Public hearings to address sexual orientation

03/11/08 Seán Kinane
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Pinellas County will soon decide whether to forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodation. Today the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners voted to schedule a public hearing on an amendment adding sexual orientation to the county’s Human Rights Ordinance.

Currently Pinellas County prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status and disability in employment, housing and public accommodation. But the proposed amendment would add a prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to Leon Russell, director of the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights.

“This amendment would simply add to those areas of coverage ‘sexual orientation.’ And when we say sexual orientation, we’re talking about heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. That’s the definition.”

Other cities and counties in Florida have similar protections, including Gulfport, Sarasota, St Petersburg and Tampa. Russell said there are examples of discrimination based on sexual orientation in Pinellas County.

In an effort to save taxpayer money and consolidate services, Pinellas County has taken over enforcement of the Human Rights Ordinance for the city of St. Petersburg, except for issues of sexual orientation. But Russell said investigating the four to six complaints per year in St. Petersburg would fall on the county if the amendment passes, bringing the policies of the two governments in line.

Cities within the county have the right to opt-out of the county’s Human Rights Ordinance and Pinellas will notify the various cities that they may be amending the ordinance. Commission Chair Robert Stewart said he has received hundreds of emails about the issue, some of which claimed that the amendment would give "special rights" for sexual orientation. But Russell said that is false.

The federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act has passed the U.S. House and will be going before the Senate this year. Russell assured the commissioners that the language in the proposed amendment to the county’s Human Rights Ordinance was aligned with requirements in the federal act. But Commissioner Karen Williams Seel, who was the only commissioner who voted against moving forward with the amendment process, said it would be worth waiting.

The first public hearing on the proposed Human Rights Ordinance amendment will be at 6:30 p.m. April 22 in the New Courthouse in Clearwater.

In other business, the County Commission discussed concurrence, where developers are required to have proper infrastructure such as roads before their development is approved. The County Commission voted to ask the city of St. Petersburg to change its policy to ensure concurrency. The County Commission was acting in its role as the Countywide Planning Authority.

Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala said it's time for uniformity. “I’m really tired of St. Petersburg playing by their own rules and getting us in these messes.”

Before she became a state senator, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Rhonda Storms asked for a study of how much money the county spends on undocumented immigrants in jails. On Tuesday, Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Williams Seel made a similar request.

The County Commissioners also approved selling reclaimed water to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the irrigation of Bay Pines National Cemetery. The VA will pay for the estimated 650,000-dollar cost to construct the system that will connect the cemetery to the reclaimed water line.

Commissioners also voted to approve a contract with the Waters Consulting Group of Dallas to recruit a new county administrator. The previous county administrator, Steve Spratt, resigned last September, in part because of a shady land deal the county made with Property Appraiser Jim Smith. The new county administrator would be selected by September and begin the job in November.

Learn more:

Pinellas Board of County Commissioners

Pinellas County Office of Human Rights

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