Dallas County unlikely to add DP benefits

County Judge Clay Jenkins

Faced with a $35 million budget shortfall, Dallas County is unlikely to begin offering benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees as part of its 2012 budget, a county spokeswoman said last week.

County Judge Clay Jenkins, who chairs the Commissioners Court, has said he supports offering domestic partner benefits. The Commissioners Court, which has a Democratic majority for the first time in decades, voted earlier this year to add LGBT employees to the county’s nondiscrimination policy.

But Dallas County spokeswoman Maria Arita said last week it costs the county an additional $3,552 for every spouse added to an employee’s health insurance. And according to the Dallas Morning News, the county is already proposing to cut $5.6 million in employee health care costs in 2012.

“It really does come down to dollars and cents,” Arita told Instant Tea. “He [Jenkins] likes equality in the workplace in every way for every employee. There’s just no equivocating about that, plain and simple, and if it were possible to offer all benefits to all employees … then he would do that.”

Jenkins is scheduled to discuss the issue further in an interview with Instant Tea on Wednesday.

The city of Dallas has offered DP benefits since 2004, and Fort Worth added them last year.

—  John Wright

WATCH: Dallas County adds trans protections

LGBT advocates who attended Tuesday’s Dallas County Commissioners Court meeting gather on the steps of the administration building after the vote.

After listening to more than 30 minutes of public comments in favor of the proposal, the Dallas County Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines Tuesday to add transgender protections to the county’s employment nondiscrimination policy.

About a dozen people from the LGBT community addressed the Commissioners Court prior to the vote, which came five weeks after the court voted unanimously to add sexual orientation but not gender identity/expression to the policy covering the county’s 7,000 workers. Despite rumors over the last few days, no one spoke against the proposal.

Commissioner John Wiley Price provided the third and decisive vote in favor of transgender protections, joining fellow Democrats County Judge Clay Jenkins and Commissioner Dr. Elba Garcia. Republican Commissioners Maurine Dickey and Mike Cantrell voted against the transgender protections. (Watch video of the court’s discussion below.)

LGBT advocates who attended Tuesday’s meeting erupted in applause after the dramatic vote, and they gathered on the steps of the county administration building for an impromptu celebration moments later.

“The community’s participation is what made this happen — the letters, the phone calls, the people who showed up here,” said Resource Center Dallas’ Rafael McDonnell, who coordinated the community’s advocacy on the issue. “The fact that this was done in five weeks is what really surprises me. Five weeks is the blink of an eye in government time.”

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Dallas County Commissioners Court to vote on transgender protections

Rachel Maddow

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. The Dallas County Commissioners Court is scheduled to vote this morning on whether to add transgender employees to the county’s nondiscrimination policy. County Judge Clay Jenkins and LGBT advocates have urged members of the community to attend the meeting in a show of support for the amendment, which comes five weeks after the Commissioners Court added sexual orientation to the policy. Opponents of the amendment are expected to attend the meeting as well, and it remains unclear whether the measure has enough votes to pass. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. at the county administration building, 411 Elm St. Stay tuned to Instant Tea for a full report from the meeting later this morning.

2. Prop 8 supporters have filed a motion seeking to vacate Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling striking down California’s same-sex marriage ban, on the grounds that Walker had a conflict of interest because he’s in a long-term gay relationship.

3. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow said she thinks others gay cable TV anchors need to come out, but later insisted she wasn’t talking specifically about CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

—  John Wright

Commissioners to vote on trans protections Tuesday; LGBT community urged to attend

Clay Jenkins

In an unexpected but welcome development for LGBT advocates, the Dallas County Commissioners Court is slated to vote next week on whether to add transgender employees to the county’s nondiscrimination policy.

Item 23 on the Commissioners Court’s formal agenda for its regular meeting Tuesday is a Court Order that would add “transgender, gender identity and gender expression” to the nondiscrimination policy.

In March, the Commissioners Court voted unanimously to add sexual orientation to the nondiscrimination policy, but left out transgender protections for the county’s 7,000 workers. Since then, LGBT advocates have called on commissioners to go back and make the policy fully inclusive — speaking at the court’s meetings and flooding them with emails and letters.

In response, County Judge Clay Jenkins, who chairs the Commissioners Court, requested an opinion from the District Attorney’s Office about the impact of adding transgender protections to the policy. Jenkins said Friday afternoon he’s “confident” the amendment will pass on Tuesday.

“I got a verbal back from the DA today that they could sign off that this was not going to be unduly burdensome on the taxpayers or anything, so we’re taking a swing at it,” Jenkins said. “I feel good that it’s the right thing to do and that the majority of the court will support it. “

Jenkins and Commissioner Dr. Elba Garcia, who spearheaded the addition of sexual orientation to the policy, both support adding transgender protections. However, they’ve been struggling to find the third vote needed to get the amendment passed.

—  John Wright

DA says commissioners don’t have to operate ‘in a fish bowl’ — even if what they say sounds fishy

County Judge Clay Jenkins says he was not aware that sexual orientation didn’t include transgender people.

A while back we filed a request, under the Texas Public Information Act, seeking any and all records related to the Dallas County Commissioners Court’s decision to add sexual orientation — but not gender identity/expression — to the county’s nondiscrimination policy.

County Judge Clay Jenkins and Commissioner Dr. Elba Garcia, who spearheaded the amendment, have said they thought sexual orientation included gender identity/expression, based on advice they received from the county’s Human Resources department. But frankly we’re a little skeptical of this claim. Since Jenkins and Garcia told us this, one critical fact has emerged: They are one vote short of the majority needed to add gender identity/expression to the policy, which leads us to wonder whether that’s why it was left out in the first place.

After all, gay District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons has said he shared his department’s nondiscrimination policy, which includes transgender employees, with Jenkins prior to the court’s vote to add sexual orientation but not gender identity/expression to the countywide policy. And during Jenkins’ campaign last year, he told us how as a civil rights attorney in private practice, he once represented a transgender person who won a lawsuit against a popular restaurant chain. As the plaintiff’s attorney in that case, wouldn’t Jenkins have become familiar with the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity/expression? And as for Garcia, she was on the Dallas City Council in 2002 when the council passed a nondiscrimination ordinance that includes “gender identity” — albeit under the definition of sexual orientation.

To be sure, this can be a confusing distinction, especially to those who aren’t members of the LGBT community, and even to many who are. So if Jenkins and Garcia truly thought sexual orientation included gender identity/expression, it would be forgivable. What would be less forgivable, in that case, is their failure to consult with stakeholders, and namely people in the LGBT community, prior to voting on the sexual orientation-only amendment.

In light of all this, we filed our records request, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting answers anytime soon, if ever. In a letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office dated today, Assistant Dallas County District Attorney Michele Tapia maintains that the county shouldn’t be required to release the records we requested. Tapia argues that the county can legally withhold the records because they “constitute inter- or intra-agency communications that consist of advice, recommendations, and opinions reflecting the policymaking processes of a governmental body” that “would not be available by law to a party in litigation with the agency.” To download a copy of Tapia’s letter, click here.

“The disclosure of these documents would chill and discourage candid discussion on improvements from staff at all levels. Further, disclosure would serve to dampen open discussion and actions to improve processes and necessary corrective actions or improvement measures,” Tapia writes. “It would be impossible to have any frank discussion of legal or policy matters in writing if all such writings were to be subjected to public scrutiny. … It has been argued, and with merit, that the efficiency of a government agency would be greatly hampered if, with respect to legal and policy matters, all government agencies were forced to operate in a fish bowl.”

Abbott’s office now has 45 days to render a decision on the county’s request about whether it can withhold the records. Of course, in the meantime, this whole thing would probably just go away if the Commissioners Court simply went back and added “gender identity/expression” to the policy.

—  John Wright

Maurine Dickey compares being transgender to being fat, says she opposes protections

Maurine Dickey

In a setback for LGBT advocates, Dallas County Commissioner Maurine Dickey said today that she opposes adding transgender protections to the county’s nondiscrimination policy.

Dickey, a Republican who represents part of Oak Lawn, was considered a possible third vote in favor of adding gender identity/expression to the policy, which covers the county’s 7,000 employees. However, Dickey appeared to erase those hopes this morning, when she came out against the proposal in an interview after the Commissioners Court’s regular meeting.

Dickey told Instant Tea she believes the Commissioners Court’s recent decision to add “sexual orientation” to the policy was “overdue.” However, she said she thinks adding gender identity/expression to the policy could lead to adding “overweight people” or “people with diabetes.”

“I won’t be voting for a special protected class,” Dickey said. “You’ve got to stop somewhere. … It becomes a legal nightmare.”

In response to follow-up questions, Dickey said, “I’m not going to argue with you about it.”

—  John Wright

Sooner or later, county commissioners will get tired of hearing about transgender protections

Rafael_McDonnell
Rafael McDonnell

Resource Center Dallas’ Rafael McDonnell sends along word that three people from the LGBT community are tentatively scheduled to speak at Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Dallas County Commissioners Court.

This will be the fourth consecutive week in which LGBT activists have spoken during public comments, calling on the Commissioners Court to add gender identity to the county’s nondiscrimination policy. And McDonnell said based on his conversations with commissioners, the advocacy is helping.

McDonnell said he ran into County Judge Clay Jenkins at an event last week, and Jenkins told him that public comments from the LGBT community are influencing the conversation. On Friday, McDonnell met with Commissioner Dr. Elba Garcia, who told him she’s received 60 letters in support of adding transgender protections.

“She urged us to keep up contacting Commissioners [Maurine] Dickey and [John Wiley] Price and share our stories and explain why it’s important,” McDonnell said. “She [Garcia] clearly supports it.”

Jenkins also supports adding gender identity to the policy, but three votes are needed for passage.

Price told Instant Tea last week that he remains undecided on the issue but said public comments from transgender woman Maeve O’Connor had done more to possibly sway him than anything else. Dickey, meanwhile, hasn’t returned a phone call seeking comment.

Dickey announced last week that she won’t seek re-election in 2012, which could make her more comfortable voting in favor of transgender protections. Two years ago, when Republicans still held a majority on the Commissioners Court, Dickey broke ranks and provided the decisive vote in support of ending a ban on condom distribution.

McDonnell said those slated to speak this week are Omar Narvaez of Stonewall Democrats and Lambda Legal, Travis Gasper of Stonewall Young Democrats; and Rebecca Solomon of Bank of America.

It’s too late to sign up to speak at this Tuesday’s meeting, but below is contact info for all five commissioners:

—  John Wright

Commissioner John Wiley Price undecided on protecting transgender county workers

John Wiley Price

Commissioner John Wiley Price says he remains undecided about adding gender identity to Dallas County’s employment nondiscrimination policy.

Price, a member of the court’s Democratic majority, represents the possible third and deciding vote in favor of transgender protections for the county’s roughly 7,000 employees.

County Judge Clay Jenkins and Commissioner Dr. Elba Garcia, two newly elected Democrats who spearheaded the addition of sexual orientation to the nondiscrimination policy last month, have said they mistakenly believed that transgender employees were covered under sexual orientation. Upon learning that they are not, Jenkins requested an opinion from the District Attorney’s Office about the impact of adding gender identity to the policy.

But even if the DA’s office concludes that there would be no negative impact, Jenkins and Garcia need at least one more vote to get the transgender protections passed, and Price is viewed as the most likely source.

“I still don’t know,” Price said when asked if he’d vote for the addition of gender identity to the policy after Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Commissioners Court.

Price added that Maeve O’Connor, a transgender woman who spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting, had done more to possibly sway him in favor of the change than anything else. Watch video of O’Connor’s comments above.

—  John Wright

Contact all five Dallas County commissioners and ask them to add transgender protections

County Judge Clay Jenkins says he was not aware that sexual orientation didn’t include transgender people.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins confirmed today that he’s requested an opinion from the District Attorney’s Office about adding transgender protections to the county’s employment nondiscrimination policy.

Jenkins’ request for information from county attorneys follows the Commissioners Court’s vote last week to add sexual orientation, but not gender identity, to the policy covering the county’s 7,000 employees.

Jenkins and Commissioner Dr. Elba Garcia, two newly elected Democrats who spearheaded the proposal to add sexual orientation to the policy, said they thought sexual orientation covered transgender employees, which experts say it does not.

Since then, Jenkins said he’s received about a dozen e-mails from people in the LGBT community — which he called a lot — asking him to revisit the issue.

“The reason that it’s not in there is not because we don’t support it,” Jenkins said of transgender protections. “I don’t want people to misinterpret that I wasn’t for one type of discrimination but somehow was for another type of discrimination. Nothing could be further from the truth than that.”

Jenkins said he’s asked the civil division of the DA’s office to assess the impact on county code of adding gender identity to the policy.

“It’s going to depend on getting three votes … and the first step is to look at what impact it would have,” Jenkins told Instant Tea. “I care about making sure that we have a welcome and open workplace for all, and discrimination against no one. I’m against any type of discrimination in the workplace. I’m for treating all people equally.”

Rafael McDonnell, of Resource Center Dallas, spoke during public comments of the Commissioners Court’s regular meeting Tuesday. McDonnell said he thanked commissioners for adding sexual orientation to the policy — which they did on a 4-0 vote with Commissioner Maurine Dickey absent — and asked them to go back and add gender identity.

McDonnell said Commissioners Court rules prohibit him from speaking again during public comments for a month, so he encouraged others in the community to sign up to speak in coming weeks. To sign up, call the clerk’s office at 214-653-7886. The Commissioners Court meets at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays in the County Administration Building, 411 Elm St. in Dallas.

McDonnell and others also encouraged people in the LGBT community to contact all five commissioners to thank them for adding sexual orientation and ask them to add gender identity. Here is their contact info, with confirmed email addresses:

County Judge Clay Jenkins – 214-653-7949
Email: Clay.Jenkins@DallasCounty.org

Dist. 1 Maurine Dickey – 214-653-7552
Email: Maurine.Dickey@DallasCounty.org

Dist. 2 Mike Cantrell – 214-653-6100
Email: MCantrell@DallasCounty.org

Dist. 3 John Wiley Price – 214-653-6671
Email: John.Price@DallasCounty.org

Dist. 4 Dr. Elba Garcia – 214-653-6670
Email: Elba.GarciaDDS@DallasCounty.org

—  John Wright

Fitzsimmons says commissioners should consult with DA’s office about nondiscrimination policy

Gary Fitzsimmons

Late yesterday we spoke to openly gay District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons about the Commissioners Court’s approval of an amendment to Dallas County’s employment nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation but not gender identity/expression. Fitzsimmons said he was never asked to review the proposed amendment and was not aware that the Commissioners Court would be voting on it Tuesday. (Coincidentally, Fitzsimmons added transgender employees to the nondiscrimination policy for his department three years ago after Dallas Voice pointed out that it was missing. Fitzsimmons had added sexual orientation but not gender identity/expression to the policy after taking office in 2007.)

In response to a request under Texas open records law, Fitzsimmons provided an e-mail exchange between himself and County Judge Clay Jenkins from Tuesday afternoon. Jenkins had forwarded to Fitzsimmons an e-mail he received from Stonewall Democrats President Omar Narvaez, in which Narvaez warned of backlash from the LGBT community because transgender employees aren’t covered by the amendment.

Fitzsimmons responded to Jenkins by providing a copy of the nondiscrimination policy for his department, and by suggesting that the county judge ask the District Attorney’s Office to review the issue. We’ve posted the e-mail exchange between Fitzsimmons and Jenkins after the jump.

And again, our question is, why in hell didn’t this discussion take place three months ago?

—  John Wright