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LGBT pride flag raised after Orlando shooting 'unbearable' for Christian employee, Hillsborough commissioner says

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner helps raise the LGBT pride flag outside of the county center Wednesday.

Caitlin Johnston, Times

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner helps raise the LGBT pride flag outside of the county center Wednesday.

17

June

TAMPA -- A pride flag waving outside the Hillsborough County center was meant to be a sign of respect and remembrance for the victims of the shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando.

But just a day after it was raised, Commissioner Stacy White said it may be offending Christian employees and questioned whether it should be taken down.

In an email sent to the the county human relations director Peggy Rowe on Thursday, White said he received an anonymous complaint from a county employee that the presence of the flag was “nearly unbearable” for her to pass on her way to work and created a "hostile work environment."

Calling the rainbow flag a “divisive, politically-charged symbol,” White asked Rowe if it could become an HR problem for the county. If it does, then White said he wanted a special meeting of the county commission to consider removing it.

Commissioners voted 5-1 on Wednesday to hang the flag for the rest of June, which is Pride Month, after 49 people were killed at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando on Sunday. The shooter, Omar Mateen, reportedly targeted the bar because it is a well-known LGBT hangout. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

White, a Republican who represents east Hillsborough County, was not present for the meeting. The flag was raised immediately after Wednesday’s meeting.

Even if this isn’t an HR problem, White criticized County Administrator Mike Merrill for allowing commissioners to vote to raise the flag without telling them that some employees may have issue with it.

“It is still – in my view – unconscionable that the county administrator didn’t express to the board that this divisive symbol might create an uncomfortable workplace environment for many of his employees,” White wrote.

In a memo to commissioners Thursday, Merrill defended himself against White’s charge, saying he was “not aware of any employee complaint or concern having been expressed prior to the Board’s action.” He also said the decision to raise the flag followed commission protocols.

“I believe that I had no reasonable basis to believe that the Board’s action would create a hostile or uncomfortable work environment,” Merrill wrote.

The county’s HR department will investigate the complaint, he said.

In addition to raising the pride flag, the commission voted to recognize June as LGBT pride month every year and hold a candlelight vigil each year on June 12 to remember the victims of the Orlando shooting.

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Here's Commissioner Stacy White's full letter to HR director Peggy Rowe:

Peggy,

My office recently received an anonymous phone call from a county employee stating that, because of her strong Christian beliefs, it will be nearly unbearable for her pass the “pride” flag each morning as she enters the workplace. She clearly indicated that the display of that flag, for her, has created a hostile work environment.

My question is, given the nature of this employee complaint, has the board’s action taken this past Wednesday created any issues for the county from a Human Resources perspective? If the display of this flag exposes the county any liability whatsoever, I request that it be taken down on the basis that the board’s action has violated the workplace rights of some of our employees. If liability exists and board action is still required to remove the flag, I would like to request a special called meeting of the county commission in order to discuss the unforeseen consequences of this display and allow for the board to take another vote on the display given the information now at its disposal.

I wish to state for the record that, even if there is deemed to be zero liability from an HR perspective, it is still – in my view – unconscionable that the county administrator didn’t express to the board that this divisive symbol might create an uncomfortable workplace environment for many of his employees.

Again, please let me know what, if any, Human Resources challenges that this display creates and how, if necessary, this might be remedied. I’m quite concerned that I have a documented case of an employee feeling that she is working in a hostile work environment because of this divisive, politically-charged symbol being displayed at our workplace.

Sincerely,

Stacy White 

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Here's County Administrator Mike Merrill's memo in response 

Given the nature of the issue raised in Commissioner White’s email, I thought it appropriate to apprise the entire Board. I have advised Commissioner White that I am doing so.

First, it is important to point out that the process by which the Board voted on June 15 to display the Pride Flag conforms in all respects to the Board’s rules. As you recall, the County Attorney advised the Board accordingly prior to the vote.

Commissioner White’s email indicates that his office has received an anonymous complaint from an employee who claims that the display of the Pride Flag creates a “hostile environment”. Although the complaint is anonymous, the Human Resources Department and the County Attorney’s Office are looking into the issue.

I also want to respond to Commissioner White’s statement that it is “ . . . unconscionable that the county administrator didn’t express to the board that this divisive symbol might create an uncomfortable workplace environment for many of his employees”. I am not aware of any employee complaint or concern having been expressed prior to the Board’s action. I believe that I had no reasonable basis to believe that the Board’s action would create a hostile or uncomfortable work environment.

I will keep you apprised of our analysis of this issue.  

[Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2016 12:08pm]

    

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