Burns: Future mayor’s support could make the difference in maintaining recent progress in Cowtown

TAMMYE NASH  |  Senior Editor

FORT WORTH  —  Spurred on by the national spotlight focused on the city in the wake of the June 28, 2009 raid on the Rainbow Lounge and the harsh criticism that followed, Fort Worth has in the last two years made huge strides forward in protecting its LGBT citizens and treating them fairly.

LGBT advocates and city officials alike praised that progress, boasting about how far the city has come in such a short time: The city now offers its gay and lesbian employees benefits for their same-sex partners; the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance now includes protections for transgender people, and all city employees are required to attend diversity training classes that specifically address LGBT issues.

Joel Burns

But those changes haven’t come without protest from some of the city’s more socially conservative quarters. And this year’s municipal elections provided those conservatives with a chance to use the power of their votes to turn back the clock. It seems, though, they missed their chance.

The May 14 general election saw all but two of the City Council incumbents — a majority of whom supported the changes — returned to their offices. The two not re-elected — Mayor Mike Moncrief and District 7 Councilman Carter Burdette — did not run for re-election. Both those races will be decided in the Saturday, June 18, runoff election.

The race to replace Burdette, who voted against the amendment to the nondiscrimination ordinance, comes down to Dennis Shingleton and Jon

Perry, neither of whom has made any significant outreach to the LGBT community in this race.

But the runoff battle between Betsy Price and Jim Lane to replace Moncrief as mayor has been a different story. Both candidates have expressed support for equality and fair treatment, and — for the first time ever — Fort Worth’s mayoral candidates participated in a forum specifically on LGBT issues, held June 1 and sponsored by LGBT advocacy group Fairness Fort Worth and the North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce.

At that forum, but Lane and Price said they believed the protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender express ion in the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance should be maintained, although Price reportedly said of the ordinance at another forum in April that she didn’t “like the idea that the city is in this business at all.”

Both candidates said they support maintaining the Fort Worth Police Department’s LGBT liaison officer position and continuing diversity education training now mandated for all city employees. Both also said they would support continuing efforts to promote Fort Worth as a tourist and convention destination within the LGBT community.

Price and Lane both said, however, that when it comes to the one remaining item on the City Manager’s Diversity Task Force’s “to-do” list — expanding health benefits for transgender city employees — they need to study the issue further before making a decision on where they stand.

Fort Worth, like other cities in the Metroplex, has a “weak mayor” form of government, one where the city manager is the one with the power to hire and fire department heads, prepare the annual budget and oversee the day-to-day operations of the city.

Yes, the City Council is the entity that hires — and fires — the city manager. And yes, the council has final say on the budget. But, as Fort Worth’s gay Councilman Joel Burns pointed out, each council member including the mayor is just one of nine votes in deciding these and other questions.

So why does it matter so much whether the new mayor of Fort Worth supports equality and fair treatment for the city’s LGBT residents? Because of what the mayor represents.

Lisa Thomas

“Yes, the mayor has one vote, the same as any other council member. But that one vote is an influential vote,” said Burns, who represents Fort Worth’s District 9 and was re-elected last month, without opposition, to a second full term.

“The mayor is in a position to take a leadership role, to use that office as a bully pulpit and set an example for other people on the council,” Burns continued. “The mayor can have a real influence on the way other council members vote on an issue.

“Look back at 2009 when we voted [to amend the nondiscrimination ordinance to include protections for transgenders]. Mayor Moncrief voted with us on that issue and we won. But we might not have won without the influence his vote may have had on some other councilmembers,” Burns said.

“Plus, the mayor plays a very important role as the city’s main ambassador,” and the LGBT community benefits from having a mayor who promotes Fort Worth as a city that welcomes everyone, including LGBT visitors, and that treats its own LGBT citizens fairly, Burns said.

Burns said this week he doesn’t expect to see many LGBT issues coming before the council in the near future; of the 20 initiatives and changes proposed by the City Manager’s Diversity Task Force in the months after the Rainbow Lounge raid, 19 have already been approved and implemented.

The one proposal not yet approved involves health care benefits for trans employees. City staff have been studying the potential costs of expanding those benefits and results of that research is likely to be presented when the council considers the budget later this year.

While the city has made tremendous progress, Burns said, LGBT residents need to stay involved and informed, and they need to get out and vote in the runoff on Saturday.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” he said, “but now we need to make sure we don’t take any steps backward.”

Lisa Thomas, an openly gay member of Fort Worth’s Human Rights Commission and president of Tarrant County Stonewall Democrats, echoed Burns’ sentiments.

“I believe it is imperative that we elect a mayor in Fort Worth that supports the rights of all citizens and visitors,” Thomas said in an email this week to Dallas Voice.

“The LGBT community has come so far in the past two years. … But there is more to be done, and we need a mayor that understands our issues and will strive with us to address the remaining recommendations [of the Diversity Task Force] and continue to improve the working relationships that have been developed,” Thomas said.