Post by News6 UCA.
The Conway City Council voted 6-2 Feb. 24 to approve an amendment to the city’s equal opportunity employment policy.
The city handbook amendment passed prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression when hiring and disciplining city employees.
Conway Mayor Tab Townsell said he hopes the council’s vote makes a statement that the city is welcoming and accepting of the LGBT community.
“Sometimes you do the right thing at the right time,” Townsell said. “This was that time.”
He said the city of Conway already practices these ideals and that the passed ordinance puts those values in writing.
The policy revision was added to the agenda two days before the meeting. The council voted to waive the three readings, meaning the aldermen were ready to vote on the ordinance at the same meeting at which it was announced.
Ward 3, position 2 councilwoman Mary Smith recommended that the council table the bill until more citizens were aware of the ordinance and had a chance to provide their input. She promised to vote against the bill if not tabled, which she did.
“I hadn’t found out we were voting on this until I saw it on a Facebook post,” Smith said. “I didn’t feel like I had time to talk to people about it and get feedback, so I voted ‘no’ like I said I would.”
The council heard almost two hours of public input on the ordinance, including recommendations from Sen. Jason Rapert (R), Rep. David Meeks (R) and 2014 legislative candidate and Rapert’s past opponent Joel Tyler Pearson.
Debate over the rule brought over 100 people — including pastors, city workers and students — to the meeting.
The number was more than Ward 2, position 2 councilwoman Shelley Mehl — who also works as Vice President of Advancement at UCA — had seen since her appointment to the council.
“This was the biggest crowd I think I’ve ever seen,” Mehl said. “I actually got phone calls about this. I never get phone calls. This was civic engagement at work.”
Mehl, who voted in favor of the ordinance, said she hopes UCA students will see that they live in a progressive community dedicated to protecting the rights of all citizens.
Public opponents of the policy revision said the policy was unnecessary and raised concerns that the city will encounter lawsuits. Rapert warned the council about the possibility for lawsuits from the same people they are aiming to protect.
“That is an unintended consequence that should be thought about before you open up a whole new [category], which you do not have the federal law or the state law to back you up on,” he said. “[Sexual orientation and gender identity] laws actually do legislate morality, Mr. Mayor. The morality of the sexual revolution.”
UCA senior and Philosophy and Religion Club President Kirby Richardson asked the council to vote yes on the ordinance.
“Tonight I keep hearing people asking for more time to talk about this issue, but we’ve been talking about this issue in this country for the last 50 years,” Richardson said. “If now is not the time, when will be?”
When the ordinance was approved by the council, the crowd rose to a standing ovation.
Townsell said this ordinance was meant to be a symbolic statement in response to Arkansas Senate Bill 202, which passed into law Feb. 23. The bill received nationwide criticism from LGBT-rights organizations and major corporations such as Walmart.
SB 202, proposed by Rep. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs), removes the ability for cities and counties to pass their own anti-discrimination laws that differ from existing state laws.
However, SB 202 allows for cities, counties and municipalities to regulate their own hiring practices. The ordinance approved by city council is within the boundaries of this exception.
SB 202 passed in the Senate by a 24-8 vote on Feb. 9 and in the House by a 58-21 vote Feb. 13.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson had until Feb. 23 to sign or veto the bill before it passed into law. Hutchinson chose to allow the bill to pass without his signature. He did not sign the bill due to personal hesitations about its effects, but did not veto it due to a likely override by the legislation.
The bill will become law on July 1 if it is not repealed by the legislature or challenged by the public.