Last week, with much of City Council stuck in campaign season crunch time, downtown Council member Diego Bernal sought to deliver on a promise he made to the LGBT community nearly two years ago.
Bernal, who went uncontested in Saturday’s election, met with members of CAUSA , a coalition of local LGBT rights groups (including the Stonewall Democrats, Get Equal, Equality Texas, Metropolitan Community Church, the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, and others) at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center Tuesday night, announcing plans to finally strengthen local protections for San Antonio’s LGBT community.
For two years CAUSA has pushed Bernal and Mayor Julian Castro to update portions of city code that cover nondiscrimination in the hiring and firing of city employees, public accommodations, fair housing, the awarding of city contracts and the appointment of city board and commission members. As it stands, LGBT citizens aren’t protected anywhere in the city’s non-discrimination language. Both Castro and Bernal have long voiced support for adding “sexual orientation and gender identity” as protected groups.
CAUSA expected the burden of filing a Council Consideration Request, the vehicle by which proposed ordinances make their way to a full Council hearing, would fall on Bernal’s shoulders. At the Tuesday night meeting with activists, Bernal laid out an ambitious timetable for passing the measure by next month.
Bernal says he hopes to get the proposed ordinance changes before Council’s Governance Committee for a May 21 hearing, sending it to a full Council vote soon thereafter. If things go off without a hitch, Council could vote on the package of ordinance changes as soon as May 30, before new Council members are sworn in on June 21.
“I don’t know the date for the Council vote, but the goal is for us to vote on this in the first half of June,” Bernal told the group.
That timing may be strategic. With the current council makeup, Bernal's confident he'll get the six votes needed to pass the protections. At last week’s CAUSA meeting, Bernal was frank about which members would likely vote against his proposal – “We already know we may not get” D5’s David Medina, D8’s Reed Williams, D9’s Elisa Chan, Bernal said, and “perhaps” not D10’s Carlton Soules.
But if Bernal gets pushed off his timetable, he’s got a whole new council to contend with. Medina’s stuck in a runoff election with Shirely Gonzales, who got the Stonewall Dems’ endorsement and would be surefire “yes” vote. It’s still unclear how D8 candidate Ron Nirenberg might vote on the issue, while CAUSA members speculated that his runoff opponent, D8 hopeful Rolando Briones, would likely vote it down. Although current D3 Council member Leticia Ozuna would likely favor the measure, the religiously devout Rebecca Viagran, Ozuna’s opponent who won in Saturday’s election, seems to be the wild card.
On Monday, Bernal said he’s drafted the proposed ordinance changes and is “currently gathering signatures from my colleagues." Bernal had some trouble getting those signatures last week, when City Hall was a “ghost town,” he said.
“I recognize getting this done so quick seems ambitious, but I’m really trying to push things along,” Bernal said. “It’s about time we get this done.”
Still, there was grumbling from LGBT activists that Bernal and Castro took too long to publicly champion the issue, and that the current proposal lets important safeguards fall by the wayside.
Dan Graney, a longtime LGBT activist with the Stonewall Dems, said discussions got derailed when COSA passed domestic partner benefits for city employees in 2011 – “We couldn’t push for both issues at the same time, apparently,” he groused. Then, as Castro pumped support for his Pre-K 4 SA initiative last year, LGBT activists were told to wait, he contends.
“It kept getting kicked down the road,” Graney said. “And now the Mayor’s out there talking about marriage equality. What about some equality here in your back yard?”
And at some point during those two years of discussions, CAUSA activists began asking for more protections, like a local Human Rights Commission to receive and investigate discrimination claims and a non-discrimination ordinance that would cover LGBT employees city-wide, which they say would put San Antonio on equal footing with other major Lone Star cities, like Dallas, Fort Worth, and Austin.
Bernal said he can’t currently deliver the non-discrimination provision for city-wide employment right now, telling the group, “I know for a fact that if we were to get ready to roll on employment right now, we would lose.”
And on creating a Human Rights Commission, Bernal suggested it could take a city charter amendment to give it any real teeth– unlike most other Texas cities, COSA’s charter specifies that commissions are advisory bodies only. The next possible charter amendment would be 2014.
Bernal still wondered whether the political fight for a Human Rights Commission is worth it right now. “Those committees (in other cities) haven’t done much, in my opinion,” Bernal told the group of activists. “It’s a symbol, but they’re not functioning the way you’d expect a commission to. And I, maybe to a fault, am hesitant to do things for symbolic purposes.”
For example, Fort Worth’s commission, by state law, can only issue up to a $500 fine. It has never issued one. Since state and federal law trumps local laws, some worry a judge would likely toss out local municipal ordinances if a fined employer ever challenged one in court.
Chuck Smith with Equality Texas praised Bernal for his actions, but said local non-discrimination ordinances “really are just a stopgap for inclusive non-discrimination policies that need to be passed by the state.”
Still, Graney insisted COSA should act now to add a Human Rights Commission, regardless of whether it’s symbolic. “It might just be a symbol, but it’s a symbol that we don’t accept discrimination in San Antonio,” Graney said. "It’s a symbol that we’re a welcoming, world-class city.”