Asheville – About 50 people attended a community conversation about Buncombe County’s new non-discrimination ordinance last Thursday, April 15th. However, concerns voiced by county residents seem to have fallen on deaf ears as commissioners passed the ordinance Tuesday evening (April 20th) despite concerns expressed at the meeting. Buncombe County Commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Parker Sloan and Amanda Edwards hosted the meeting. All indicated they were for the ordinance.
The ordinance states, “It shall be unlawful for any employer because of the race, natural hair or hairstyles, ethnicity, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin or ancestry, marital or familial status, pregnancy, veteran status, religious belief or non-belief, age, or disability of any person to refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate against that person with respect to hiring, tenure, conditions, or privileges of employment, or any matter directly or indirectly related to employment.” Most of these are already covered by state and federal laws.
Regarding public accommodations, the proposal says employers cannot “refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate against that person with respect to hiring, tenure, conditions, or privileges of employment, or any matter directly or indirectly related to employment.”
After Beach-Ferrara opened, Tina White, Executive Director of Blue Ridge Pride, following up with a comment saying, “Some people wonder if this is an issue that needs to be solved, and my answer is yes. We aren’t set up with any kind of hotline to track harassment, but I am frequently contacted by people who are harassed at work and school.”
While White said she was contacted by five people last month, she didn’t cite the specifics or whether they regarded local businesses or schools.
Karen Horner, a caller at the meeting, voiced concerns said what she sees in the ordinance and her day-to-day interactions “just did not connect.” Horner asked for any data the commissioners had used to find the level of discrimination, interview people and “come up with an overall sense from Black Mountain to Candler to the breath of this county how much of this discrimination was going on?”
Beach-Ferrara, a gay minister herself, responded not to the question but said the ordinance needed to be passed to document such discrimination. Horner questioned what kind of discrimination was going on, to which White responded and Beach-Ferrara began to add to when a resident pointed out the meeting was quickly slipping away and they had not even begun to address the contents of the law.
Beach-Ferrara continued with a list of harassments which included people being fired, passed over for promotions, told they couldn’t use certain restrooms or facilities at work, locked in a freezer at work and called names.
Asked about what other cities and counties in the state had done, Beach-Ferrara said six others had passed such laws.
Resident Lynne McNamee told White, “Tina, you’re not the only one living in fear. I was very apprehensive about coming forward. I’m very afraid, frankly, that I put all this out there because I’m afraid it could be used against me quite honestly.” McNamee said she had sent emails to several organizations with questions she was bringing to the meeting.
“So you’re not the only one who’s afraid for speaking out,” McNamee said. She went on to ask Beach-Ferrara if state and federal laws already cover these discriminations.
“Why do we need another ordinance when it’s already covered. To me, it’s another layer of bureaucracy we have to pay for. Second, how many equality officers will be and who will have to pay for them?” She also spoke to the intrusive nature and burdensome to business owners that the law could become. Would this intrusiveness extend into people’s social media and would lawyers have to be hired to defend against accusations and would businesses names be publicized without any recourse were additional questions she had. She also pointed out that a supposed victim had a year to file a complaint, but a business owner only had 10 days to respond. McNamee then recommended postponing the vote for 90 days to educate the public on the answers to the questions she had posed.
Commissioner Parker Sloan tried to address McNamee’s concerns saying federal law did not protect all these named in the local ordinance. He also didn’t have all the answers to the questions saying some of those needed to be worked out with staff said he didn’t know the compliance ordinance. While Sloan admitted he didn’t have all the answers, Beach-Ferrara cut the conversation, saying they needed to move on in the meeting.
Late in the meeting, Beach-Ferrara said complying with the ordinance is simple, saying, “You will not treat people differently based on who they are or who they love and what their family is like.”
Another resident said, “From what I see, you all have a lot of work to do before you pass this ordinance…you’re basing it on anecdotal evidence. You don’t have statistical evidence backing anything up. You don’t know how much it will cost. You don’t know how many equity officers you’re going to hire and you’re going to pass an ordinance that’s free and clear to do whatever you want to do with it. I think before you present this to the public, you’re representing all the citizens…I think you need to have your ducks in a row. You need to have some facts behind you. You don’t put the cart before the horse…It sounds like you’re passing your ordinance to gather you’re statistics.”
Beach-Ferrara then tried to justify the passage of the ordinance, saying, “It would be, I’m sure you would agree, inefficient to use public funds to create that enforcement system before the ordinance is passed. That wouldn’t be a responsible use of our funding to ask staff to develop this system. for enforcement before the ordinance has gone for a vote.” She then made it clear the ordinance would go for a vote on April 20th.
Editor’s note: Be sure to read commentary related to this article on page 2.