City officials claim the issue isn’t about gay rights at all, but instead about home rule. But the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council is calling it homophobia and has launched a campaign called ‘Boca Bigots Run City Hall’ to shine a spotlight on what they perceive to be 20 years of slights against the gay community.
To make matters worse for the city, three weeks ago the assistant city manager of Boca equated protecting LGBT employees from discrimination to protecting pet lovers from discrimination.
“What’s to keep other groups from wanting to be protected?” Mike Woika told SFGN. “How about me? I’m a pet lover. I think should be included in your anti-discrimination law. Someone who has dogs should not be discriminated against either.”
The issue of gay rights in Boca came to the forefront last month, when the Palm Beach County Commission was informed that the City of Boca Raton opted out of the county’s anti-discrimination clause, which includes both “sexual orientation” and “gender identity and expression.”
Boca doesn’t include either one, instead deferring to the state and federal anti-discrimination requirements. Then the city took it to another level when in January 2011 they passed Ordinance 5161, which opted them out of the county’s anti-discrimination policy. No other city in Palm Beach County has taken such a step to avoid protecting LGBT employees.
The county, meanwhile, has a policy stating that it doesn’t do business with entities that won’t adhere to its anti-discrimination policy. Because of this, the city and county have run into a conflict. In this instance, it happens to be a regional plan for the county to pay the costs of hazardous material emergencies in some of its cities, one of which is Boca.
It’s worth $235,000 to the city.
When the conflict was presented to the County Commission, County Commissioner Steve Abrams suggested they give Boca an exemption, but the suggestion was ignored and the county instead sent the contract back as is, giving Boca 60 days to accept or reject it.
Now it appears the city staff of Boca and the Palm Beach County staff are desperately trying to find a loophole to allow Boca to move forward with this agreement without actually having to agree to the county’s anti-discrimination policy.
That may be hard to do since at the beginning of this year the county made it clear that they would not do business with any public or private entity which practices discrimination.
Here’s what the county resolution says:
“It is hereby the express policy of the Board of County Commissioners of Palm Beach County, Florida that Palm Beach County, Florida shall not conduct business with nor appropriate any funds for any organization that practices discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, ancestry, sex, age, familial Status, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or disability.”
President of the PBCHRC Rand Hoch said in an email to the county attorney:
“I can not tell you how upset I am right now, having read the exchange of your e-mails with your counterparts in the City of Boca Raton. You struck a deal by which the mandatory nondiscrimination language would be included in the Interlocal Agreement, but assured Boca Raton that ‘the City and County agree that the County would not have jurisdiction over an employment discrimination claim filed by a City employee against the City under the PBC Ordinance.’”
County Attorney Denise Nieman denied any deal making.
“This is in response to the email you received from Rand Hoch late Friday alleging that the County Attorney's Office ‘cut a deal’ with the City of Boca Raton regarding the nondiscrimination language in County contracts. Please be assured that this allegation has absolutely no merit,” Neiman wrote to the Palm Beach County Board of Commissioners.
“The City Attorney's Office also advised that the City of Boca had opted out of the County's Equal Employment Ordinance as it pertained to City employees. The City is entitled to do so by law. Due to this opt out, the County would not have jurisdiction over discrimination complaints by City employees against the City.”
Meanwhile, the PBCHRC is pushing back against city officials’ recent comments about LGBT rights and the city’s denial of four public records request they recently made.
They’ve retained the law offices of W. Trent Steele in order to force the city to comply with the state’s public records laws. On Oct. 19, they sent a letter to Boca’s city attorney giving the city one last chance before they file suit against the city.
It appears that Boca Mayor Susan Whelchel is standing behind the city’s actions on LGBT rights. She went so far as to tell the Sun Sentinel that she doesn’t see this situation as a civil rights issue.
"We follow state and federal laws — cities have the right to opt in or opt out as long as we follow the law,” she said.
The Vice Mayor of Boca Susan Haynie stood by those sentiments as well telling the Sun Sentinel:
"We feel very strong that ... it's not necessary to impose the county's rules on us.”
The PBCHRC blasted Whelchel in a letter to her this weekend. The letter starts off with:
“I am writing to explain why Ordinance 5161 is a matter of civil rights, since it appears from today’s article in the Sun-Sentinel, that you do not understand.”
The PBCHRC does give some benefit of doubt to the Mayor and Vice Mayor.
“I have reviewed the somewhat misleading January, 4, 2011 memorandum on Equal Employment Opportunity prepared by City Manager Leif Ahnell and Human Resources Director Mark Buckingham, which was included in the backup for the January 25, 2011 City Council meeting at which Ordinance 5161 was enacted. The memorandum makes no reference to “sexual orientation” “gender identity” or “gender expression.” Nor does it inform anyone that the civil rights of female and minority employees would be curtailed. Therefore, it is possible that neither you nor your colleagues had any idea that by enacting the ordinance, you were completely eliminating the civil rights of the City’s gay, lesbian, and gender non-conforming employees, as well as restricting the rights of the City’s female and minority employees.”
That very well could be the case since the Sun Sentinel noted that the Boca ordinance in question took a mere one minute and 38 seconds to unanimously pass in January 2011. However from Whelchel and Haynie’s recent statements it appears they knew exactly the impact that ordinance would have.
The letter ends demanding some action taken against Assistant City Manager Mike Woika for his comments to SFGN.
“Putting it simply, Mr. Woika’s comments are not only ignorant, but also hurtful. There is no longstanding history of employment discrimination against pet owners. While PBCHRC is not calling for a public apology by Mr. Woika, it would seem appropriate for the City to take some disciplinary action in an attempt to assure the LGBT residents of Boca Raton – and our allies – that such callous and hurtful statements are not acceptable.”
The letter concludes with “please be advised that long as Ordinance 5161 remains in effect, PBCHRC will move forward with our ‘Boca Bigots Run City Hall’ campaign.”
Boca Raton officials plan on discussing this issue at their Tuesday, Oct. 23 meeting. SFGN will attend the meeting and keep you updated on any developments.