Is Boca Raton Anti-Gay? City And Activitists Battle Over Policy

Rand Hoch, the president of the Palm Beach Human Rights Council, doesn't waste words summing up what's been happening in Boca Raton recently: "Boca is just being anti-gay," he tells New Times.

Over the last six months, the city has been locked up with activists over a number of issues involving the rights of gays, lesbians, and non-gender conformers. Looking back, it's been a long, strange circus. In one corner we've got rusty policy; in another, city memos padded with info from anti-gay groups; and, topping things off, politicians comparing sexuality identity to dog ownership.

Now, at any brain-stunted, extra capacity clip, deytookourjobs Bible belt backwood NASCAR alter, they just call this a Tuesday at City Hall. But here in gay-friendly South Florida?

The issue first came up this fall when Boca was about to ink a deal with Palm Beach County for hazardous material clean up. At the last minute, the contract was held-up because -- to the surprise of everyone involved it seemed -- Boca wasn't covered under the county's non-discrimination policy, legislation that had been blanketing Palm Beach since 1992. It turned out Boca had decided to opt out more than a year earlier, when with little fanfare and zero media coverage, council passed Ordinance 5161 in January 2011.

The county locked horns with Boca over the issue until the two governments came to a resolution on the contract last fall. But that still left the big question: Why would Boca bail on the county provision in the first place?

The county's coverage policy basically went above and beyond state and federal requirements, corralling gay, lesbian, and gender non-conformers in with other protected classes. It also put legal recourse for discrimination within reach of county public employees, as opposed to having to file complaints with the state or federal government. By opting out of the policy, Boca chipped off the nearest level of protection.

"Not only did they strip away all the rights of their gay, lesbian, and gender non-conforming employees, that was the only way those individuals had any legal recourse," Hoch says, explaining that Boca employees have to take their case to the Florida Commission on Human Relations or EEOC now.

When all this came to light last fall, Boca's city hall stood its ground with a home-rule chest bump: The city's policy was in line with federal and state requirements, they maintained, and the city didn't want to be handcuffed to the policy of other governments. "We follow state and federal laws -- cities have the right to opt in or opt out as long as we follow the law," Mayor Susan Whelchel told the Sun-Sentinel in October.

"What's to keep other groups from wanting to be protected?" Boca Assistant City Manager Mike Woika told the South Florida Gay News, launching a regrettable analogy.

"How about me? I'm a pet lover. I think should be included in your anti-discrimination law. Someone who has dogs should not be discriminated against either."

But all that seems to miss the point. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon today for your less progressive communities to toe a recalcitrant line when it comes to adopting new language protecting gender identity But failing to keep pace with progress is one thing. Actively opting out of legislation is another.

But the fight isn't over. Since the New Year, Boca has been discussing another contentious point -- extending benefits to domestic partners. The council asked the head of the city's human resources division -- Mark Buckingham -- to put together a memo on the possible impacts of the extension.

Hoch says that the final report handed over to council this month included four instances where cities with specific policies about sexual identity were incorrectly identified as not having any. Also, the report only looked at 5 of the 39 cities in the county.

And most glaringly, when assessing the cost of extending benefits to domestic partnerships, the Boca memo cites a study by the Corporate Research Council. When you punch that entity into a Google search, it drops you at doorstep of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a "servant ministry" fighting for "religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family." So, obviously not a fair and balanced party in the debate.

Hoch has been trying to find out how such clearly biased material made its way into the Boca memo, but he's not getting any answers. New Times put multiple calls in yesterday to Mark Buckingham and City Manager Leif Ahnell for the city's side of the story, but we heard nothing back. For the people working to get domestic partners benefits, Boca's apparent resistance is again behind the time.

"We're not asking for radical things, were asking for things that have been standard for a long time," Hoch says. "We did the first domestic partnership benefits in West Palm Beach in 1992. That was 21 years ago."

And the Human Rights Council isn't slowly down. Since this all started, Hoch has papered Boca with numerous public records request. On Wednesday, his group's attorney sent a letter to the city threatening legal action over the non-compliance of a November request.

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson