The Memphis City Council amended an anti-discrimination ordinance covering city government to include banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But the council then delayed a vote on the ordinance for a month after the city attorney and the council’s attorney raised questions about whether the addition amounts to a change in the city charter.
Charter changes must be approved by a citywide referendum.
Council member Wanda Halbert raised the important question that prompted a preliminary but blunt opinion from council attorney Allan Wade.
“Let me just break it down for you,” he told the council. “You pass this tonight … we’re going to get sued about it. There’s no doubt in my mind. This is not to be taken lightly. This requires a referendum of the people.”
The ordinance going into the Tuesday, Sept. 18, council meeting prohibited discrimination in hiring, promotions and demotions based on “non-merit” factors that were listed as “race, sex, creed, political affiliation, national origin, ethnicity, age, disability”
Council member Lee Harris, the sponsor of the measure, introduced the amendment adding sexual orientation to the list.
The delay in the vote on third and final reading is for legal research and legal opinion on whether the change is a charter amendment.
As amended, the ordinance does not apply to contractors or others doing business with city government.
City Attorney Herman Morris agreed with Wade. But he also said the conditions are a matter of policy that is the job of the city administration, not the council.
In other action, the council approved a resolution added to the agenda late Monday that authorizes the mayor to change the lease for FedExForum to effectively substitute the Memphis Grizzlies basketball franchise ownership group of Robert Pera for the ownership group of Mike Heisley in the forum lease agreement.
The administration argued the approval was necessary on short notice as a requirement for the National Basketball Association’s board of governors to approve Pera as the new team owner. The Shelby County Commission will also have to approve the change.
The start of the NBA season is two weeks away.
It was the council’s first introduction to the ownership group. Pera was represented by David Carlock with Ed Dobbs representing the local ownership group whose membership is still in flux.
The change in ownership groups does not change the terms of the contract for the arena.
Council member Janis Fullilove’s first comment to Carlock was to ask, “Why don’t the city council members get tickets?”
Carlock said there are legal prohibitions.
“We’ve got a box,” responded council member Joe Brown.
Later, Carlock gave Fullilove his contact information.
The council also approved a planned development at South Third Street and Lucerne Place that is a 3.32 acre dorm and education and training center for the Calvary Rescue Mission.
And the council approved $19,900 for the replacement of the roof on the Mallory-Neely House in Victorian Village.
The council approved $500,000 in construction funding to the Memphis Zoological Society for repairs to a moat and possibly other capital improvements. But the vote came after council member Lee Harris objected, saying he wants an examination of the city’s agreement with the private group that operates the zoo under terms of a 1994 contract.
“I’m concerned about the zoo’s prices,” Harris said. “The zoo is inaccessible.”
Zoo President Chuck Brady said the zoo annually provides admission to nearly 300,000 children and accompanying adults either free of charge or at a reduced price through a free admission day on Tuesday and discounts for school field trips.
Brady added that the city administration sets zoo admission fees and prices.