Without a peep of protest from any resident, Dunedin city commissioners gave preliminary approval two weeks ago to an ordinance intended to protect gay and transgender individuals from some forms of discrimination. Thursday night, commissioners will take a final vote, and if the proposal is approved, Dunedin will be only the second Pinellas city to go so far to protect people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation or identification. Dunedin's effort is commendable and the protections are needed, but city officials should make sure they understand the limitations of their proposal and some potential problems with its implementation.
The current ordinance bans discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, sex or national origin in "places of public accommodation, resort or amusement" in the city — hotels, motels, restaurants, bars, public shelters, entertainment venues and public halls, for the most part.
The City Commission is scheduled to decide Thursday whether to add a ban on discrimination based on "gender identity or expression or sexual orientation." The wording would protect people who are gay, transgender, transsexual or cross-dressers from being victimized by discrimination in places of public accommodation.
Gulfport is the only local government in Pinellas that has had the courage to ban discrimination against all of those individuals.
At their last meeting, Dunedin commissioners lamented that discrimination still exists and generally commented about how good they felt about finally addressing the gap in their ordinance. And they should. But the proposed ordinance falls short in some areas.
The ordinance bans discrimination only in public accommodations, not in employment and housing — areas in which gay and transgender individuals say they frequently encounter discrimination. It appears that some Dunedin officials believe that federal, state and county laws already ban discrimination for gender identity and sexual orientation in housing and employment. They do not.
There is no indication that any of those levels of government are prepared to offer protections to all of those individuals in the foreseeable future. Federal housing laws do not ban discrimination in housing based on a person's sexual identity or the way they express it. Pinellas County commissioners voted against including transgender individuals in an antidiscrimination ordinance approved last year.
Even if Dunedin approves its proposed ordinance Thursday, Dunedin employers and landlords will remain free to reject individuals as tenants or employees just because they might be gay or transgender. Doing so will be legal.
Dunedin officials apparently chose to avoid banning discrimination in employment and housing for two reasons: They have no current ordinance banning discrimination in those two areas for other groups, and they feared that setting up a system to handle complaints of discrimination in employment and housing would be too expensive. To limit the cost of enforcing the proposed ordinance, they plan to use city code enforcement officers and the city Code Enforcement Board to address complaints of discrimination in public accommodations.
Code enforcement officers and the code board typically deal with issues such as whether a property owner's grass has gotten too long, whether a backyard shed is too close to the property line, whether a business sign violates the city code.
Investigating and ruling on discrimination issues requires a different skill set — especially when dealing with allegations of discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. It is more typical for local governments that have antidiscrimination ordinances to use specially trained investigators and rely on the state's Division of Administrative Hearings to provide judges to hear cases.
Dunedin officials would be wise to consult with Pinellas County's Office of Human Rights or officials with other cities that ban discrimination in public accommodations to find out how they handle investigations and hearings.
It is important to note that Dunedin has managed to get this far without the controversy, recriminations and public protests that accompanied Largo's 2003 attempt to pass an antidiscrimination ordinance. Dunedin has long been known as an open-minded, inclusive community. In attempting to protect more individuals from becoming victims of discrimination, it is living up to its reputation.