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7/20/2006

News

IT PAYS TO BE GAY
How the county's outreach to the gay community is part of a larger economic plan

 

Orange County scored two major coups at its July 11 commission meeting. The first was the unanimous approval of a $5.3 million incentive package to keep Darden Restaurants Inc., the county’s only Fortune 500 company, from leaving Central Florida; Darden will consolidate its corporate headquarters at the intersection of John Young Parkway and State Road 528, where it will add some 900 highly paid workers over the next decade.

Coup No. 2 was supposed to be more controversial: an ordinance that would forbid most sellers or landlords from discriminating against gay people in housing. Though not as far-reaching as the anti-discrimination ordinance the city passed on a 4-3 vote in 2002, many expected a nasty scrap between gay activists and religious conservatives lasting well into the night. Not quite. Only three speakers asked the commissioners to deny the ordinance, and since none of them were the Rev. John Butler Book or other like-minded bloviators, the hour-long public hearing wasn’t nearly as entertaining as it might have been.

That came as a surprise to county officials, who were taking bets on how late the meeting would run. It’s not like the hearing was secret: Per state law, it was advertised in the newspaper, and an advance agenda was posted online at least a week before.

But the Sentinel’s front-page story came out the day of the meeting — which the county considered fortunate — so the religious conservatives were caught flat-footed and didn’t have Sunday services to rally the troops. Only a handful showed up.

“I thank the newspaper for being late,” economic development director George Rodon says with a laugh. “This thing came and went.” And that was far preferable to a “nasty battle with the religious right,” Rodon adds. “That would have given us a black eye.” (The Sentinel did mention the upcoming vote in Section J on June 11; apparently, it wasn’t widely noticed.)

One dissenter was an elderly woman who suggested we were becoming Sodom and Gomorrah. Another was Carol Saviak, a property-rights activist who dislikes any government regulation of what people can do with their property. The third was John Stemberger, one of the right-wingers behind the anti–gay marriage amendment that’s headed toward the state ballot in 2008. He told the commission that this would lead to a lot of unnecessary legislation, that it violated the religious freedoms of landowners who think gay people are deviant sinners, and that Orange County is a pretty tolerant place so the law wasn’t necessary. He also said that as a white man, he found any argument that likened the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement of the 1960s offensive.

His argument fell on deaf ears, because it was dwarfed by about two dozen pro-ordinance speakers who told the board that though housing discrimination might not be rampant, it did happen. As one speaker said in rebuttal to Stemberger, if Orange County is so tolerant that this ordinance didn’t matter, then why waste time opposing it? And, he said, even if it’s symbolic, the new law sent a message that Orange County has a progressive, forward-thinking government that isn’t ruled by rubes and Bible-thumpers.

The two unanimous votes to subsidize Darden and ban housing discrimination aren’t disconnected. As commissioner Linda Stewart points out, most Fortune 500 companies — Darden included — have broad anti-discrimination policies. Not long ago, Orange County failed to lure the Scripps Research Institute here; the behemoth and the high-tech development that will surround it went to Palm Beach County instead. Not coincidentally, Palm Beach County has more gay-friendly policies than Orange County. Until last Tuesday, so did at least 19 other counties in Florida.

Orange County is now dueling with Port St. Lucie and other eastern cities for the Burnham Institute, a $72 million, 175,000-square-foot building that the county hopes will be a catalyst to lure other med-tech companies, similar to what Orange County missed out on with Scripps. Both Orlando and Port St. Lucie have agreed to pony up $90 million to lure Burnham. The less backward Orange County comes across, the more appealing it will be to Burnham, a company involved in stem cell research.

Which is why the county was so thrilled by the lackluster saber-rattling. The dearth of “bickering, fighting and senseless discussion” shows prospective businesses that “we are not divided, we are working together and we’re fair to everyone,” Rodon says. Big companies prize diverse communities, Rodon adds, because they don’t want potential recruits turning them down.

Orange County’s new ordinance may be symbolic, but it’s not toothless. While it wouldn’t apply to someone renting out a room in a house — small-time landlords and sellers are exempted — it does offer steep punishment for violators: up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine per offense. Of course it’s not likely to be invoked very often. Orlando’s ordinance, which covers housing, employment and public accommodations, has only seen a handful of complaints, and the city’s human relations board has found none of them to be valid. That fact got Commissioner Bill Segal on board: “This ordinance is a shield, it is not a sword,” he said. He urged activists not to “use it to badger landowners.”

The county doesn’t have an oversight board for its ordinance. If there’s a complaint, the county investigates, and if the complaint is deemed valid, the parties go to arbitration. If that doesn’t work, the county forwards the matter to the state attorney’s office, which can decide to prosecute.

In 2004, gay rights activists began lobbying the county’s Charter Review Committee to put an anti-discrimination referendum on the county ballot in November. When that effort failed, they turned their attention to Crotty, asking him to take up the issue with the county commission. He declined, saying he didn’t think it was the government’s place, and that it wasn’t that big a problem to begin with. “The issue with us,” explains spokesman Steve Triggs, “is we didn’t want to create a bureaucracy like the city had. They already have a human relations board [to handle complaints]. We didn’t want to hire 10 people. It was cleaner just to fix our housing law.”

Crotty, a conservative Republican, is hardly a gay rights advocate. But neither is he a homophobic ideologue. Addressing just the housing issue offered him a middle path. In April 2004, Crotty extended anti-discrimination policies toward all county employees. This housing ordinance was proposed by fellow Republican commissioner Mildred Fernandez, whose district includes a lot of gay residents.

Progress comes in increments, and commissioner Stewart says she doubts gay rights activists are done yet.

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