For immediate release:
September 10, 2013
For further information, contact:
Rand Hoch, PBCHRC President and Founder
(561) 358-0105 firstname.lastname@example.org
(Boca Raton, Florida) — At this evening’s meeting, the Boca Raton City Council voted 4-1 to extend the full range of domestic partnership benefits to its municipal employees. The benefits include health, dental and vision insurance, continuation of insurance coverage (identical to coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA), funeral leave, domestic violence leave, family sick leave and domestic partner leave (identical to coverage by the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA).
Council member Anthony Majhess, a likely candidate for mayor in next year’s election, was the sole vote against providing equal employment benefits for the city’s lesbian and gay employees.
The city council also voted unanimously to extend the jurisdiction of the community relations board to include the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. The community relations board’s purpose is to foster understanding and respect for the city’s minorities. The board encourages the equal treatment of – and discourages discrimination against – the city’s minorities.
Additionally, the city council voted unanimously to amend the city’s personnel rules and regulations to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Boca Raton resident Bill Whiting, the only person to speak out against the initiatives, was vehement in his opposition to amending the city’s nondisrimination policies.
Whiting described Boca Raton’s gay community as a “new group” which “has a higher propensity for depression, alcoholism, drug dependence and mental health consults, while falling victim in disproportionate numbers to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”
“This is an attempt to pervert an age old reverence for families that is universally recognized as a cornerstone for society,” said Whiting.
Whiting appears to have been solicited to speak by Council Member Majhess’ best friend Bill Trinka, an outspoken conservative and, like Majhess,a former Boca Raton fire fighter.
This evening’s votes came after almost a year of intensive lobbying by the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC), including a media campaign entitled “Boca Bigots Run City Hall”.
PBCHRC is a local nonprofit organization, which, for the last 25 years, has been dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. The organization has also been the prime mover for domestic partnership benefits in Palm Beach County for more than two decades.
“Finally, a majority of Boca Raton’s elected officials have stood up to city administrators who have worked diligently since 2006 to prevent the city’s LGBT residents and employees from being treated with equality, dignity and respect,” said Rand Hoch, President and Founder of the PBHRC. “City Council Member Constance Scott and Deputy Mayor Susan Haynie are to be commended for their leadership on these important issues of equality.”
Deputy Mayor Haynie is already a candidate for mayor in the upcoming municipal election.
While Majhess suggested placing referendum on the issue of domestic partnership benefits on the ballot in the March 2014 municipal elections, not a single city council member supported his proposal.
“Although we live in a a democracy based on majority rule, our nation protects minority rights,” said Hoch. “Civil rights matters should never be placed before the voters.”
“Under our system of government,the legislative and judicial branches — not the voters — exist to address minority rights and benefits,” added Hoch.
In late 2006, PBCHRC first asked city administrators to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and to extend the same family benefits to employees with domestic partners as the city extended to opposite-sex married couples. However, City Manager Leif Ahnell refused to even consider the requests.
Over the years that followed, PBCHRC sent similar requests to then-mayor Steven Abrams, who in turn, passed them along to Ahnell. However, the city manager continued to ignore the requests.
In January 2011, Ahnell became proactive in his efforts to preserve the city’s ability to discriminate against gay, lesbian and gender non-conforming municipal employees. Working with City Attorney Diana Grub Freiser, Ahnell persuaded the city council to opt-out of the Palm Beach County Equal Employment Ordinance. The ordinance provided the only avenue of recourse to Boca Raton municipal employees who felt they were discriminated against based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
“No city resident asked for this invidious action to be taken,” said Hoch. “Nor did any of the city’s elected officials initiate this discriminatory action.”
PBHRC filed public records requests in an attempt to determine why the city had taken such a hardline stand against providing equal protection and benefits for the city’s LGBT employees.
“The documents and videos we reviewed clearly showed that this was purely a joint effort by Ahnell and Freiser,” said Hoch.
Emboldened by their success, Ahnell and Freiser went a step further.
In 2012, they persuaded the city council to reject a county grant of $1.25 million for hazardous materials cleanup. The sole reason for the rejection was that the agreement granting the funds included language requiring the city of Boca Raton to represent that it treated employees equally without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
However, Ahnell and Freiser’s strategy backfired when the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners informed Boca Raton officials that the city had 60 days in which to accept the contract with the LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination provision. Otherwise, the city would forfeit the funding.
“It was insane for City Manager Ahnell to place the residents of Boca Raton at risk just so he could preserve the right to discriminate against the city’s LGBT employees,” said Hoch. “Fortunately for the residents of Boca Raton and the surrounding communities, the city council voted unanimously to sign the agreement with the mandatory LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination language and the county made the initial payment of $235,000 for HAZMAT clean-up.”
In light of the actions of Ahnell and Freiser, in late 2012, PBHRC mounted a media campaign entitled “Boca Bigots Run City Hall.”
PBCHRC demanded that Boca Raton adopt LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policies, extend the full range of domestic partnership benefits, and expand the jurisdiction of the community relations board to include the city’s LGBT community. In addition, the PBCHRC insisted the city repeal the municipal ordinance by which the Boca Raton opted out of the Palm Beach County Equal Employment Ordinance.
In response to e-mail and personal requests from Boca Raton residents, at a city council meeting in November, 2012, four city council members spoke out in favor of “moving into the 21st century” regarding the city’s nondiscrimination and employee benefits policies. The city council directed the city manager to have staff research the issues and promptly report back.
Following the meeting, Council Member Scott sent a formal written request to Ahnell, seeking that the specific changes be made.
Despite Scott’s request and constant reminders from PBCHRC, Ahnell and his staff did little to move the issues forward. Only when Deputy Mayor Haynie demanded Ahnell issue the requested report, did the city manager respond.
However, the response — a January 11, 2013 report issued by Human Resources Director Mark Buckingham — was replete with errors.
“I was astonished at the sheer number of inaccuracies in the memorandum,” Hoch wrote in a four-page letter to Buckingham. Enclosed with the letter were documents from other municipalities refuting information in the report.
In late January, Deputy Mayor Haynie met with Hoch to discuss a timetable for implementing the changes requested by PBCHRC. She then informed Ahnell in writing that she supported the changes. Although Haynie expected the city manager to place the matters on the agenda for consideration by the city council in the near future, Ahnell ignored her request, just as he had done with Scott’s.
In February, the Boca Raton Community Relations Board sent Ahnell a resolution formally requesting the city council amend the board’s enabling ordinance to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression.” However, Ahnell refused to place the resolution on a city council agenda and no action was taken during the seven months leading up to this evening’s meeting.
In the interim, Haynie had become increasingly frustrated with Ahnell’s refusal to bring the issues forward. In March, she informed PBCHRC that she would bring the LGBT issues up at the City’s goal setting sessions which were scheduled for early May.
Soon thereafter, Human Resources Director Buckingham sent Ahnell a written request that four items, including the LGBT-related issues, be included in the written materials for the goal-setting sessions. However, when Ahnell presented the items to be addressed at the goal setting sessions, all references to the LGBT-related issues had been deleted.
While Haynie did briefly address the issues at the goal-setting sessions, the final report did not include any references to the LGBT issues.
By July 2013, Ahnell had successfully delayed consideration of the issues, despite written requests by two city council members and the Community Relations Board — not to mention the extensive correspondence from the PBCHRC.
With open enrollment for insurance benefits set for October, time was running out for the city council to take action in time for employees with domestic partners to get health insurance coverage for calendar year 2014.
“We knew if we waited any longer, the city’s lesbian and gay employees would once again be denied access to family health insurance benefits,” said Hoch. “So, PBCHRC decided to press the issue at a public meeting.”
On July 9, 2013, Hoch appeared at a city council workshop and gave the city council an August 27 deadline.
“This timeframe will allow sufficient time for the city to provide domestic partnership information to your employees in conjunction with open enrollment, should you decide to join the other public and private employers in Palm Beach County and throughout the nation that provide equal family benefits to all of their employees,” Hoch told the city council.
At the workshop, Council Member Scott and Deputy Mayor Haynie spoke out in favor of updating the nondiscrimination policies and providing domestic partnership benefits.
Mayor Susan Whelchel also assured Hoch that the matters would be brought up promptly before the city council for consideration.
At the city council meeting the following night, staff was directed to prepare materials to update city equal opportunity ordinances and policies to include both “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression” and to draft the necessary documents to implement domestic partnership benefits.
The documents prepared by staff included the ordinances and resolution that were adopted at tonight’s meeting.
Haynie spoke eloquently about the need to “provide equal treatment and benefits for our city employees,” adding that voting in favor of the changes was the right thing to do.”
“Good things come to those who wait,” said Hoch. “And the lesbian, gay and gender nonconforming employees of the City of Boca Raton have been waiting for a long, long, time.”