Commissioners gave final approval Aug. 21 to a personnel ordinance that doesn’t specifically include protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The 4-1 tally was the same as it was on Aug. 7 when commissioners gave it their initial nod of approval: Commissioner Holly Jones cast the lone vote against the ordinance both times in protest over its lack of LGBT protections.
Jones proposed changing the board’s procedural rules on Aug. 21 to allow for another vote an an amendment to add the ban on discrimination. A similar vote on Aug. 7 failed by a 3–2 margin, with only board chair David Gantt joining Jones in support.
However, Jones said that in light of the legal information and public input that’s emerged since then, she hoped that some of the board members might’ve changed their minds.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of legal minds in the last two weeks, and it sounds like a solid approach to take,” said Jones. “I do believe that it’s important, that if we’re going to be an anchor institution in this community, if we are going to reflect our community, to send a strong message about our intolerance to discrimination and include it specifically in our ordinance.”
But although Gantt said he supported the protections proposed by Jones, he joined with the majority in declining to support her move to change the procedural rules, so it died for lack of a second. Gantt said he had talked to each of the commissioners before the meeting and determined that an additional vote on the amendment would’ve resulted in the same outcome as it did on Aug. 7.
Meanwhile, before the vote, commissioner Carol Peterson insisted that the “ordinance protects applicants and employees from harassment and discrimination at every level.”
“We did not leave our GLBT employees unprotected,” she declared. “It is disingenuous and flat out wrong to continue to say that their are no protections. These comments instill fear, unnecessarily, and distort what the current working conditions are.”
Peterson didn’t cite any specific language in the ordinance to back up her statement. But the ordinance does include language stating:
• Buncombe County is committed to a work environment that is free from harassment and discrimination.
• Harassment of employees by Supervisors or co-workers is forbidden in any form.
• Buncombe County is committed to the principles of equal employment opportunity.
However, elsewhere in the ordinance, legal protections against “unlawful workplace harassment” and assurances of “equal employment opportunity” are defined very specifically to include protections for 11 categories. And sexual orientation or gender identity are not included. Sexual orientation and gender identity also aren’t legally protected classes under federal, state, or local laws. Excerpts from the ordinance include:
• Unlawful Workplace Harassment is specifically defined as: Unwelcome or unsolicited speech or conduct based upon race, color, religion, sex, national origin, political affiliation, physical or mental disability, age, veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected class under federal, state, or local law that creates a hostile work environment or circumstances involving quid pro quo.
• Firm practices and employment decisions regarding recruitment, hiring, assignment, promotion, and compensation shall not be based on any person’s individual’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, political affiliation, physical or mental disability, age, veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected class under federal, state, or local law.
The ordinance also includes big changes to longevity pay. It will now be based solely on employment duration, regardless of when a worker was hired. Amounting to between $100 and up to 7 percent of an employee’s salary, the annual payment increases the longer an employee stays with the county. Formerly, the amount depended on when the employee was hired; for those starting after February 2011, it was capped at $300. Jones had long advocated for the change to longevity pay, arguing it was more fair.
Vice Chair Bill Stanley wasn’t able to attend the meeting in person and voted on the ordinance via speaker phone. He is recovering from congestive heart failure, according to Kathy Hughes, clerk to the board.
In other business, the commissioners:
• Unanimously approved the consent agenda, which made the minutes of a closed session during the Aug. 7 meeting the only official documentation of what happened behind closed doors. There has been wide speculation among observers that the closed session might’ve violated N.C. meeting laws; the minutes have been criticized as insufficiently vague.
• Unanimously took the first step towards allowing the county to refinance $32.8 million in bonds in order to take advantage of a lower fixed interest rate.
• Considered a report on a new Health and Human Services program in the Pisgah View Apartment complex that aims to help residents and build a sense of community.