Texas Values email claiming ordinance affects public bathrooms prompts packed house at council meeting
“I’m sorry to disappoint everyone, but this isn’t the bathroom war,” Mesquite’s Deputy Mayor Pro Tem and Place 2 Councilman Jeff Casper declared, as the city council began discussion Monday night of a new policy banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the city’s hiring policies.
The council eventually approved the policy change on a 5-2 vote, but not before some 22 city residents stood up during the citizens’ forum part of the council meeting to voice their opinions before what Mayor Stan Pickett described as “an overflow crowd.” The vote on the policy change had originally been included as a consent agenda item, but the council rearranged the agenda after an email earlier in the day from the Austin-based right-wing organization Texas Values prompted the unexpected turnout.
The email from Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz warned of a “dangerous new ordinance that threatens the privacy and safety of its citizens by opening up women’s bathrooms, showers and locker rooms to men on city property, such as City Hall, libraries, city swimming pools and recreation centers.”
Saenz, apparently, confused the city’s equal employment opportunity policy with debate — from the local perspective all the way up to the federal level — over whether transgender people should be allowed to use the proper public restroom facilities, based on their gender identity and not the gender assigned them at birth.
But Casper obviously took issue with Saenz’s claim. “Hundreds of cities have passed an equal employment policy such as this. A few cities have, in addition, have passed a secondary policy that is much more broad that includes private employers in their cities and kind of legislates what they have to do as well. That is not this policy,” Casper said.
“This agenda item,” he continued, “isn’t about bathrooms. It’s not about pools. It’s not about locker rooms. It’s not about public facilities, no matter what a political hack from Austin tells you in a fundraising email. That is not true.”
Caper stressed that the policy affects the some 1,100 current employees of the city and any future employees. “All of our employees, regardless of their skin color, who they love, or how they identify should know that this city council respects them and is here to protect their rights,” he said.
“This is not about public restrooms. It’s about public service, including our first responders, some of whom are LGBT and they deserve to know when they put themselves on the line that we have their backs just as much.”
Casper added that the residents of Mesquite “deserve the best service possible from the most qualified applicants possible.”
Casper’s declaration came after Pickett noted that 11 people had spoken against the policy change during the citizens’ forum, and 11 had spoken in favor. He, too, stressed that the policy had nothing to do with who can or cannot use gender-specific public bathrooms in Mesquite.
“We are going to be looking at and talking about a city employment policy. We are not nor have we ever discussed any bathroom policies,” Pickett said. “We are not discussing bathroom policies tonight.”
At the request of Place 6 Councilman Dennis Tarpley, Rick French, the city’s director of human resources and civil service, and Paula Anderson with the city attorney’s office, both clarified that federal law does not yet require state or local governments to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But, they added, recent guidelines from federal agencies and federal court rulings are “trending” toward the interpretation that Title VII prohibitions of discrimination based on sex include prohibitions of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Tarpley then acknowledged “right up front that I don’t know what transgender is. I don’t know that I would know a transgender person if I saw them.” But because he “took an oath of office to uphold the laws of the United States,” he would be voting in favor of the policy change.
Place 5 Councilman Greg Noschese warned that neither the city government nor its employees are perfect, and so a “vague policy … leads to litigation [and to] years of paying lawyers. And as a lawyer who makes a lot of money off of people making bad decisions, I can tell you it gets very expensive for the taxpayers.”
Just the simple fact of not having a specific policy when other cities do “puts us in the crosshairs of the [Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission],” Noschese continued, noting that having inclusive nondiscrimination policies also makes the city more attractive to corporations looking to relocate.
“I’m going to support this policy [because] it’s the right thing to do [and because] it sends the right message” to current and future employees, Noschese said.
Even though he said he had some concerns and might “lose some sleep over it,” Place 1 Councilman Bill Porter also said he was voting for the policy because it was the right thing to do. Pickett cast the fifth vote in favor.
The two votes against the policy change came from Mayor Pro Tem and Place 3 Councilman Bruce Archer and Place 4 Councilman Dan Aleman. Both men called for the vote to be delayed — Archer, because, he said, while he had been prepared to vote for the policy he now wanted to have more time to hear the concerns of residents, and Aleman, because, he said, he is new to the council and wanted more time to study the policy.
Rafael McDonnell, communications and advocacy manager for Resource Center, said he first learned that the Mesquite City Council was considering updating its EEOC policy about a year ago, thanks to one line in an article in the Dallas Morning News. McDonnell said at the time he sent an email offering the center’s assistance in crafting the policy to the assistant city manager, who forwarded it to the city’s HR department. HR, McDonnell said, “gave me a polite brush-off.”
When he reached out a second time in November, McDonnell said, “I got a much more firm, ‘take us off your mailing list’ brush-off.” When Dallas Voice wrote an article about the situation, McDonnell said, Casper reached out to the center.
McDonnell said he then met, right before Christmas, with Casper and City Manager Cliff Keheley at City Hall, taking with him examples of other such ordinances and making suggestions about what language to use.
Still, McDonnell said, “I didn’t even realize this was coming up for a vote now, not until I saw Jonathan Saenz’s email yesterday.” He said that the final language, while not exactly the verbage he and other community leaders had suggested, “still enumerates sexual orientation and gender identity, which was our concern.”
McDonnell said that the passage of this policy in Mesquite, coupled with high-profile battles in Rockwall and in the Fort Worth Independent School District over bathroom policies, will no doubt prompt right-wing politicians in the Texas
Legislature to target the LGBT community when lawmakers convene in Austin next January.
State Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, is already crafting legislation preventing local governmental entities from offering protections above what the state offers, which would mean nondiscrimination ordinances in cities like Dallas and Fort Worth would be invalidated — much as North Carolina’s controversial HB2 invalidated a Charlotte city ordinance banning discrimination.
“But the problem [for conservatives] is that, yeah, it would mean no protections for LGBT people, but those ordinances also protect lots of other people, like veterans and pregnant women,” McDonnell noted.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 10, 2016.