Phoenixville anti-discrimination ordinance faces criticism

PHOENIXVILLE >> Borough council faced criticism for its decision to schedule a public hearing on a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance, which looks to protect residents from discrimination based on, among other things, their sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status. Critics say the ordinance leaves the borough vulnerable to potential litigation and needs more time for revision.

“There are holes in this policy that should have been filled,” said council President James Kovaleski.

The authors of the ordinance said they’ve worked on it for over a year and felt confident it was ready to go before a public hearing.

In a 6-2 decision Tuesday, council agreed to advertise the hearing for the March 14 council meeting. Kovaleski and councilman Jon Ichter II dissented.

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The ordinance attempts to ensure every resident is afforded equal access to employment, housing and public accommodations and is treated fairly regardless of perceived race, color, sex, religion, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, familial status, marital status, age, mental or physical disability, use of guide or support animals and/or mechanical aids.

The ordinance calls for the formation of a five-person panel called the Phoenixville Human Relations Commission, appointed by borough council, whose members would serve overlapping three-year terms to handle discrimination claims through a mediation process. The goal would be to settle disputes before they have to go to court.

The panel members would not hold political office or be paid a salary other than for expenses incurred while they performed the duties of the position. Council would grant the commission members power to perform its duties, so long as they doesn’t exceed those exercised by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

The ordinance seeks to protect the rights of citizens not covered by the state, Councilwoman Catherine Doherty said Tuesday. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act only protects against discrimination based on race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age, familial status, handicap or disability and national origin.

“Judge me on what I do. Judge me on how I contribute to my community,” Doherty said. “Do not judge me on what I look like, or how I like to dress, or who I love … This is about acceptance. I think we should make a statement. In Phoenixville, there’s no room for hate here. If you’re a hater, go live someplace else.”

To view the entire proposed ordinance, visit http://bit.ly/2kLr0Tb.

Both Kovaleski and Ichter, along with Mayor Michael Speck, said while they weren’t opposed to the proposed ordinance, they felt more time was needed to revise some of the language that was confusing, vague or could expose the borough to litigation in the future.

“We all want to get there. I feel that in my heart,” Speck said. “(But) we need to protect the borough legally.”

Council’s decision not to do so was “shameful,” Ichter said. He had several questions about the ordinance such as the success rate of other municipalities with similar ordinances of keeping cases out of the court system through mediation. He also wondered what kind of weight a borough ordinance would have if a case were to move up the judicial ladder. Ichter further felt the name of the ordinance should be changed to something more positive sounding, as it could otherwise invite residents to question why the borough would need such an ordinance in the first place.

Solicitor Charles Garner recommended council consider how the ordinance would provide the enforcement authority if a case were to go to the state level. He questioned how the ordinance puts into operation some of its “extreme procedures” such as issuing subpoenas during investigations and holding public hearings.

“How far do you want to take the ordinance?” he said. “And how do you implement it? My biggest concern would be who decides whether a claim goes beyond mediation stage? Who decides whether it will go onto an expanded procedure?”

Some of the ordinance’s authors said pushing the public hearing back another month to do final revisions was unnecessary. They’d spent over a year drafting it and felt confident with the language as it stands today.

“We have looked at a lot of different municipalities already,” said Councilman Edwin Soto. “That’s the point of a policy committee, to do the heavy lifting.”

“This should not be tabled,” said Doherty.

Following the meeting, Councilman Michael Kuznar said about six residents contacted him concerned about the executive power of the ordinance.

“Upon reading it, everything that was included in the language didn’t suggest that it had anything beyond a mediation board,” he said.