What’s next for the nondiscrimination ordinance?

Ordinance could come back in different form

Photo by Evan Bevins Nearly 150 people had taken seats in Parkersburg City Council chambers about two hours before the start of Tuesday’s meeting in which council voted, 6-3, to reject a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance.

PARKERSBURG — City Council’s 6-3 rejection of the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance Tuesday likely isn’t the last word on the issue.

Supporters of the measure that would have prohibited discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations on the basis of multiple characteristics — including sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status and genetic information, areas not included in West Virginia’s Human Rights Act — said after the vote they aren’t giving up. Some council members who voted against it said they would be willing to consider a similar measure in a different form.

“They can bring it back,” Councilman Dave McCrady said after Tuesday’s meeting, noting City Attorney Joe Santer’s previous statement that the new version would have to be substantially different from the one that failed to pass.

Santer said Friday that there aren’t specific guidelines for what constitutes “a substantial change.” It might be 30 minor alterations or a couple of major shifts.

“There is no bright line,” Santer said. “There would seem to be some subjectivity to it.”

Asked whether removing the provision regarding public accommodations, as proposed by Councilman Jeff Fox in a failed amendment motion Tuesday, would qualify as a substantial change, Santer said he would have to see the specific language but believes it would pass muster.

Supporters of the ordinance argued it simply expands existing human rights protections and would make the city more attractive to millenials and large employers. Opponents said it would infringe on personal religious freedom and could result in punitive lawsuits against business owners who operate based on those beliefs.

During Tuesday’s meeting, prior to the vote, former council member Cammy Murray said she and other supporters of Fairness Parkersburg, the group that argued for the NDO, “aren’t going away.

“We will continue to fight, especially for the young people that live in this area,” she said, noting some people have the resources to move to “a more progressive area” but others do not.

Representatives of Liberty PKB, the group formed in opposition to the ordinance, said they want to stay involved in city matters. Some areas in which they suggested they could help or offer support were with the drug abuse crisis and even drainage issues or mounting municipal pensions costs.

“Imagine if the same energy, time and expenses (in the NDO debate) had been spent on helping the city with the essential services,” said Dan Stevens, a Liberty PKB member and pastor of Bible Baptist Church.

Councilman Bob Mercer, like McCrady, initially sponsored the nondiscrimination ordinance but voted against it on Tuesday.

“The biggest misconception is that I gave in to fear from the churches, which is the furthest thing from the truth,” he said. “I just didn’t think it was written right.”

Mercer said one change would be for the public accommodations section to be explained more clearly. An area of contention was over whether that would open bathrooms to people other than those born as the designated gender on the sign, but supporters of the ordinance pointed out there is no law governing that now and argued the ordinance would change nothing with regard to bathrooms.

“It needs to be written to where people understand exactly what it means,” Mercer said, agreeing the ordinance was “not a bathroom bill.”

“There is not one person on that City Council who is for discrimination in any shape or form,” he said. “I’m absolutely open to revisit.”

Council President J.R. Carpenter, who voted for the ordinance, said he thinks there’s a “high probability there’ll be another version eventually.

“I don’t know if it will be before the state acts on” it though, he said.

Carpenter said he doesn’t have any specific plans to bring the ordinance back.

“I’m sure it’s not going away though,” he said.

What he’d like to see is a vote on the issue by citizens.

“Something like that maybe shouldn’t be in the hands of nine; it should be in the hands of 31,000,” he said.

That option is not available to council under the municipal charter, but an ordinance could be placed on the ballot if a sufficient number of citizens petitioned council to consider it and the item was not adopted within 60 days of the petitions being certified.

Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce on Tuesday asked council to reject the ordinance because of potential unintended consequences to small businesses. Prior to the vote, Joyce said he did not want disagreement about the NDO to affect the work of city government.

“Regardless of how the vote goes, we’ve got to move on and continue to work together,” he said.

But supporters of the ordinance argued rejecting it would have a direct, negative impact on progress in the city, from both economic and social perspectives.

“How can we build upon a city when there are citizens among us who don’t have basic human rights?” Parkersburg resident Megan Reynolds said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Joyce said Thursday he’s open to hearing another proposal.

“If council or any group, any citizen group, wants to propose a piece (of legislation), whether it be an ordinance or a resolution, it’s only fair to review it for purpose, for content, for meaning,” he said.

However, the mayor questioned how effective an ordinance would be, saying what some people perceive as discrimination is often intolerance and insensitivity.

“And those types of things can’t be legislated,” he said.