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Sterling Heights

August 1, 2014

Activists attempt petition drive to put ordinance on ballot

By Eric Czarnik
C & G Staff Writer

Supporters of a petition drive to put a recently passed but hotly debated Sterling Heights ordinance up for a public referendum say they will make a final push for signatures in time for an early August deadline.

Sterling Heights resident Sanaa Elias said July 30 that she and a group of about 15-20 activists were planning to wrap up a petition drive at the library and at voting precincts during the Aug. 5 primary elections.

According to Elias, the petition language would allow Sterling Heights residents the chance to vote on whether to approve or reject the ordinance known as the Sterling Heights Non-Discrimination Ordinance, which the Sterling Heights City Council passed unanimously June 18. 

“With residents having a strong opinion either way, we felt that the people, not the City Council consisting of seven members, should decide on such a controversial ordinance,” she wrote in an email.

The new ordinance’s language prohibits, with some exceptions, forms of discrimination regarding employment, housing and public accommodations. It adds the categories of sexual orientation and gender identity to included classifications such as race, sex and religion.

Supporters said the ordinance language protects the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and makes Sterling Heights a welcoming community.

Opponents have questioned the ordinance’s necessity and have said that it could impede some people, like business owners, from freely practicing their religion.

In order for the referendum campaign to move ahead, it would require a volume of signatures amounting to at least 15 percent of Sterling Heights votes cast for governor of Michigan in the 2010 race.

Elias said she heard some of the debate on the issue and believes that the ordinance was pushed through too quickly.

“The wording of this ordinance is ambiguous and vague, and threatens to restrict our freedom of speech and religious expression,” she added. “We are a group of concerned residents who believe that all residents should have equal rights.”

Sterling Heights Councilman Doug Skrzyniarz said that he has heard from quite a few people who have been approached by petitioners. From what he has heard, he said some people may not be clear on what they are actually signing; he said the petition drive’s organizers are hoping to repeal the ordinance.

“What the petitioners are asking the voters to do is for the voters to say, ‘We want to have the ability to discriminate against people for the fact that they’re gay or lesbian,’” Skrzyniarz said.

“The bottom line is this ordinance makes it illegal in Sterling Heights to fire someone just because they’re gay.”

According to City Clerk Mark Carufel, the petitioners must submit the minimum threshold of required signatures — around 5,900 — to the Clerk’s Office by Aug. 6, which is 45 days after the ordinance was first published. If the minimum threshold is not met, the petition drive would fail, he said.

If the threshold is met, then the Clerk’s Office has 10 days to check and verify the signatures’ validity, Carufel said. If enough signatures are disqualified so that the minimum amount of valid ones required is not reached, the petitioners would get another 15 days to meet the requirement, he added.

If the petitioners obtain a sufficient number of valid signatures, then the City Council must decide whether to reconsider its vote on the ordinance, Carufel said. If the city chooses not to entirely repeal the ordinance, the matter then goes to the voters during the next election, he said.

Carufel said that if the petition drive succeeds, it would be a unique experience for the city, as far as he knows.

But he said the state and county have deadlines in place, and judging by the schedule, he thinks it’s unlikely that the effort will make it in time for anything to appear on this November’s ballot.

“It would be no later than November 2015,” he said, adding that the timing is a gray area. “We don’t really have any history of going through it. When they submit, we’ll start working through each process as we go.”

A successful petition effort with a scheduled referendum would mean that the ordinance would be suspended until the referendum takes place, Carufel said.

Find out more about Sterling Heights by visiting www.sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2489.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Eric Czarnik at eczarnik@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1058.