The Wellington Village Council directed its attorney last week to draft an ordinance in support of Palm Beach County’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights ordinance.
At the Aug. 11 meeting, Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, explained his request for the council to adopt the county’s civil rights ordinance as it pertains to LGBT people, and the difficulties the village would encounter if it opted out of it.
Village Attorney Laurie Cohen had recommended opting out of the ordinance proposed by Hoch out of concern for potential liability to the village.
Hoch, whose law practice has centered on workplace issues and civil rights, asked the council to enact an ordinance informing all residents, not just village employees, about their civil rights and directing them to appropriate agencies if they seek redress.
In 2010, the Human Rights Council asked the village to include LGBT employees in its nondiscrimination policies, in compliance with the county’s equal employment opportunity ordinance, and Hoch was invited to work with the village attorney to help draft the LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies, which were then adopted unanimously by the Wellington Village Council.
At a workshop in July, there was discussion of whether a municipal civil rights ordinance would be of benefit to the village.
“Civil rights laws exist to specifically identify people who have been recognized as victims of discrimination, and to specifically provide such individuals with the opportunity to have their claims investigated and adjudicated upon by independent agencies,” Hoch said. “The key word is, ‘independent.’”
He pointed out that the village’s human resources director is charged with investigating civil rights violations, but the village has the final say whether discrimination has occurred. “It’s not independent,” Hoch said. “It’s sort of allowing the potential fox to guard the henhouse.”
With the current climate in the United States Congress and Florida Legislature, Hoch said it was unlikely that pro-LGBT legislation would be forthcoming at the state and federal levels. Although people who feel that they have been discriminated against can file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Hoch said EEOC findings are not binding in court. “The only recourse that the village’s LGBT employees have arises from the county ordinance,” he said.
Hoch said that he was upset that Cohen had recommended opting out of the county ordinance. “Those ordinances provide you and your employees the least expensive way to resolve complaints of discrimination,” he said.
Vice Mayor John Greene said he understood Cohen’s concern of liability to the village, and that he believes that the village already has an inclusive human rights policy as an employer, but would support the county ordinance.
“I think it is important, as we have seen recently from the United States Supreme Court, there are laws changing, and we really want to eliminate discrimination at any level,” Greene said. “I think this is a step in that direction, and I will support that. I hope that we can come up with language that is acceptable to everybody.”
Hoch pointed out that other municipalities, including Delray Beach and Boynton Beach, had adopted supportive policies.
Councilman Matt Willhite said he thought it was good that other municipalities had adopted ordinances, and asked what would happen if the village did nothing, or if it modified the language of the county ordinance that Cohen was concerned with.
Hoch said he was open, as long as an ordinance included LGBT employees. “We’re not married to the language,” he said.
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig said she had numerous friends and family closely associated with LGBT concerns.
“It has nothing to do with that, I just don’t support this as a protected class, because I don’t think someone’s sexuality is something that has anything to do with the workplace,” she said. “I don’t think someone’s sexuality is something that should be discussed in the workplace. I wouldn’t want someone to be treated poorly; I just don’t think it is a discussion that is appropriate for the working situation.”
She added that the current policy protects anyone who is being harassed for something that has nothing to do with their work.
Hoch said a friend of his had been in a job interview where he was wearing a wedding band.
“The interviewer kept asking about his wife,” he said. “He has been married to his husband for three years. It’s not sex that we’re talking about. Someone who has a picture of their family or someone who is wearing a wedding band, or someone who says, ‘What did you do this weekend?’ and you say, ‘My husband and I went fishing.’ That’s where it comes up.”
Greene made a motion, seconded by Councilman John McGovern, directing Cohen to draft language in support of the county’s LGBT ordinance and bring it back to the council by the end of the fiscal year.
The motion passed 4-1 with Gerwig dissenting.