Hatboro veto prompts debate on local commissions

    The small borough of Hatboro in Bucks County is making headlines after the mayor vetoed a measure that would have created a town commission on human relations.

     The borough council is scheduled to hold an override vote Tuesday night.  The commission, similar to other local bodies in Pennsylvania, would have heard claims of bias based on race, gender, and – unlike the state commission on human relations – sexual orientation.Hatboro Mayor James Hawkes wants to make one thing perfectly clear: “I have no religious or moral issues with this particular ordinance, and I would just like to see it on a state level.  I think it belongs there.”Commissions like the ones passed by local legislators in Hatboro would add sexual orientation as a protected class to discrimination claims.  The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community has been pushing for such local commissions.  There are now 18 throughout the state, including one in Philadelphia.

     

    “The strategy is to focus on communities in states where they’ll find supportive elected officials and a citizenry that is willing to embrace this kind of anti-discrimination,” said Villanova University Political Science Professor Craig Wheeland.Wheeland says the state has been dragging its feet in adding sexual orientation as a protected class.Mayor Hawkes says he has several concerns about the commission.  One is money.”I think the state has the resources to handle it much better than Hatboro,” he said.Hawkes says it will cost the borough money to enforce penalties as a result of claims.  On that front, he gets support even from those who have pushed for such commissions.  Lee Carpenter is an Assistant Law Professor at Temple University, and is the former Legal Director of Equality Advocates of Pennsylvania.”There are definitely smaller municipalities that have passed these ordinances that have really limited, frankly, ability to enforce them,” Carpenter said.  “They just don’t have the kind of staff on hand to do the kinds of investigations that need to be done.  So I do think that the mayor does make a point, that in order to give these ordinances any teeth at all, there have to be significant resources directed to them.”Mayor Hawkes is also worried that such a commission opens the township up to litigation.  Lee Carpenter says that issue was resolved in a case six years ago involving Philadelphia’s domestic partnership registry.”The idea that the city could have this sort of domestic partnership registry was upheld in 2004, and as part of that reasoning, the court sort of operated under the assumption that it was okay for municipalities to pass more inclusive ordinances, like Philadelphia had that protected people from discrimination, than what had been passed at the state level,” said Carpenter.Hatboro’s council initially passed the borough commission measure by a 4 to 3 vote.  It will try to override the mayor this week, but supporters will need to win over at least one more vote.

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