Monday night Royal Oak City Commissioners voted to create a "welcome mat" for the community by becoming the next Michigan city to enact a human rights ordinance.
Commissioners voted unanimously to have City Attorney Dave Gillam draft a broad ordinance that will protect against discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodation on the basis of height, weight, marital status, source of income, family responsibility, education association, sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status. In doing so, Royal Oak will join Ann Arbor, Birmingham, Detroit, East Lansing, Ferndale, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Saginaw, Traverse City and Ypsilanti in enacting a human rights ordinance.
Why a human rights ordinance?
The discussion of a human rights ordinance was requested by City Commissioners Jim Rasor and Kyle DuBuc.
“Royal Oak is a diverse community,” said Rasor by phone before Monday's meeting. “In today’s society, a majority of the population looks at sexual orientation the same way they look at religion, race, sex, age, marital status, and occupation. And yet, it is perfectly legal in Royal Oak to put up a sign in front of a rental property that says 'No gays.'”
Rasor told commissioners he believes an ordinance strengthens the city's commitment to civil rights and in doing so makes the city stronger and more welcoming for all people who want to live, work or invest here.
"It's a municipal best practice," he said. "This is the best tool we have to ensure we're including best and the brightest."
Several residents displayed their passion, vulnerability and sense of humor on the matter during the public comment, which lasted about 50 minutes.
Michael Chetcuti and Kyle Evans—Royal Oak residents, business owners and employers—said they felt very strongly about the issue.
"We hope that you guys make the right decision and be part of a more progressive community like the surrounding communities," Chetcuti told commissioners.
Tara Makar, holding her infant daughter Kennedy, pleaded with commissioners to "be on the right side of history" and make Royal Oak a city her children will not be ashamed to grow up in.
"Look at this face. Do you want to disappoint her?" Makar said, and, as if on cue, the baby started to cry.
"You can't always trust people will do the right thing, otherwise you wouldn't need laws," Makar said.
Royal Oak resident Tom Violante, who founded Holiday Market in 1954, reminded commissioners in 2001 voters crushed a proposal for a human rights ordinance by a 2-1 margin that would have banned discriminatory employment and housing practices.
"It was not Royal Oak's finest hour," Violante said. "There are still members of the LBGT community that won't spend a dime here because of it."
Then choking back tears, Violante recalled how gay relative approached him.
"I looked him straight in the eye, hugged him and I told him I loved him and he was perfect just the way he is," Violante said. "I say it's time to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and work toward a future that does not say you belong or you don't belong."
A 71-year-old resident who identified himself as Jerry said, as he walked to City Hall in the dark, he thought about how lucky he was that no one bothers him and that he feels safe—and then he thought about how gay people have been beat to death, he said.
"We should pass this because it gives the police more power and lets people know we are not going to fool around," he said—adding he doesn't "give a darn" who lives next to him. "As long as when you move into my neighborhood you pick up your yard, I don't care what you do."
Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter also spoke during public comment. "Royal Oak South," as Coulter jokingly referred to his city, has had a human rights ordinance on the books since 2006. The mayor said he remembered a common argument against the ordinance was concern it would be a drain on public resources.
"I asked our police chief how many cases have involved the police department in the decade or so we have had the ordinance," Coulter said. "He said, 'Zero.' I can tell you the resources spent enforcing it have been none."
Alex Shnaider warned commissioners not to exclude anyone in the ordinance.
"You have to include everybody—members of the minorities and members of the majorities—otherwise we could come across a case of reverse discrimination. So think about it before you do it," he said.
City commission reacts
"Of course we should do this, as so beautifully stated by all the residents who came out tonight. We need to be on the right side of history and make a note that we welcome and respect all kinds of people here in Royal Oak," DuBuc said.
After coming off a particularly nasty campaign season full of insults, Mayor Pro Tem Patricia Capello said she welcomed a ordinance that speaks to tolerance.
Commissioner Peggy Goodwin called it "surprising" that in 2012 there is not federal legislation that covers sexual orientation and marital status among other things.
"This shows that there's equality of all people, which I think we already demonstrate in this city," she said. "But if my colleagues believe we need legislation to back that up, I'm supportive of it."
Commissioner Dave Poulton said he looked forward to seeing the language of the ordinance and giving residents an opportunity to express their opinion on it, one way or another.
For Commissioner Mike Fournier the ordinance was about advancing the human condition and he supported it.
"Tonight I'll go home quietly, enter my children's rooms, kiss them on the forehead, and know that their dad did the right thing tonight."
Mayor Jim Ellison also offered his thoughts on the human rights ordinance.
"I will absolutely be supporting this. I think this is the time. And, certainly the place that we need this ordinance is in the City of Royal Oak."
Ellison said the enactment of the ordinance will likely go unnoticed in the day-to-day lives of residents.
"But I think it will affect those looking to our city as a place to come, a place locate, and a place to do business. It shows we are willing to go the extra mile to protect and invite people into our community."