The Price (Tag) of Tolerance

Budget cuts claim St. Pete's anti-discrimination division

Budget-cutting in St. Petersburg prompted by property tax reform has claimed the city's 30-year-old anti-discrimination law.

Mayor Rick Baker's proposed budget eliminates six jobs in the Community Affairs Department that investigated and upheld anti-discrimination laws in the city, leaving especially in doubt a human-rights ordinance that protected people in the GLBT community.

Without investigators or supervisors to check out the 200-300 discrimination cases filed annually, the city will stop taking complaints on Sept. 30. A memo to St. Petersburg City Council members said the move would save "several hundred thousand dollars" a year.

Along with the staffing cuts, the city is looking to repeal the human rights ordinance so it can shift the responsibility for anti-discrimination enforcement to Pinellas County government. Council members last week approved a partial repeal of the law. A final vote and public hearing is set for July 19.

Deputy Mayor Tish Elston said the move is designed to try to provide a smooth transition of those complaints to county government without anyone falling "between the cracks."

But the change leaves in some doubt how the GLBT community may fare, since prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is covered by the city ordinance but not by the county's anti-discrimination law.

"We certainly support a more efficient government that results in savings to the taxpayers," said Jim Pease, the president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans. "But we don't want the City of St. Petersburg to forget that they need to ensure that the civil rights of its citizens are protected and that enforcement is a function of government that should not diminish when economic times become challenging."

Gay rights advocates with Equality Florida could not be reached for comment.

Elston acknowledged that the county's law doesn't specifically protect GLBT citizens.

"At this stage of the game, it doesn't [cover sexual orientation]," she said. "It will stay under our ordinance until the county's covers that."

Was there any indication that county leaders would move in that direction?

"All they have said is there has been some discussion in the community," Elston responded.

If approved a second time by the City Council, the new city ordinance would repeal all parts of the old law that are already covered by the county ordinance. It would keep in place prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but the city department would not have any employees to investigate such complaints.

Elston said any such instances could prompt the city to hire outside investigators to pursue a resolution. "If it can't be referred to the county, that same service level is going to be maintained," Elston said. She added that county officials have been asked to hire as many of the laid-off St. Pete Community Affairs workers as possible and to have an anti-discrimination office in downtown St. Petersburg. One or two St. Pete employees would maintain an "advocacy function" in the city's Community Affairs Department.

Civil rights advocates in St. Petersburg were first notified about the change by the department's director, Theresa Jones. She wrote in an e-mail, "It's been nearly 30 years since the passage of the St. Petersburg Human Rights Ordinance in 1979, and since that time thousands of persons have had the right and have filed a discrimination complaint on a local basis in St. Petersburg with the City's Community Affairs Department (formerly known as the Human Relations Department). If you have any interest in the local Human Rights law, which has more extensive provisions than both Title VII & VIII of the Federal Civil Rights ACT and Pinellas County's Chapter 70, I would encourage you to participate in the public hearing process and/or communicate your position to the City Council members."

When Jones sent that e-mail two weeks ago, the city was circulating a total repeal of the human rights law. Elston ordered the change to a partial repeal to prevent a loss of rights for people filing a sexual orientation-related complaint. She said the department only got a handful of such cases every few years.

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