Council bolsters city code

Ordinance on discrimination gets update from Brookings Human Rights Commission

BROOKINGS – Brookings city councilors unanimously voted Tuesday to make changes to the city’s Code of Ordinances related to discrimination and the Brookings Human Rights Commission.

Ordinance 17-021 amends and strengthens definitions of discrimination in the City of Brookings’ current non-discrimination ordinance and modifies corresponding procedures for the Brookings Human Rights Commission.

City Attorney Steve Britzman and the Human Rights Commission worked on the changes.

Steve Bayer, chair of the Commission, said work began after the city passed its Resolution of Inclusion, a resolution “reaffirming Brookings values of inclusion, respect, tolerance, equality and justice, and the city’s commitment toward action to reinforce these values,” earlier this year.

That passage came with “clear direction from the Council to the Human Rights Commission that the resolution was the beginning rather than the end of the journey,” Bayer said. “Words of the resolution would not carry much weight if we did not back those words with meaningful action.”

Bayer said Brookings’ score of 52/100 from the Human Rights Campaign’s “Municipal Equality Index” is the highest in the state but below the national average of 55. Based on its work so far, Bayer believes the city’s 2017 score released next month will be in the 70s, with an ultimate goal of achieving a perfect 100.

“We discovered that our city’s ordinance covering discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations was not truly reflective of our belief in the value of diversity and inclusion,” Bayer explained.

Mayor Keith Corbett called the revised ordinance a “powerful document.”

One audience member questioned the terms “actual or perceived” discrimination in the document.

Bayer said it meant any discrimination, “if you would look at me and decide I would fit a category that you don’t like, whether I actually fit that category or not. For instance, if you perceive someone as homosexual and they’re not, that would be real or perceived, if you’re being discriminated on based on the aggressor’s perception of who you are.”

As far as investigating alleged discrimination, City Clerk Shari Thornes said an individual would file a complaint with city staff, and then it would go to the Human Rights Commission. The city attorney would be involved in reviewing it as well.

Bayer noted that the commission is not authorized to go out and initiate or search for issues to investigate. “We are only empowered to investigate issues that are brought to us where our help is requested.”

The commission has the power to investigate complaints alleging discrimination against individuals or groups because of their race, color, sex, creed, religion, ancestry, national origin, familial status, disability, marital status, gender identity or sexual orientation, with respect to employment, labor union membership, housing accommodations, property rights, education, public accommodations or public services, according to the ordinance.

The same audience member said she had concerns about the commission potentially targeting churches whose teachings it doesn’t agree with. She also called the ordinance “government overreach.”

Britzman said he never contemplated the commission interfering in church activities.

“That wouldn’t be an appropriate role for government to do that, to challenge beliefs that are expressed in any kind of religious place of worship, for example. The overall focus of the ordinance is educational,” Britzman explained. “I think it’s the responsibility of the Human Rights Commission to draw appropriate boundaries in its activities, and following the ordinance would be the framework that would keep them in those boundaries.”

Councilor Patty Bacon expressed her support for the ordinance.

“Thank you for taking our charge seriously, because we did charge you. We said we have to do more than just lip service with our resolution, so thank you again for all the work,” Bacon said.

The council then voted 7-0 to approve the ordinance.


Contact Jill Fier at [email protected]