The eternal question in Jacksonville, at least since 2012: will the Human Rights Ordinance be expanded to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression?
That question was not resolved Tuesday evening, in a packed council chambers where the main attraction on an otherwise unremarkable agenda was a public hearing on the HRO.
A measure of the passion: an overflow crowd, with seating offered in a secondary room in city hall.
Council chambers were at capacity even before the meeting began. The line wrapped around the St. James Building with people clamoring to enter.
Many never made it.
And the predominant group in attendance as the meeting started: the early arriving anti-HRO expansion group, in their familiar Protect First Liberties stickers. (Though apparently the dominant group outside the room was in support).
They packed the seats. And packed the back of the room. And packed overflow rooms, as the fire department urged overflow stragglers to disperse to other rooms.
Turnout: over 1,000 people, all considered.
The public library was opened, to accommodate still more people interested in a public hearing that almost certainly was more likely to reinforce mindsets than to change minds.
250 speaker cards were counted, even before the hearing, which started shortly before 7:30.
As with previous discussions, the lines were drawn. HRO expansion proponents wanted the council to vote for the measure. And many opponents pushed for a referendum, which they are convinced would defeat the bill.
James Eddy, a supporter of the HRO who ran for city council himself in 2015, called the mass interest “democracy in action.”
Indeed, it was, as opponents and proponents made their cases with passion and an intense belief in the rightness of their cause.
More than one of those opponents expressed the belief that a “referendum was the way forward … to expose the true feelings of our city.” Others noted sentiments along the lines of “we beat this in 2012, we can beat it again,” making that case.
Erin Taylor, a veteran, made her case for HRO expansion.
“I’m a Christian. I’m a Republican. I’m a veteran. I was born intersex, but raised as a male. I am female. I know who I am,” Taylor said, adding that no one is allowed to discriminate against her.
“I should be defined by my effort. My effort alone should determine my success or failure … not one of 78 organs that happen to be in my body,” Taylor said.
Freedom Daniels, a 15 year old opponent of the bill, warned about “sick people taking advantage of the law,” equating them to parents who leave their kids locked in hot cars.
“How can 19 people pass a law that affects millions of people,” Daniels asked.
James Radloff, the president of a crisis health center, noted that his group doesn’t fall under the exemptions of the bill, “yet we are devoutly Christian,” which is one reason he opposes the bill.
Another reason: the bill “actually literally figuratively opens the door for sexual predators or pedophiles claiming a female identity to access the ladies’ room.”
Darnell Smith, chair of the Jacksonville Chamber, again brought discussion back to the bill — a “non-discrimination ordinance” with carve out protections for small businesses and religious organizations.
The goal: “to make certain [no one is] ever discriminated against” in public accommodations, the job search, and housing.
“It is illegal in this city to discriminate on eight different categories. We are asking you to add two — sexual orientation and gender identity,” Smith said, noting the Chamber is “asked often” if Jacksonville “protects all its citizens.”
“Today,” Smith said, “we cannot say that.”
Lawrence Loughlin, an opponent, said that the current HRO doesn’t prioritize “freedom of conscience” and “one man/one woman marriage.”
Loughlin contended that people with a “sincerely held belief” of opposition should be able to opt out of the ordinance.
Then a gentleman followed up, with the more broad brushed statement that HRO expansion is the equivalent of “Satan” and saying “the city council is not qualified to decide this ordinance.”
Another gentleman described the HRO expansion as a “homo-supremacist” action.
And Carter Jones, notable for putting a positive spin on the comments of the loathsome Roy Bay during 2016’s debate on HRO expansion, spoke up.
“If I’m feeling a little feminine one day, I can go into a women’s only facility,” Jones said, noting that a popular vote was the move.
“We voted on the Constitution,” Jones said, “and that turned out pretty well.”
One proponent, a Ms. Cordova, noted the irony of Pastor Ken Adkins, “handpicked” to be part of the HRO debate in 2015 and 2016, had since been indicted on 11 counts of child molestation.
Adkins, a poster boy for the anti-HRO movement, has since been conveniently banished to the city’s gaping memory hole.
Raymond Johnson, a recurrent anti-HRO activist, spoke again against the “dangerous open bathroom law that puts women’s safety at risk,” including in gyms and homeless shelters.
Pastor R.L. Gundy, who evolved on the HRO in recent years, spoke in favor of the ordinance, noting that the men who crucified Jesus were “not bad men, but blind men.”
“Discrimination exists in Jacksonville. It has existed for a long time,” Gundy said, “and we now have the opportunity to change what we are doing.”
“Stop worrying about the fears of what you know is not the truth. We have not been doing that for a long time,” Gundy said, urging council to move forward from “sincere faith.”
Former Jacksonville City Councilman Don Redman, a staunch social conservative during his time on the council, stated his opposition to the measure also, rooted in a sincere faith of his own.
“I’m appalled that you’re not taking the hard work we did on this and listening to the same thing over and over again and accepting it,” Redman said, advocating for a referendum.
“Those of you that are on the fence — I urge you to think about it and do the right thing … I took a lot of abuse when I voted against this the time before,” Redman said, including “accusations” in front of his children.
“Christians,” said Redman, “are discriminated against more than the homosexual community is.”
As the discussion sprawled over hours, it was clear — as it was in 2012, as it was in 2016 — that both sides were talking past each other, racked by an intractable division.
In that, it’s not like the other debates in the history of the city, which has resisted social change since even before consolidation — such resistance being the reason, many say, that Jacksonville was consolidated in the first place.
The hearing could not be completed Tuesday evening, and was set to resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Notable: of the non-speaker cards collected Tuesday night, 500 were in favor, and 193 were against — perhaps auguring a sea change in where Jacksonville is on LGBT rights.
Beyond the HRO discussion, some bills of note were passed without any objection at all, save one lonely measure.
— Resolution 2016-766 adds “code enforcement liens” to the list of claims, bills and judgments that may be settled by the Finance Director, Office of General Counsel or Mayor. Nuisance abatement liens with a principal amount of $1,000 up to $4,999 would be settled by the Director of Finance; liens below $10,000, by the general counsel; and liens up to $99,999 would be settled by the Mayor with the concurrence of the General Counsel and the Finance Director.
Councilman Bill Gulliford noted the imperative nature of resolving this issue, as liens often add up to more than the assessed value of the property.
“It’s an ongoing long problem,” Gulliford said, “and we need to fix it.”
— Ordinance 2016-795, authorizing moving money from closed capital project accounts to ShotSpotter and other city priorities, will, among other things, “appropriate $435,001 already allocated in a ShotSpotter reserve account to an equipment purchase account for installation of the test site … acoustic gunshot detection and surveillance technology in a 5 square mile area of Health Zone 1,” an area that historically leads the city in gunplay.
The $435,000 allocation was part of a larger package of $1.356 million of unused capital improvement funds that will be funneled into a variety of projects.
— Ordinance 2016-797, authorizing the disposition of 101 pieces of surplus property in Council Districts 7 through 10 and 14, was approved.
The total value of these properties: just over $783,000, ranging from a vacant lot valued at $140 (a great gift idea) to a single family home valued at just under $60,000.
Community housing development organizations get the first crack at developing these properties for single-family, owner-occupied homes as long as the CHDOs don’t have liens; CHDOs are allowed to handle five at a time.
— One actual discussion point happened on 2016-800, which authorized a memorandum of understanding with JAXUSA, an arm of the local Chamber of Commerce, to implement an export plan and develop a foreign direct investment strategy.
Councilman Al Ferraro expressed concerns that money would go to salaries. Councilman Aaron Bowman, the VP of JAXUSA, countered with a statement that Jacksonville’s export capacity is really underutilized and needed development.
The bill passed 17-1, with Ferraro as the No, and Bowman abstaining.