Ordinance to forbid city employees from harassing colleagues stalls

Chris Anderson

A proposed ordinance to bar city employees from harassing colleagues based on their sexual orientation or gender identity has been stalled a week.

The ordinance, proposed by Councilmen Chris Anderson and Moses Freeman, was on the agenda for a first reading vote next week, but it has been pushed back after Councilman Chip Henderson raised issues during a strategic planning meeting that the council's procedures weren't being followed.

The language of the ordinance is very similar to part of an ordinance Anderson introduced more than a year and a half ago that would bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and extend health benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian city employees.

The City Council in 2013 passed the ordinance in a split vote, but voters ultimately struck the law down in a city referendum in August 2014.

After the Supreme Court ruled Friday that states could not bar gay couples from marrying, Anderson said half of that issue was solved. But he wanted to ensure gay and lesbian city employees were protected from harassment, the same as other protected classes.

Henderson argued the ordinance couldn't be on the agenda until it was discussed in committee. He argued the public would not be given enough time to engage their council members if the bill was "rushed through."

"We came up with these rules for a reason, because we were introducing legislation that was amuck. I just want to make sure we are following this so we are not running amuck," he said. "I think it's a perception [of the public] as well as making sure we are handling this in an appropriate way."

Anderson said since two council persons introduced the law, it could go straight to the agenda and that Henderson was stalling.

"What is the rush? I would hardly call the snail's pace this has moved over the last year and eight months a rush," he said. "I think most of us can comprehend a page and a half in nine days. I think pushing it back would merely be a stalling technique for those who oppose it."

Anderson also said he had been advised by City Attorney Wade Hinton.

But the council's rules about introducing legislation were apparently a bit muddy. Hinton said there was an apparent conflict in the council's rules.

Freeman, who oversees the committee that will ultimately discuss the ordinance, said stalling is dangerous.

"It only takes one or two seconds for someone to be discriminated against. I would prefer we put it in the code rather than leave them out in the cold," Freeman said. "The question is are we going to be out of compliance based on the interpretation of the U.S Supreme Court or will we be in compliance. I would prefer to be in compliance."

But Councilman Ken Smith, who sought to separate the nondiscrimination aspect from the original ordinance in 2013 and vote on it separately, said he wondered if the ordinance was even needed. The Council was planning to vote on a new employee handbook in the coming weeks, and Freeman has said the anti-harassment language would be included.

"I do wonder whether or not the one week makes a difference, especially since we are talking about codifying something that we are going to turn around and put in a book," Smith said.

As a compromise, Council Chairwoman Carol Berz ruled the body would discuss language of the legislation next week during strategic planning, and Freeman would hold a committee meeting on July 14. The council would also vote on the first reading of the ordinance that day.

As written the ordinance would go into effect two weeks after final passage.

The Tennessee Equality Project is planning to visit the council tonight to show its support of the anti-harassment ordinance.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon @lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.