At the end of a long night at City Hall with a relatively short agenda, Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism told Memphis City Council members that their meetings looked like more “fun” than the commission’s meetings.
The council ended at least one part of a contentious and emotional political discussion about a non-discrimination ordinance that includes protection for gay and transgender citizens in city government personnel decisions.
They approved on third and final reading an ordinance Tuesday, Oct. 16, that forbids the city from discriminating in hiring, firing or promotion based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The ordinance was amended before the final vote Tuesday to include gender identity and a definition that includes transgendered individuals.
Council attorney Allan Wade continued to raise concerns that the ordinance may be a city charter amendment requiring a referendum and that the council may be overstepping its authority in what is a policy matter.
City Attorney Herman Morris expressed similar concerns earlier this month, causing a delay in a vote on third and final reading at that council session. But last week, Morris issued a legal opinion saying the charter language is broad with the intent of allowing for the addition of specific non-merit factors in the future.
“Our charter does not give the council the ability to hire, fire or administer employees,” Wade told council members Tuesday as he focused on the division between the roles of the administration and the council. “In my opinion this ordinance is legally symbolic.”
After hearing Wade’s concerns, council member Shea Flinn proposed and the council approved a resolution directing the city’s personnel director to include sexual orientation and gender identity as non-merit factors the city cannot consider in personnel decisions.
“We’re just going to do it all,” Flinn said. “We’re going to wear a belt and suspenders.”
The council split 8-4 on both votes after a second emotional debate of the issue that filled the council chambers again a month after the final vote was delayed.
Citizens on each side were given 15 minutes each to make their cases.
“This is about what God says about us doing what’s wrong,” said the Rev. Larry Hunter. “I don’t walk to walk nowhere and see two men hugging, two men kissing.”
“We are not here today to debate the morality or immorality of homosexuality,” countered Jake Brown. “We are here today to talk strictly about city policy.”
But the council deliberations didn’t fall neatly within those lines.
“I have been struggling with this issue for a very long time,” said council member Harold Collins, who favored the ordinance. “I believe my role is to live my faith and not legislate it.”
Lee Harris, the sponsor of the ordinance, said it is not controversial.
“Most large employers protect their employees against discrimination,” he added. “These companies are not controversial. It feels like Groundhog Day because we are here again. I think it’s time to get on with it.”
Council member Bill Boyd was the only council member to vote “no” who talked about his vote.
“I think I can count the vote. I know how it’s going,” he said. “I don’t think it is worthy of this council to operate the business of the city in this way.”
The comment was a reference to the amendment on the council floor Tuesday to include transgender citizens in the ordinance.
Boyd also predicted the ordinance will be challenged in court.
Council member Reid Hedgepeth, a pivotal “yes” vote two weeks ago, said that vote prompted “hateful responses and personal attacks toward me from this very small group claiming to be Christians.”
“It only strengthened my resolve and made it clear to me this is indeed the right thing to do,” he added.
Other council members questioned whether federal anti-discrimination laws made such an ordinance redundant.
Wade said federal protections do extend to sexual orientation.
He added the city ordinance does not apply to employees of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, the Memphis library system, or appointed division directors and other appointed employees including council staff.
Council member Wanda Halbert and Kemp Conrad, who were on opposite sides of the final votes, each pressed Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s Chief Administrative Officer George Little for the mayor’s position on the issue.
Little said the administration would not take a position.
“We will defer to the will of the council,” Little told Conrad. “I am suggesting, however, that we already have policies in place.”
Little also said the fiscal impact of the ordinance is “minimal.”