Jacksonville, FL - A capacity crowd at City Hall with Council President Stephen Joost opening an annex room for the public before he opened the meeting itself.
While the agenda was full, this crowd came out to speak mostly on one issue- Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance. There was an opportunity for public comment on whether rights should be expanded to include protection based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.
When Councilman Joost began the meeting he outlined the rules for public comment and told the audience how to participate. Few could have expected just how many would heed that call.
The first to step to the podium was against the change.
“This bill, as we view it, is cloaked under the disguise of equal opportunity and non-discimination in the marketplace,” he said. As his speech moved forward he clarified, “Jacksonville, Florida as well as other cities and states across America already have multiple layers of federal, state and local laws, boards and commissions that prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin. This bill adds a perceived sex gender identity or expression.”
The wording of the bill struck a chord with City Councilwoman Kimberly Daniels. She was one of few councilmembers who took allotted time to question some of the speakers. Specifically, she aimed to clarify the difference between labels within the LGBTQ community, and also how members of that community identified themselves.
Speakers were, largely, happy to answer. The number of comments in support of the proposed change far outnumbered those against. Many fought tears to read accounts of personal experience with discrimination.
“I applied to Carolina Casualty Insurance Company here in Jacksonville. And after undergoing the interview process I was told by a manager at that company, ‘Harriet you will not work at any company here in Jacksonville.’ I was dumbfounded.”
Some also spoke for others.
“For one colleague of mine, this glaring omission is a direct invitation for current and future employees of this wonderful hospital [Mayo] to seek those protections elsewhere.”
“While I’m fortunate to work for a large corporation that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, my partner does not. She has been targeted for the way she dresses, talks, for workplace friendships. There have been missed promotions, missed opportunities for career growth.”
The few opponents who spoke out today say each business should have the chance to decide its own rule. That was the main argument for Councilman Don Redman, and the comments left him unconvinced.
“I just don’t feel like there is discrimination. I think we have enough laws on the books already to cover any discrimination that they [the audience] might want to talk about,” he said.
But Councilman Greg Anderson was touched to see so many members of the community come to the meeting and be active.
“What strikes me as, there are an awful lot of people here who have taken the time to come down and share their feelings with the council,” he said.
The council did not actually cast a vote, but members will have a lot to consider- public comment lasted around 4 hours. There is still some committee work to be done on this proposal. A vote on the changes would be, at the earliest, at the June 12th City Council meeting.