The Olathe City Council on Tuesday approved a resolution affirming the city’s opposition to many forms of discrimination, including on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. But that vote was not welcome by members of the LGBTQ community.
The measure, which passed on a 4-2 vote, came after a number of meetings where members of the community have asked the council for a full ordinance banning discrimination in housing, employment and receiving public services from stores, restaurants and other businesses.
Many of those advocates criticized the resolution Tuesday, noting that it lacks a means of enforcement. Around 20 people spoke about the issue after the vote. The room was filled with residents there to hear about that issue and various other council matters.
The resolution encourages residents to resolve their disputes through the city’s Community Mediation program, a service offered through the city prosecutor’s office that seeks to reach solutions between residents without the need for litigation.
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“It really has been a truly helpful program for our organization to have,” City Attorney Ron Shaver said as he explained the resolution.
Brett Hoedl, an Olathe resident and chairman of the metro Kansas City chapter of the LGBTQ rights group Equality Kansas, said he was frustrated that the city developed the resolution without consulting with groups like his, which first requested a non-discrimination ordinance more than two years ago.
That request led Hoedl and other advocates to work with the city’s Human Relations Commission, which is appointed by the mayor to promote diversity and inclusion. After two years of discussions, the commission agreed an ordinance is necessary and sent a formal recommendation for one to the council in January.
Hoedl said he considered Tuesday’s resolution dangerous because it tries to address discrimination with a voluntary process.
“It gives people the illusion that they have the freedom to be who they are, to be their authentic selves without having that true protection,” he said.
A number of Johnson County cities, including Prairie Village, Mission and Merriam, have enacted their own anti-discrimination ordinances in recent months. The Mission Hills City Council has also directed staff to draft such an ordinance.
Mayor Michael Copeland and others on the council have argued that enforcing such an ordinance for a larger city like Olathe would be complex and that it would be better if the Kansas Legislature expanded the existing statewide discrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Such a bill is currently filed in Topeka, but its fate is uncertain.
As part of the resolution, the council encourages state lawmakers “to debate comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation.” Copeland on Tuesday attempted to change that language to push for the passage of anti-discrimination legislation, but the amendment failed on a 3-3 vote.
Councilwoman Marge Vogt voted against the amendment, saying she couldn’t support something until she saw what the state legislation actually did. She later voted to approve the resolution itself along with Copeland and councilmen Jim Randall and Wes McCoy.
Council members Karin Brownlee and John Bacon voted against both the amendment and the resolution. Brownlee said the state already has laws overseeing housing and employment.
“It would be my sense that those statutes do provide adequate protections, and we all live by those,” she said.
Councilman Larry Campbell was absent from the meeting.
After the vote, some council members said that if the Legislature doesn’t take up anti-discrimination legislation this year, they planned to return to the issue.
“I would agree that it would be appropriate for this council to pass legislation in the form of an ordinance that makes it very clear that there’s not going to be discrimination in this city for any reason,” Randall said.
Later in the meeting, a number of speakers continued to push for a non-discrimination ordinance and asked the council not to wait for state lawmakers.
Angie Powers, who is the mother of an LGBTQ child and the teacher sponsor of the Olathe Northwest High School’s Gender-Sexuality Alliance club, said the council was asking her graduating students to be patient.
“That’s asking a lot,” Powers said. “They’re getting ready to start their lives. They want to know if they can go to a business, if they can apply for a job in their own community and have the same rights as everyone else.”
A handful of speakers, however, argued against an ordinance. Keith Esau, a former Republican state representative, said none of the LGBTQ people he had known or worked with in the past mentioned being discriminated against and that government should remain unobtrusive.
“I don’t see a need to have an ordinance (that’s) a solution looking for a problem to solve,” Esau said. “All I see is it will create a way for people to drive a wedge in the community instead of bringing the community together.”