Pinellas won't alter human rights protections

06/03/08 Seán Kinane
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This morning in Clearwater, the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners declined to move forward with adding protections based on gender expression or identity to its Human Rights Ordinance. The proposed changes would have protected transgender individuals from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment.

The commission voted 3-3 to advertise for a public hearing on the changes, but the proposal failed because it did not have a majority.

Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. On April 22, the commissioners passed an amendment to Pinellas County’s Human Rights Ordinance to include sexual orientation. They did not include protections for transgender individuals, but asked county staff to research the issue.

Jim Bennett, the county attorney, answered one of the commission’s questions by saying that religious organizations could be exempted in some circumstances.

According to a memo from Bennett to County Commissioners, “at least nine Florida jurisdictions have passed laws banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity.”

Board Chair Robert Stewart was one of the three votes against moving forward with the amendment.

"I was very supportive of our moving forward with the change in our Human Rights Ordinance," Stewart said, "and I felt that the ordinance that we adopted a few meetings ago was significant and positive step forward, but from my personal position, that ordinance that now exist, goes as far as I personally am comfortable in going, so I will not be voting to move forward with the advertisement."

Commissioner Karen Williams Seel also voted against changing the ordinance. Seel had concerns about how businesses would be affected by the proposed changes, despite being provided guidelines that the investment company Ernst & Young uses to promote its policy against discrimination and harassment, which includes gender identity and expression.

"This is just very far reaching and I would feel it would be quite a burden on our business community," Seel said.

Regarding transgender individuals, Seel told the St. Petersburg Times: "My empathies are with them. ... I think they have legitimate problems and need to be helped." Commissioner John Morroni also voted against the measure.

Bennett told WMNF that despite concerns by some commissioners, the proposed amendments to the Human Rights Ordinance were legally sound.

"I think so," Bennett said. "These areas are fraught with peril … But I think the ordinance as drafted is legally supportable."

Commissioner Kenneth Welch was one of the three to vote in favor of advertising the Human Rights Ordinance amendment. "It’s something that is worth taking a look at so I would support the motion," Welch said.

Besides Welch, the other two commissioners who voted for advertising public hearings to determine whether protections for transgender persons should be added to Pinellas County’s Human Rights Ordinance were Susan Latvala and Ronnie Duncan.

Commissioner Calvin Harris, who said in April, "I don't know what a transgender is," was absent. Because the matter failed today, the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners will not consider the issue of protection for transgender individuals unless it is brought up again by a commissioner.

In other business, last Friday was the deadline for receipt of applications for the vacant County Administrator position. Interim County Administrator Fred E. Marquis said the county received 43 applications and will narrow the field to between eight and 15 applicants soon. Oct. 7 is the most likely date that County Commissioners will select the new administrator.

Pinellas Board of County Commissioners

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