Government & Politics

‘Complete cowardice’: Olathe leader wants to delay gay rights vote till after election

LGBT Protections pushed in Olathe

Advocates are frustrated that the Olathe City Council has not been willing to discuss a measure to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
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Advocates are frustrated that the Olathe City Council has not been willing to discuss a measure to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

Gay rights advocates in Olathe have waited years for a vote on an ordinance from their City Council making it illegal to evict, deny service or fire them for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Now, the council wants them to wait until after the election in November.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Jim Randall, who is up for re-election, said the council should wait to address the politically fraught issue until after ballots are cast. Two other council members are also up for re-election.

The crowd was upset.

“That is complete cowardice,” Olathe resident Brett Hoedl, who chairs the metro chapter of the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, told The Star the next day. “That’s what you’re there for. If you’re an elected official, you’re supposed to be thinking about what’s best for Olathe, not what’s best for your political future.”

“We’re just asking them to live up to their own standards and do what they say they’re going to do — and politics, ridiculous politics are getting in the way,” said Hoedl, whose teenage son is gay.

Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race or national origin, but not for being gay or transgender. States and local municipalities can make their own rule prohibiting it, but neither Kansas nor Olathe have one on the books.

In Johnson County, Roeland Park, Westwood Hills, Merriam, Prairie Village, Mission and Mission Woods have all passed non-discrimination ordinances, although the county’s largest city, Overland Park, has not. Overland Park is in the same position as Olathe, where its council announced its support for a state measure addressing LGBTQ+ rights, and it vowed to address the problem if the state did not.

In January, the Olathe Human Rights Commission made a formal recommendation for such an ordinance. In March, the council itself also passed a resolution, but not an ordinance, condemning discrimination and calling for the state to act.

Hoedl said that the council promised to act on an ordinance if the state Legislature did not pass a discrimination law this session. It didn’t, so Hoedl said the council is now reneging on its promise by delaying.

Council members had given Hoedl “soft assurances” that the ordinance would be on Tuesday’s agenda, he told The Star. He said the council “waited for the filing deadline, and they got cold feet” when members realized they would face competitive races.

“They just don’t care,” he said. “They don’t have to face this issue on a day-to-day basis. They don’t know what it means to be an ‘out’ person. They don’t have to hide who they are to make a living, or have a place to sleep. It’s not an issue they face, so they’re more than willing to kick the can down the road and not let it be an item that impacts their election.”

Ten Olathe residents spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, each pushing for a city ordinance, as advocates have been doing for more than two years.

Afterward, “the council members awkwardly looked around at each other like ‘who’s going to say it?’” said Evan Lovelace, who was one of the 10 residents.

Randall spoke up first, saying the the council should delay a vote.

Councilman Wes McCoy added that the current system already protected people from discrimination. Members of the crowd laughed, yelled and walked out.

Some council members took issue with the tactics of the advocates.

“Obviously, we had some activity that occurred here tonight, and you don’t feel the safety to be able to have the freedom to speak and share your thoughts,” Councilwoman Marge Vogt said.

“I don’t believe our opinions are being welcomed,” added Councilwoman Karin Brownlee.

After the departure of the protesters, Mayor Michael Copeland said the measure would only be put to a vote if he is certain it will pass.

“We’ve been asked to put it on the agenda and vote it up or down, and I’m not clear on the purpose of that unless it’s going to pass by majority,” he said. “It will be on the agenda when a majority of the council will support it.”

Hoedl said the mayor has set up a Catch-22 situation, where he won’t put the ordinance up for a vote unless it has the necessary votes to pass, but council members won’t fully commit to a position unless the ordinance is put up for a vote.

Reached Wednesday, Copeland said he had nothing else to add to his comments from the meeting. Council members did not return requests for further comment. The city issued this statement: “The nondiscrimination ordinance is an open issue that the City continues to analyze.”

Some in Tuesday’s audience said the ordinance is a chance for Olathe to overcome a past where it has not always been the most welcoming place for minorities.

“There’s a lot of folks that are heartbroken because the City Council just doesn’t care. It is Pride Month, and we want to feel proud that the city we live in cares,” Hoedl said. “I was fully prepared to be able to celebrate Olathe in June and be able to show that — kind of change the image that some folks have of Olathe.”

“As a black man, I have seen discrimination, I have seen all of that stuff,” said Lovelace, 30, who grew up in Olathe. “As a person of the LGBTQ+ community I have seen the discrimination. I know that this is Olathe, and Olathe hasn’t really changed over the years. They pretend to change. It seems like it’s going to change, but they really haven’t changed. It’s just as racist and homophobic as it was when I was growing up.”

Lovelace said he remembers fruit or vegetables would be thrown at his home when he was a kid because people knew that a black family lived there.

“We’ve got more allies than we used to have,” he said. “But it’s just the same as it was.”

“You can tell it’s still just the same old Olathe crap that’s not going to get fixed any time soon,” he went on. “That’s just Olathe for you, and it’s been known like that forever.”

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