Anti-Gay Boca Raton: 46 Years Since City Updated Anti-Discrimination Policy
All it took was for an openly gay 17-year-old high school student to get the Boca Council to change their tune on the issue of gay rights.
That’s after the Palm Beach Council Human Rights Council launched a media campaign "Boca Bigots Run City Hall." That’s after multiple stories appeared in local newspapers casting the Boca Council in an unfavorable light. That’s after the assistant city manager responded to the controversy by comparing LGBT rights to the rights of pet lovers.
It all started with a hazardous waste contract between the city of Boca Raton and Palm Beach County commissioners. The county protects LGBTs in its anti-discrimination policy - the city does not. The county also promises not to do business with organizations that don’t protect them.
In January 2011 the Boca city council adopted Ordinance 5161, which opted them out of Palm Beach County’s anti-discrimination policy.
"That was more a concern of home rule and not having county ordinances regulate us," Boca Deputy Mayor Susan Haynie said at the Nov. 14 council meeting.
Then the county commission and city council came into conflict when a hazardous waste contract from the county could have cost Boca $235,000 earlier this month. Rather than update its policy to add protection for LGBT employees across the board, the city council approved the contract with the stipulation that only employees working under the hazardous waste contract would be protected.
City officials initially defended their actions with Assistant City Manager Mike Woika telling SFGN: "What’s to keep other groups from wanting to be protected? How about me? I’m a pet lover. I think should be included in your anti-discrimination law. Someone who has dogs should not be discriminated against either." And Deputy Mayor Susan Haynie saying: "We did not take away anyone’s rights. We are not discriminatory."
That was until Tyler Morrison, an openly gay 17-year-old Boca resident, spoke directly to the council.
"I’m greatly saddened that my hometown would take such extraordinary steps to put in danger the well-being of its LGBT citizens," Morrison said. "Let’s make a bold statement to the country that we will not put in danger any of our citizens, because it’s simply the right thing to do."
City Attorney Diana Frieser reminded Morrison that state and federal anti-discrimination policies don’t protect LGBTs. "The city is in compliance with state and federal law," Frieser said.
But Morrison believes the city government should do more than comply with state and federal law.
"The first priority of any government should be to protect its people, all of its people," Morrison said. "Let’s value our diversity by rejecting what was done in January 2011."
After Morrison spoke, Haynie reminded the rest of the council that it had not updated its anti-discrimination policies since 1966. City council member Constance Scott wanted to know why.
"What would prevent us at this time from moving forward to make those necessary changes and moving into the 21st century with additional categories?" Scott asked.
"That was the part where I started to tear up a little bit," Morrison said.
But Frieser had an answer for Scott: "There is no legal requirement to do so," she said.
Then the rest of the council erupted.
"I certainly would like us to get in front of 1966, that’s kind of a frightening number to think we haven’t looked at our policy," Haynie said.
Boca Mayor Susan Whelchel then quipped. "Well you know there’s some people who’d like for us to go back to 1966." Whelchel then declined to comment when the meeting ended as she has done in two other instances. Whelchel has yet to speak to SFGN.
"I would like to look into updating our policies," Haynie replied.
City council member Michael Mullaugh agreed.
"I think looking into the policy and having us discuss it in the very near future is a wonderful idea," Mullaugh said.
"It was a great deal of satisfaction, I wasn’t expecting them to address me," Morrison said after the meeting.
Then city council member Scott spoke with Morrison.
"We want to see more of you," Scott said.
"2014, I have some ideas," Morrison said, hinting at a run for the city council.
Because of the council’s response to Morrison the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, has decided to suspend their media campaign against the council.
"Our organization looks forward to working with the City," PBCHRC President Rand Hoch wrote in an email. "Again, thank you from urging staff to move from 1966 to 2012 - and beyond."