First Posted: 5/30/2013
Pittston City Council addressed discrimination on Tuesday night, passing an ordinance aimed at protecting the rights of homosexual, transgender, and disabled residents.
Council did not refer to any specific problems of discrimination, but said that just as the city was updating its downtown, so it also wanted to update its policies, making it possible for all its residents to prosper.
“Our administration is forward thinking and progressive,” said city solicitor Sam Falcone, commenting on the basis of the ordinance.
The ordinance, drafted by Falcone, included protection for “all persons, regardless of actual or perceived race, color, sex, religion, ancestry, genetic information, national origin, sexual orientation or expression, gender, familial status, and mental and physical disabilities.”
Ted Martin representing Equality Pennsylvania, said the ordinance was invaluable in the areas of housing and employment.
“Most people understand that everyone needs an income and a place to live,” said Martin, “but, quite frequently landlords refuse to rent to people they perceive as different from them.
Daniel Parry asked council to reject the ordinance, saying it would lead to discrimination against those who held Christian religious beliefs.
“The ordinance is unnecessary and problematic,” said Parry, “we are not presently denying any groups their civil rights.”
Rebekka Parry said as parents of young children in Pittston, she was concerned about the city’s moral environment.
Similar ordinances have been passed by 30 other municipalities in Pennsylvania which Martin said would protect 30% of the state’s residents.
Martin said he hoped the state would also pass legislation reinforcing the concept of equality and opportunity for its residents.
The ordinance creates a Human Relations Commission to investigate allegations of discrimination in employment, housing and other areas in Pittston.
The commission will consist of 7 to 15 members, always an odd number, who shall serve overlapping terms of three years each. Members will be appointed by City Council. The commission may elect three, non-voting members to broaden the diversity of the group. Members shall be residents of Pittston or individuals who work full time within the city. No member may hold office in any political party.
No salary will be offered to members, but expenses will be paid when approved by council. Paid staff may be hired to assist in the performance of the duties of the commission. Council must approve the hiring.
Council will appoint a chairperson. That person will be responsible for setting meetings, coordinating with the Pittston City administrator regarding complaints and responses.
There is currently legislation under consideration in Harrisburg that would amend the state Human Relations Act to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. The act already protects based on other criteria, including race, ethnicity and other categories.
According to Pittston’s ordinance, an individual who claims to be aggrieved by an unlawful practice may file a complaint with the city administrator or the chairperson of the commission.
After a complaint is filed, it will be reviewed by the commission and the target of the complainer will be notified and given 60 days to respond. A fact-finding conference will be scheduled and the accused and the accuser may present evidence to a commissioner. If the issue is not resolved, the commissioner will prepare a summary and an opinion. The Commission will then meet and accept or reject the finding by public vote.
If the commission adopts an “expanded procedure” format and a conclusion is not reached in the fact-finding conference, an investigation will occur. The commission will then determine if any other actions are needed.
A person found in violation of the ordinance, depending on the situation, could be required to pay back pay or damages according to the state Human Relations Act, emotional distress damages, exemplary damages, reasonable attorneys’ fees and court costs.