City leaders and social justice advocates are pushing for a local commission to hear discrimination cases and to extend protections to the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Mayor Dan Horrigan and Councilman Rich Swirsky are co-sponsoring legislation that would form an Akron Civil Rights Commission.
The panel of five to seven Akron residents would hear complaints brought by residents who have been denied employment, housing or access to public amenities based on what they believe to be their age, sex, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, military status, disability or marital status — all currently protected by state and federal law. The city’s proposal also would extend protections for gender identity and sexual orientation.
The proposal would add an option for Akron residents to grieve discriminatory treatment. Currently, residents can complain in civil court or to the Akron branch of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. Either course triggers a multi-year process. City employees can complain to the Akron Civil Service Commission. Complaints against officers are taken by police auditor Phil Young or filed in civil court.
But there is no option to have peers make the final ruling — especially for complaints based on sexual orientation and gender identity. If approved, Akron’s proposal would follow others pioneered in Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo.
“It’s a big deal,” said Matt Barlet, director of operations for CANAPI (Community AIDS Network Akron Pride Initiative). In Ohio and 28 other states, members of the gay community can be denied housing or a job based on their sexual orientation or identity, and no law protects them.
Since the mayor spoke of the need for broader inclusion at an LGBT fundraiser in May, CANAPI, Equality Ohio and the Gay Community Endowment Fund have driven local leaders to strengthen Akron’s 2015 designation as a Welcoming City. The effort inspired the #AkronUnited movement, which encompasses 33 local organizations and individuals, including the NAACP, Akron Public Schools, County Executive Ilene Shapiro, equal opportunity offices at Kent State and the University of Akron, the First Congregational Church of Akron and Clerk of Courts Sandra Kurt, an openly gay public official who spoke in favor of the legislation at Monday’s meeting.
For some, having a local and expedited process could mean swifter justice. For others, being protected could mean any justice at all.
“Even in a community as open and welcoming as Akron, I still hear stories of people being evicted or denied housing … or an employer denies them because they are gay,” Barlet said.
“No one should live in fear of being fired, being denied service, or being denied a place to live just because of who they are,” Mayor Horrigan said. “And I truly believe that if Akron is to live up to its reputation as a ‘welcoming city,’ it needs to be more than just words on paper. We must fulfill what the 14th Amendment promises — equal protection for all, not just for some.”
The 16-page piece of legislation was introduced in committee Monday afternoon and will be further discussed and possibly adjusted next week in committee. The legislation, which could be approved next Monday, would take effect immediately, making discrimination law more comprehensive and creating the framework for the Akron Civil Rights Commission.
Complaints, under the proposal, would be with the commission no later than a year after the alleged discrimination. Penalties could include up to $1,000 in fines and anything needed to make the situation right, including the re-employment of inappropriately fired employees and services for customers discriminated against by business owners.
The legislation would cover anyone living, visiting or doing business in the city, as well as businesses that take contracts from the city but may be located elsewhere. The ordinance also would protect anyone barred access to city-owned facilities, including parks.
The hearing process would allow the accuser and the accused to make their cases before a panel of peers. After the legislation passes, the mayor would come back to council for approval of candidates for the commission.
“I want it to be as diverse as possible,” Horrigan said of candidates, some of whom he’s already considered to serve. Panelists would be paid $100 per hearing meeting and would likely include a retired judge or member of the business community, and potentially any resident of the city.
“It’s not going to be all people that used to work for the city or county,” Horrigan said. “This is going to be a good diverse mix of people.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @ABJDoug .