The City Commission April 15 approved placing its human rights ordinance on the ballot in November, setting up a rematch from 2001, when voters rejected a similar ordinance.
The ordinance that the commission passed March 4, and that now will go to voters, prohibited “discrimination based upon actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, height, weight, condition of pregnancy, marital status, physical or mental limitation, source of income, family responsibilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.”
City Clerk Melanie Halas said April 3 that resident Fred Birchard had collected more than enough certified petition signatures to block the ordinance from going into effect. Birchard, 75, said he and other supporters collected 1,226 signatures. The city clerk certified 746 of them, the required amount to block the measure and force the Commission to re-evaluate its decision.
The decision before the Commission during its April 15 meeting was to either rescind the ordinance, place it on a special ballot in August or place it on the general-election ballot in November.
“I think the most logical thing to do is to submit the ordinance to the voters in the next general municipal election and allow the referendum to proceed,” said Mayor Pro Tem Patricia Capello to applause from the audience.
What the vote will come down to is whether Royal Oak residents’ sentiments have changed since 2001, the last time a human rights ordinance was placed on the ballot. That time, 8,864 of 13,160 voters rejected the ordinance, according to the City Clerk’s Office. People opposed to the measure say it failed once, so it will fail again.
Proponents of the ordinance contend that beliefs have changed since that time. They point to the city’s vote in 2004 against a proposal to amend the state constitution to define marriage solely as between a man and woman. While nearly 60 percent of Michigan voters voted for the proposal and turned it into law, Royal Oak voters shot it down 713-474, according to the city clerk.
The commission’s decision to place the ordinance on the ballot was unanimous, yet for Commissioner Kyle DuBuc, the vote was with some hesitation. DuBuc said protecting the rights of a minority shouldn’t come down to a majority vote.
“It offends my sense of democracy and liberty,” he said before the vote.
Commissioner David Poulton, who was the lone vote against the human rights ordinance in March, called the public comment section and the discourse between both sides a “microcosm of what we’ll see in November.”
Poulton has maintained that the ordinance should have always gone to the voters, adding that calling residents who signed the petition “bigots” is intolerance in itself.
“To me, that’s intolerant,” he said.
Mayor Jim Ellison said he was prepared for the issue to go to the ballot but hopes the campaigning does not get “ugly” like 2001.
“It became ugly because both sides of the issue brought in outside money,” he said.
He called for residents to listen to one another instead of out-of-town influences that are bound to return to Royal Oak in the months before the election.
During the public comment portion, resident David Simms said the ordinance was ambiguous and bad policy. He particularly concentrated on the language describing “perceived” discrimination.
“We don’t convict people on perception in this country,” Simms said. “That’s not right; that’s not the American way.
“My perception in life is different from everybody else.”
City Attorney David Gillam explained that the perception refers to how the discriminator perceives the person discriminated against.
“What the issue potentially would be is what the other person perceives of me and what action they take on the basis of that perception,” Gillam explained. “My perception of myself is really irrelevant.”
Resident Aaron Usher, 22, spoke in favor of the ordinance, calling it good policy.
“It’s just something that’s entirely reasonable and entirely needed for any kind of modern community,” he said.
“There’s really no reason to not support this measure,” Usher added. “And I’m prepared to lead any type of campaign to see that it should be voted for, if a vote should become necessary.”