Hilliard City Council to continue discussion of local LGBTQ legislation March 22

A. Kevin Corvo
ThisWeek group

Hilliard City Council has started discussing a path to advance local legislation to extend protection for LGBTQ residents from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Council President Pete Marsh allowed for one hour of discussion at a committee-of-the-whole meeting March 8 in advance of the council meeting at 7 p.m. and asked that council members establish a procedure to accept public input on the proposal.

Discussion is expected to continue at 6 p.m. March 22 at another committee-of-the-whole meeting.

Hilliard City Hall is at 3800 Municipal Way.

In its current incarnation, the local ordinance would add marital and family status as protected classes concerning employment discrimination, and it would marital status, gender identity and sexual orientation concerning discrimination in housing and public accommodations, Marsh said.

Council members Cynthia Vermillion and Andy Teater laid the groundwork for the proposed legislation.

“This ordinance is necessary because it expands important civil rights to a segment of our community that currently does not have those protections,” Teater previously told ThisWeek.

Work on crafting the proposed legislation began in 2019 during sessions of a charter-review commission and continued last year after a proposal to add language in the city code to protect the LGBTQ community stalled, he said.

“Currently, the state of Ohio does not give protections to members of the LGBTQ community," Teater said. "Any protections afforded in our state have been enacted by local communities and governing bodies."

Council member Omar Tarazi has questioned the legislation, including before it was proposed, on the grounds that federal statutes provide relief for such discrimination.

“There is nothing (Hilliard) can do other than a civil fine that doesn't go to victim,” said Tarazi, adding that employees or job applicants who experience discrimination file complaints instead with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Tarazi told other council members that no complaints have been filed in local municipalities that have LGBTQ legislation, including Bexley, Westerville and Worthington.

ThisWeek contacted Bexley, Westerville and Worthington to verify that assertion.

Anne Brown, director of communications for Worthington, verified the city has had no complaints filed since its ordinance was enacted in May 2019, but city officials believe it is good to have the protections if needed, she said.

The city of Westerville has not had a complaint filed since the legislation was enacted in 2019, said Christa Dickey, community affairs director.

Bexley officials could not confirm but believed no complaints has been filed.

Tarazi said he has submitted alternate legislation to the city's law department that would add sexual orientation and gender expression to the city's section of code that prohibits discrimination concerning housing and ethnic intimidation.

In addition, Tarazi said, he is proposing the creation of a dispute-resolution center to provide mediation services.

“This is at best a PR thing,” Tarazi said.

He said the remedy, as presented, "doesn't add value."

Vermillion responded, saying the measure is needed.

“It’s not a PR stunt," Vermillion said. "I’m offended to be accused of it. I have listened to people who have lost jobs and housing. These are real people affected. That you can’t find them doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. They accept (discrimination) and find another place to rent."

Tarazi said he supports adding classes to the city code concerning protection from discrimination but is concerned about replacing it with a lengthy document that could cause unintended consequences, including exposing local businesses, especially small ones, with unfounded complaints and with no means to recoup costs from a plaintiff whose complaint is dismissed.

Council member Kelly McGivern also said she was concerned about the potential for “frivolous” complaints against local businesses.

Phil Hartmann, the city’s law director, confirmed that businesses would be responsible for their own legal fees in such instances but told council members he would “look into” whether any kinds of safeguards could be built into the legislation.

Teater said “can’t imagine” that adding “a few more classes” would expose businesses to any additional risks.

During the course of the discussion the city’s livestreaming of the meeting was interrupted, and council members briefly debated whether it should be halted. But they chose to continue since it was being recorded and the meeting was open to the public in person.

“There is no legal requirement that any meeting be broadcast or digitally streamed to the general public, only that public meetings be open in some manner to the general public," said David Ball, director of communications for Hilliard. "However, it is always our goal to be as open as humanly possible, and the streaming we provide is one of our efforts to keep our public informed and engaged and to promote transparency.

“(The) meeting was open to the public. If a meeting could not be open due to COVID(-19), we would make some accommodation, such as streaming the meeting on social media or allowing individuals to be added to a virtual meeting."

Ball said the city is looking at “long-term solutions” to upgrade the council chambers' audio-visual system that did not work properly March 8.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo