Roeland Park City Council closer to vote on discrimination ban

06/17/2014 12:42 PM

06/17/2014 6:55 PM

A vote on Roeland Park’s proposal to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity won’t happen this month, but the council may be closer to voting in July.

After pushing the vote back three times, the council decided Monday night during its committee of the whole meeting to take a final look at the ordinance on July 7 and vote July 21. During the second half of the meeting, the council continued its discussion from the June 9 meeting, one of the original dates scheduled for a vote.

Council members focused primarily on whether to add domestic service employees to the protected class and the role of a potential Human Rights Committee, but the council also discussed some of the ordinance’s definitions. At the end of the discussion, the council came to a consensus to vote in July, but not all members seemed ready.

Councilwoman Mel Croston said putting off the vote might be wise since the council is in middle of working on the 2015 budget and already put the vote off several times.

“This isn’t going anywhere,” she said.

Jennifer Gunby, who co-proposed the law with councilor Megan England, disagreed, saying not scheduling the vote could create a problem for residents who want to be at the meeting.

“I don’t want to give them just one week notice,” she said.

The council’s discussion began with setting a definition of “discrimination.” Previously the ordinance did not include a definition, but referred to the Kansas Act Against Discrimination, which does. City Attorney Neil Shortlidge told the council that “discrimination” is a widely used term that most people understand, so including a definition might not be necessary. After a short discussion the council decided to add the definition from the Kansas Act Against Discrimination.

Councilwoman Sheri McNeil’s proposal to add domestic service employees won’t be a part of the ordinance that the council will vote on in July. McNeil had requested adding individuals employed by another individual for domestic service jobs like cleaning, lawn mowing and home health care, but the definition of “domestic servant” was an issue with the council.

For instance, if a maid, was employed by a cleaning company, and that company fell under the definition of a business with four or more employees, they should be protected by the law. However, McNeil’s proposal could effectively drop the required number of employees down to one. This made some council members uneasy about dictating what an individual could decide in their own home.

Mayor Joel Marquardt was hesitant to drop the number down so low when many cities set the threshold closer to 20 employees.

“It’s so personal to be in one’s home,” he said.

Michael Rhoades suggested adding several more protected classes, citing a Montana law that included pregnancy, marital status, political affiliation and genetics.

“Should we just run the gamut and find anyone?” he asked.

McNeil could not provide a specific instance where a state or municipality had added such a protection, but said some states were beginning to deal with the issue.

The council decided the subject need more research. Domestic servants could be added later as an amendment to the law if it is passed.

The council agreed that a human rights committee or commission would be a good addition, but exactly how that committee would operate has not been answered. In some cities the committee works parallel to laws as a public outreach tool while in others it also hears complaints from citizens.

Councilwoman Gunby said the role of the committee is dependent on whether the city has a discrimination law, so the council should wait until after the vote to form the committee.

Councilman Marek Gliniecki, however, suggested it would be the committee’s job to inform businesses about the ordinance and should be formed at the same time.

How ever the committee is implemented, the council agreed it would be a good tool to build understanding and togetherness in the city. This was especially important, Croston said, because the opinions about the ordinance have divided residents and caused bullying.

“I want Roeland Park to go back to the way it was, because this has got to stop,” Croston said

The council will continue discussion on the matter at the July 7 meeting.

The meeting drew the largest number of residents to make public comment in some time with 27 people speaking during the city council meeting. Comments were mixed, but most speakers were in favor of the law.

Two United Church of Christ pastors spoke in favor of the law, including Holly McKissick of Westwood.

“It would be wonderful for people to look at Roeland Park and say, ‘What a great community, a place with extravagant welcome,’” she said.

Judy Spear, a Roeland Park resident, spoke against the ordinance. Spear questioned whether any discrimination had occurred in the city and said allowing transgender people to use restrooms could be emotionally and psychologically damaging to children.

“If I had children I would not let them go to the community center if a male could use the restroom,” Spear said

Scott Fieker, a transgender man, told the council about his personal struggle with gender identity and urged the council to pass the law. Fieker said as a counselor he frequently works with members of the LGBT community, where depression and suicide rates are high.

“Anything less than passing this is an injustice,” he said

Elizabeth Anderson, a Roeland Park resident, said as a lesbian, she was offended by a flier that was distributed to houses around Roeland Park recently. The fliers criticized the ordinance saying it was “poorly constructed, does not provide for due process and is fiscally irresponsible.” It also said the ordinance will create problems by allowing transgender people to use restrooms and changing facilities of the opposite sex.

“Bathrooms are a nonstarter,” she said. “They’re just not an issue.”

Anderson also said the organization calling itself “RP Residents for Equality” while clearly being against the ordinance was “Orwellian” misinformation and confusing.

Maureen Reardon, a Roeland Park resident who has spoken about religious exceptions before, said even with the revised language taken from the San Antonio law, the ordinance’s exception for religious groups is still too narrow for churches like St. Agnes Catholic Parish to hold for-profit events. Reardon said those events are crucial for fundraising.

“Let’s make sure people can still attend events in our community, even if it’s a fundraiser, even if it’s at a church,” she said.

Marek Gliniecki was also re-elected council president at the meeting.

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