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March 6, 2013

Royal Oak human rights ordinance passes 6-1

Discrimination prohibited based on multiple demographic factors

By Chris Jackett
C & G Staff Writer

With the eyes of many on their City Commission meeting March 4, the commissioners voted to pass a human rights ordinance 6-1, with Commissioner David Poulton dissenting.

Effective March 14, the ordinance “prohibits discrimination based upon actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, height, weight, condition of pregnancy, martial status, physical or mental limitation, source of income, family responsibilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.”

Voters had denied a similar ordinance with a 67.36-percent majority in 2001 after the City Commission at that time failed to make a decision on its own.

In a packed commission chamber March 4, 12 of 15 public speakers supported the ordinance, while others cited religious beliefs, hopes of another public vote, a perceived lack of need and concerns that the ordinance would benefit special interest groups as reasons for opposing it.

“I would’ve preferred this goes to the voters. They understand the issue,” Poulton said, noting he was disappointed that military veterans were not listed among the protected groups. “I’ve yet to hear one instance of discrimination that this ordinance would seek to address.”

Several commissioners said that they were all elected to make decisions on behalf of the voters and that passing the ordinance was “the right thing to do.”

“I think it’s the right time, it’s the right place and the City of Royal Oak is ready for this,” Mayor Jim Ellison said. “The people in this community elect us to make these decisions. We enact ordinances all the time that affect everybody and this is no different than that. I’m proud of this commission for taking a stand, I’m proud of this commission for making a decision that, quite honestly, should’ve been made 12 years ago.”

The new ordinance makes Royal Oak the 22nd municipality in the state with such an ordinance. The Royal Oak Police Department would be charged with investigating any complaints and, if someone was found guilty of violating the ordinance, the civil infraction could result in a fine of up to $500, plus the costs of investigation and prosecution.

“This is an economic development tool. This is a best practice among cities,” said Commissioner Jim Rasor, who had been a proponent from the start. “This is an affirmation of our basic principals of equal protection of all of us. Those are not special rights, those are equal rights for everybody. This doesn’t allow gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people to move to the front of the line; this allows them to be in the same line as everyone else. That’s just fundamental fairness.”

Rasor compared the ordinance to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated discriminatory voting practices that had limited black citizens from participating in the democratic process.

“Going back to the Voting Rights Act in 1965, do you think that would have passed in the southern states in 1965, making voting fair? No,” Rasor said. “The reason we don’t put human rights to a popular vote is because we elect representatives to do this for us. A dozen years ago, I don’t think the commission was up to doing the hard work to (pass) this. Now, in 2013, we are and it’s appropriate. Every day we pass laws that affect everybody in this community. ... That’s our job, that’s what we do.”

Commissioner Kyle DuBuc had seconded Rasor’s motion to pass the ordinance, following through on comments made during his 2009 election campaign that he would support such an ordinance, if proposed.

“Where the state and federal governments fail to take action, we move forward,” DuBuc said. “I would never subject the rights of a minority to the will of the majority. That seems wrong.”

Although some commissioners wanted the ordinance to be inclusive of more groups, they felt that the ordinance before them was important.

“I wish we didn’t need an ordinance,” Mayor Pro Tem Patricia Capello said. “I would just prefer all people be treated equally, because that’s the right thing to do.”

Commissioner Peggy Goodwin, who has a background investigating discrimination, said that, although state and federal laws cover portions of the local ordinance, they aren’t always enforced, so a local ordinance would help.

“There are laws on the books to protect age, but how many people get fired every day because they are over 40?” Goodwin questioned. “It happens all the time and people don’t take action against it.”

To view the full discussion, public comment or the ordinance itself, visit www.ci.royal-oak.mi.us.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Chris Jackett at cjackett@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1110.