying and lengthy debate.
Advocates hoped to follow up the housing protections with job protection. But a 1991 drive was killed. And a 1995 amendment proposed by Roberts was defeated by commissioners.
Among those voting it down: Republicans Mary McCarty, Karen Marcus and Warren Newell -- all of whom voted for it in September. Marcus said she assumed the change was the result of review by a citizen or staff committee suggesting policy changes. But it wasn't. "I'm assuming there was plenty of staff scrutiny," she said. Newell said he voted against adding employment protection for sexual orientation in 1995 because he felt it went beyond federal and state law. It still does. Now, however, Newell said he doesn't have a problem with it. "The issue is: Should people be discriminated against for any reason? And they should not be," he said. McCarty said she now feels protections against housing and employment discrimination should be the same. She insisted she hasn't changed her position since 1995, but would not elaborate. For the gay and lesbian community, the law's passage represents a largely symbolic -- yet quiet -- victory. Palm Beach County gets fewer than 10 cases of housing discrimination against gays and lesbians annually, Lamb said. And he said he doesn't know how many new claims the employment ordinance will generate. Neither does Foreman of the human-rights council, but he thinks it's an important step. "It gives a little more confidence to people to just be who they are and if something happens to not be afraid to come forward," he said.
Commissioner McCarty (R) (561)355-2204 930-2204 Tool Free outside the West Palm Beach Calling area) E-mail: email@example.com
Commissioner Warren Newell's (R) Office:(561)355-2203 E-Mail: WNEWELL@co.palm-beach.fl.us
Commissioner Karen Marcus'(R) Office: (561) 355-2201 930-2201 (Toll Free outside the West Palm Beach calling area) Email Commissioner Marcus KMARCUS@co.palm-beach.fl.us
Commissioner Tony Masilotti's Office:(R) (561) 355-6300 930-2206 (Toll Free outside the West Palm Beach Calling area) Email Commissioner Masilotti TMASILOT@co.palm-beach.fl.us
Is there anything else that can be done at this point before the ink dries on this thing?