District 1 rep hopes task force will become standing city commission
District 1 Dallas City Councilwoman Delia Jasso said this week that she’s working to establish a city task force on LGBT issues made up of representatives from the gay community.
Jasso suggested that the task force could eventually become a standing city commission — similar to those that have been established in places like Fort Worth and Austin — charged with handling complaints filed under Dallas’ seven-year-old nondiscrimination ordinance.
Jasso said the task force/commission would also function as an advisory panel — overseeing things like sensitivity training for the Police Department and Fire-Rescue, and helping to establish an affinity group for LGBT municipal employees.
"Tell me what body we have that deals with GLBT issues. We don’t have one," said Jasso, who took office in June after campaigning as a strong ally of the gay community. "My desire would be to put together a group of people — right now it would have to be a task force — to help us deal with those issues and make recommendations to us. … I think it’s a great idea. I don’t know why we haven’t done it before."
Jasso said she’s already discussed the task force proposal with some LGBT leaders, who support the idea and have agreed to recruit potential members. Jasso said she hopes the task force can begin meeting by late October.
Patti Fink, president of the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance, the city’s chief nonpartisan LGBT advocacy group, said she’s among those who support Jasso’s proposal.
"I hope it can be something that can be well-established and serve us not only immediately, but over time," Fink said of the task force/commission. "It’s a touchstone, if it exists, that is right there to be tapped at any time."
Asked why a city commission on LGBT issues has never been established in Dallas, Fink said the idea has never been pursued by the community. Instead, DGLA representatives and other leaders have always simply worked directly with councilmembers.
Fink acknowledged that the absence of such a commission also may have something to do with the fact that up until a few years ago, Dallas had at least one openly gay councilmember for 14 consecutive years. The city hasn’t had an openly gay council member since 2007.
Fink said if a task force/commission is established, the No. 1 priority would be revisiting the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance "in terms of clarifying it and strengthening it." For example, "gender identity and expression" aren’t currently listed in the ordinance but are instead covered in a roundabout way under the definition of "sexual orientation." The ordinance, enacted by the City Council in 2002, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations.
Complaints under the nondiscrimination ordinance are currently processed and investigated by the Fair Housing Office before being turned over to the City Attorney’s Office.
"What we’d really like to see some sort of human rights commission that would handle all complaints regarding discrimination in the city of Dallas," Fink said. "Not that [the Fair Housing Office isn't] doing a good job, it’s just that it’s not their focus. Many other jurisdictions have a dedicated entity that’s responsible for that."
Jasso said having a panel made up of LGBT people to handle nondiscrimination complaints would alleviate concerns that in seven years, no discrimination complaint has ever been prosecuted by the city under the ordinance, which carries a maximum fine of $500 per violation.
As of Sept. 11, there had been 42 sexual orientation complaints filed under the ordinance since it took effect in 2002, according to statistics obtained by Dallas Voice under the Texas Open Records Act. Twenty-seven of the 42 complaints were found to have "no cause" by the City Attorney’s Office, five were resolved through mediation, four were deemed nonjurisdictional, two were withdrawn, three were dismissed because the complainant was uncooperative, and one is pending.
"I would have that concern about dealing with any of our ordinances," Jasso said of the fact that the city has never taken a complaint to court. "Whether or not we’re enforcing it properly or taking care of the complaints properly is an issue.
"My hope is that by putting together a task force, we can come up with some real solutions," she added. "I think all 40 of them probably don’t have merit, but maybe two or three of them. Right now I think it’s just the city making the decision."
Jasso also pointed to the recent Rainbow Lounge raid in Fort Worth as a reason why a task force on LGBT issues is needed. Although Fort Worth has a standing Human Relations Commission, the city established a separate task force to address LGBT issues in the wake of the raid.
"A commission should not have to come as a result of something very negative," Jasso said.
Damien Duckett, the chairman of DGLA’s political action committee who’s reportedly been involved in discussions about the task force, declined to go into detail about the issue this week but also cited the Rainbow Lounge raid as one of the motivating factors.
"I have discussed with Ms. Jasso the possibility of forming some type of a group, but everything else at this point is really not confirmable," Duckett said. "I think right now, I’m really not in a position to discuss anything. Let’s just say that any organization that’s formed to handle GLBT issues at large, citywide, is going to be helpful, and I think that in light of what’s happened in Fort Worth … I think it’s helpful to have an organization in place to handle issues citywide relating to the GLBT community."
Chris Heinbaugh, openly gay chief of staff for Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, indicated this week that any councilmember or group of councilmembers can theoretically establish a task force on any issue. However, a standing city commission would require approval from a majority of the council before it has decision-making authority or becomes eligible for city funds.
Asked whether Leppert would support a city commission on LGBT issues, Heinbaugh said he was unsure.
"We would just have to hear what the councilmember has in mind and what her vision is for that task force or commission," Heinbaugh said. "It’s an interesting concept. I would love to hear what here thoughts are on it and how she sees it taking shape."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 18, 2009.