Wichita city council approves non-discrimination ordinance

The council voted 4-3 to advance the ordinance.
Published: Jul. 5, 2021 at 7:34 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Update: The Wichita City Council passed a non-discrimination ordinance Tuesday afternoon, 4-3.

It still needs a final vote at next week’s meeting, but the ordinance sets out a path for discrimination to be reported and adjudicated through the City of Wichita.

Forty-three people who spoke at City Hall on Tuesday wanted the council to vote the ordinance down. They say it closely mirrors state and federal laws already in place.

The ordinance would prohibit discrimination based on several categories like age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. in areas of housing, employment and public accommodations.

The biggest change from the draft approved last month is more clearly laying out the process and adding technical language for filing and adjudicating discrimination reports.

Opponents say even though there are exemptions for religious organizations, the ordinance doesn’t include religious individuals and the businesses they run.

“You’re discriminating against many many more and that’s part of the problem I have,” Jerry Smith, an opponent of the ordinance. Adding, “We are religious people to the core. Our lifestyle is religious. We feel that this ordinance goes against our whole lifestyle in trying to force us, we can’t even get a contract with the city of Wichita according to this ordinance unless we adopt the policy that you adopt.”

“Not needed, there are already protections in the board. Once you put this in place, it will open a myriad of things,” said Rob Rotola, who opposes the ordinance.

Supporters say this lays out the protections for minorities, the LGBTQ community and all people in the city as discrimination is still an issue in the city. They said these types of NDOs provide reassure to people who live in the community.

“As a Hispanic, transgender Christian man, I have been discriminated in this city,” said Gabrial, a supporter of the ordinance.

Rob Egan, who lives with a disability and is gay said, “You are simply creating an easier enforcement of the existing law for those of us who are discriminated against by people who mean well or not to earn our recourse, in public accommodation, employment and housing.”

“Facts are the oldest and most pervasive form of discrimination is race discrimination,” said supporter James Barfield.

Barfield said a concern he saw with the process is he feels more Black and minority voices needed to have a role in putting the ordinance together.

Supporters also said having cases heard by the city is an easier and less expensive process.

“We had a business owner today who actually admitted he won’t hire someone based on religion. We had someone come in today that said they had been discriminated against for a job based on their disability, so absolutely, even today’s testimony shows that it is needed, and hopefully, once this gets going and people understand the standards that are now ordinance but also in the state law, hopefully, this type of discrimination stops,” said Mayor Brandon Whipple.

Whipple said before next week’s final vote.

“I think we need to do a good job letting people know what this actually does. We’ve seen a lot of misinformation from the people who spoke against this, who were concerned that this will do something it won’t do,” said Whipple. “However, it’s really important moving forward that we have Wichita in the ordinance just ensuring those values of inclusion and value of Wichita is big enough for all of us. That we show this is an example of that.”

Also speaking with Equality Kansas after the meeting, the version most recently approved is a significant improvement compared to what was initially passed.

Equality Kansas Chair Kerry Wilks said, “Initially, Equality Kansas was concerned about the lack of enforcement with the ordinance and now we are delighted to say that there is due process for everyone.”

Before the council voted, members did express concerns saying they thought the process was moving too fast and wanted more public feedback through district advisory boards. Others thought it would be better for the state to pass laws on the topic, not at the local level.

If approved at next week’s meeting, the ordinance will go into place in September.

A reworked non-discrimination ordinance will be back before the Wichita City Council that looks to address the concerns raised about the original draft when discussed last month.

“New revision pretty much tackled everyone’s concerns at the original meeting that we had,” said Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple.

Mayor Brandon Whipple said during the course of the last few weeks, the city has made changes to bring clarity to the proposal. Part of that included adding language from similar ordinances in other Kansas cities and state law.

The ordinance prohibits discrimination based on a person’s protected class: age, color, disability, familial status, gender identity, genetic information, national origin or ancestry, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, veteran status or any other factor protected. This is specifically for employment, housing, and public accommodations like stores, hotels and restaurants.

It’s a policy Whipple is trying to get back on Wichita’s books after more than 20 years without.

“Wichita, 40 years ago, was one of the first cities in the nation to actually have a non-discrimination ordinance enforceable at the local level, and that went away pretty much in the cover of night,” Whipple said.

But June’s introduction of the police was met with concern.

Councilmember Jared Cerullo, who voted no at the meeting, said the process was moving too fast.

“We don’t knee jerk ordinances, period.” Cerullo said, “That doesn’t mean I don’t think our city needs a good non-discrimination ordinance because I think we absolutely do. I’m still hearing many, many concerns about this is too rushed. Should every single District Advisory Board meeting have a chance to sound off on this?”

Cerullo said he moved his DAB meeting up a week to get their feedback. For an ordinance like this, he said that kind of public input is needed to make improvements to the policy.

“We have a few ideas that came out of the district three advisory meeting last week that I’ll bring up,” Cerullo said.

One of the places those changes were made is to the section dealing with enforcement.

“What it does is allow a pathway for folks who are unlawfully discriminated against to get resolution to that discrimination without having to go through the major expenses of lawyering up and taking people to trial through district court.” Whipple said, “This provides another opportunity that usually, we find, is resolved through mediation. Mediation, which has a corrective component to it as well, where folks are through mediation, recognize that something was done wrong or unlawful.”

Cerullo said, “Thing that a lot of people seemed concerned about is whether this ordinance that the city is considering right now does anything to cover anything different than what’s already covered in state and federal law, and if not, why are we doing, to begin with. The consensus seems to be, even if we, our ordinance doesn’t cover anything extra than what is already covered by state and federal law, it may be an easier route for people to file a claim instead of having to go to the state human right’s commission and file a claim, where they have to hire their own attorney.”

In the draft, people have 60 to report a case to the city.

From there, it is then referred to a mediator selected by the city manager. The city manager also selects an investigator for the case.

If probable cause is found, then the case is moved toward conciliation and settlement. If that can’t be reached, it is then referred to a city judge.

Convictions can result in a fine of up to $2,000.

There are exemptions for religious organizations in the draft.

Both Cerullo and Whipple said an ordinance like this helps in other ways.

“If we want to attract and retain young people, people who own businesses from out of state that might be looking at Wichita as a place to grow, we need to ensure that we have a pathway for folks who are experiencing discriminate to get that discrimination resolved.”

“It’s fact-based, it’s proven in order to keep young people and retain young professionals in our city, they’re looking for things like. They’re looking to make sure the city they might relocate to is an inviting place,” said Cerullo.

But for Cerullo, he said he wants this done right.

“Doesn’t matter what I feel, doesn’t matter that I’m one of those marginalized groups. These types of things can’t come out of nowhere. We should be a knee-jerking ordinance for any reason whatsoever. Thank goodness common sense prevailed in this. We slowed down. We took a look at the process, and we’re doing the right thing,” he said.

If approved at Tuesday’s meeting, it would still need a final vote. That will likely come later in July.

If the ordinance is approved, is it drafted to go into effect in September.

Whipple said, “Process is very well throughout out in this version of it where we can really hit the ground running after this is put into place, getting the rest of the process in place wouldn’t take that long.”

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