Nondiscrimination proposal looms large in Roeland Park election

05/11/2014 10:34 PM

05/11/2014 10:34 PM

Tuesday’s special election in Roeland Park could determine whether the Kansas town becomes the second in the state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The election will fill the empty Ward 2 seat on the eight-member City Council that Robert Myers left in March for health reasons. Shea Geist, Michael Rhoades and Russell Parks are vying for the seat.

Whoever wins will vote on a proposal to add sexual orientation and gender identity to to the city’s protected classes. Public comment about the proposed ordinance, which is similar to one in Lawrence, has been split at town hall and council meetings.

Jennifer Gunby and Megan England, the two council members who proposed the ordinance in March, still support it. Other council members have not publicly said how they would vote.

At the May 5 council meeting, Becky Fast said she would not decide until she had studied the financial impact. Sheri McNeil did not say whether she supports the proposal, but said she wanted to add veterans and domestic servants to the list of protected classes, which already includes race, sex and age.

Mayor Joel Marquardt, who would break a tie vote, said he believed the LGBT community has been discriminated against and that no one on the council wants discrimination, but he would not say how he would vote.

“We as a governing body endorse not making a decision until it’s time to vote,” he said. “Too often people in government vote without knowing all the facts, and we want to avoid that.”

But at least one of the candidates on Tuesday’s ballot has already made up her mind.

Kansas Equality PAC, the political action arm of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Kansas, has publicly endorsed Geist, who announced her candidacy before the ordinance became an issue. Geist, 46, said she would vote in favor of the proposed ordinance because she believes in equal rights for all citizens.

“I want to be proud of the community I live in, and I want to be proud that it’s a community that stands up in the face of something as ugly as discrimination and says, ‘We are better than that,’ ” she said.

Geist is the director of operations for the Coalition for Independence, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities live independently. She said she wants to build a sense of community while striking a balance between the city’s two largest demographics: young families and senior citizens.

She wants to “make it a place where young families can grow and thrive, but also make sure those who are growing older can age in place,” she said.

Rhoades, a 39-year-old real estate agent who also is running, did not respond to questions about the proposed ordinance. A flier promoting Rhoades’ campaign read, “The only special interest I will represent is you.”

The flier asked residents to rank the importance of five issues, including replacing the soon-to-close Wal-Mart with another retailer and “Passing an ordinance granting special protections to the LGBT community.”

In an email, Rhoades said he supported broadening the tax base and increasing city revenues without raising taxes. He also wants to look for more efficient ways of running the government, maintaining or improving city services and attracting businesses.

“As a third generation Roeland Parker, I want to maintain a high quality of life in our city,” he wrote in the email.

Roger Cooper is on the ballot, but he is not running an active campaign. He said in a text message that he endorses Rhoades.

Russell Parks did not return phone calls or emails about the election.

Roeland Park voters from Ward 2 can cast a ballot at the Bishop Miege North Campus, 4901 Reinhardt St., from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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