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Elkins nondiscrimination measure OK’d on 6-4 vote

Inter-Mountain photo by Chris Lee Elkins resident Marcus Blankenship stands in front of City Hall along with more than 100 Fairness in Elkins supporters, before the doors were opened for Thursday evening’s City Council meeting.
Inter-Mountain photo by Chris Lee
Elkins resident Marcus Blankenship stands in front of City Hall along with more than 100 Fairness in Elkins supporters, before the doors were opened for Thursday evening’s City Council meeting.

ELKINS, W.Va. — Equality was the central theme of a resolution before Elkins City Council Thursday – and in the end, an almost equal number of votes were cast on either side of the issue.

With approximately 150 concerned citizens in attendance, Council voted 6-4 to pass a nondiscrimination resolution, resulting in applause from the crowd – the majority of whom showed up in support of the decision.

Before the meeting, members of the group Fairness for Elkins distributed binders to Mayor Van Broughton and City Council members that included copies of more than 70 declarations of non-discrimination signed by Elkins businesses, community organizers and faith leaders; sample resolutions passed by the cities of Buckhannon and Charleston; and several testimonial letters drafted by supporters of the group.

During public comment, Elkins resident Leah Devine presented Council with a petition signed by more than 200 people in support of the measure.

During the meeting’s public comment section, Elkins resident Elizabeth King read aloud her letter submitted with the packet. In it she writes about how growing up in Elkins she was bullied frequently and called derogatory names because of her sexual orientation. When departing for college she vowed to never return to her hometown, as the abuse continued when she’d come home to visit family. She said she returned because she loves her family, town and community too much to stay away.

“I want to be able to live here and love here and stay here. I bring a tremendous amount of skill, knowledge and passion to this community,” King said during the meeting. “I know a myriad of other people who have left for the same reasons I originally did.”

During public comment 11 supporters, including King, spoke in favor of the resolution. Among the supporters were Elkins residents, landlords, business owners and a faith leader. John Waltz, a former Buckhannon City Council member who was responsible for introducing a similar resolution there, was also in attendance and spoke at the meeting.

Waltz said during his time on Buckhannon Council many issues were very divisive and impeded by opposing viewpoints; however, when a non-discrimination measure was put on the agenda there was absolutely no debate, with its two readings passing unanimously, he said.

“We’re talking about people that live and work within (the) community,” Waltz said. “Where people from Elkins, both sitting behind us and throughout this city, are artists, musicians, critical thinkers, business leaders and all different things. For that reason, I hope tonight you take this up and you pass this ordinance, because among your debate there is no debate.”

Opposing the resolution during the meeting were Mike House, the co-pastor at Ambassador Baptist Church in Elkins, along with approximately 20 others. House presented Council with a letter of opposition he said was signed by more than 200 people.

“This is neither a civil rights nor equal rights issue. It is about special rights for a minority of individuals which brings unnecessary hostility to our community,” House said during Thursday’s meeting.

Pastor Jamie Estep, from the Elkins Church of God Family Worship Center, and Randolph County resident Renee Westfall also spoke against the resolution. Estep compared a society that accepts the LGBT community to the Bible’s story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Westfall expressed her concerns about transgender individuals using the same restrooms as children.

Following public comment, Third Ward Councilman Mark Scott argued against the measure because he said it could lead to lawsuits against the city. He said there is no standing state code that allows the city to pass a resolution or ordinance of non-discrimination.

“This is something that needs to be decided on the state level. It needs to be decided by the West Virginia House and the state Senate – it does not belong in our cities,” Scott said.

Scott said his moral beliefs influenced his stance on the measure and inquired about the possibility of permanently tabling the measure.

“I’m a Bible-believing Christian. If the Bible says it’s right, I believe it’s right,” Scott said. “If the Bible says it’s wrong, I believe it’s wrong and so there is a moral argument as a part of this as well.”

Fifth Ward Councilman Joe Sabatino reminded Scott of the separation of church and state central to the country’s foundation.

“This is a non-partisan Council. We as Americans can’t be divided regardless of any differences,” Sabatino said. “Any of our deeds or words that divide any section of America from another section of America is un-American. We need to pass this resolution because there needs to be liberty and justice for all.”

Fifth Ward Councilman James Bibey asked City Attorney Gerri Roberts if there were any possible legal ramifications to the passage of the resolution. Scott then motioned for Council to enter executive session to ensure any answers provided would be protected by attorney-client privilege.

First Ward Councilman Robert Woolwine seconded the measure. Second Ward Councilman Mitch Marstiller expressed his opposition to the executive session, citing the need for “complete transparency.” Council voted 5-5 on the motion and the tie-breaking decision was made by Mayor Van Broughton to not enter executive session.

Next, Council voted on the resolution. Second Ward Councilman Gene Ochsendorf, Marstiller, Bibey, Sabatino, Fourth Ward Councilwoman Nanci Bross-Fregonara and Fourth Ward Councilwoman Marilynn Cuonzo voted in favor, while Woolwine, First Ward Councilman Lonnie Randall, Third Ward Councilman Carman Metheny and Scott voted against the measure.

The measure carries three separate and significant effects.

First, the resolution implements changes to the Equal Opportunity Policy in the city’s Personnel Manual to include language that prohibits discrimination against any city employee and/or applicants on the basis of sexual orientation.

Second, the resolution urges the West Virginia Legislature to amend the West Virginia Human Rights Act, the West Virginia Fair Housing Act and any other state statutes to end discrimination against persons based on sexual orientation.

Third, with the passage of the resolution, council urges Elkins and Randolph County residents to undertake affirmative steps and promote the adoption of policies to end all discriminatory practices based upon a person’s sexual orientation.

After the meeting, Bross-Fregonara expressed relief that the measure passed and said it was “scary” to see the vote so close.

“I’m disappointed that there was so much dissension and conflict about it,” she said. “However I feel great about the process. I’m thrilled that we had so many people come out and express their opinions and try to influence our voting – and that’s what it’s all about.”

Broughton said it was great to see such a large turnout.

“I’ve been in city government for going on 15 years and it’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Broughton added he was proud of how cordial and respectful those in attendance were toward one another in spite of any disagreements.

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