Chambersburg Borough Council gave the green light for an exploratory committee on LGBTQ rights and a possible Human Relations Commission

CHAMBERSBURG – Chambersburg Borough Council voted in a 7-3 decision Monday night to create an exploratory committee to gather information and recommend amendments to local law in terms of non-discrimination, non-harassment ordinances.

Additionally, the committee will look into the need for a Human Relations Commission in Chambersburg to investigate, adjudicate and enforce these new ordinances.  

The committee is expected to come back to council by late July or early August with its recommendations.

This came from an impromptu discussion two weeks ago at a borough council meeting where members of the LGBTQ+ committee addressed council about the need for these ordinances.

Three members of council will be on the exploratory committee.

A whole lot of questions are still swirling around this.

Allen Coffman, Council Member for the First Ward, attorney Clint Barkdoll, Pat Ryan and Michele Jansen discussed the issue on First News, the local – live morning information radio show weekdays 6am-9am, on 1037. Jansen attended the meeting as well.

“What I don’t understand, though, is we had one member get up, Marvin Worthy, and he was saying how this was an urgency. You must be urgent about this. I’m not exactly sure what the urgency is here because we have yet to hear any examples of somebody’s rights literally being denied. We hear a lot about people feeling unsafe, but to rush this or to say there’s urgency is a little strange. I’m not sure why the community should get behind putting this law into place when we don’t have any concrete examples of anyone’s actual rights – that a law could affect – being violated.”

Additionally, the community at large doesn’t even know about this yet.

“I’d really like for council to realize only one interest group has been heard from or really understands this is happening,” Jansen said. “It’s the time of COVID. How are people actually going to find out about this and be able to engage?”

Add to that the need for a Human Relations Commission with this, and things get kind of sticky.

Coffman said, “The idea of that is if you want to call it a court or a tribunal or a group of people that hear what they think are complaints from the public about people’s discrimination against individuals or groups and that’s the idea of what they’d be set up to do. I question the authority if you set up a tribunal. I did talk to someone who is in the legal field and I guess it’s included within the borough code and those sorts of things can be done but this is very, very early on the edge of this and I’m sure there will be test cases because these Human Relations Commissions apparently have the power to levy a fine or a charge against people who are discriminating against other people. Some of those fines or amounts of money are substantial.”

Jansen pointed out, “The president (of borough council) seemed to get very annoyed that I asked for clarification. I didn’t feel exactly welcomed.”

“It was never explained why we would need this,” Jansen said. “They keep using the excuse, ‘Well Shippensburg did it. Well, Carlisle did it.’ They haven’t even set up those councils yet. They legally set them up but they’ve not populated them and they’ve not put them into action. This is an activist move across the state and across the country to get all these townships to set up these and tribunal is a good way of putting it. Is this really what we want? Do we want non-elected bureaucrats judging us on our behavior towards other people as breaking a law? This is dangerous.”

Coffman added, “How do we legislate for feelings and fear? I don’t know the answer to that. People said I do not feel accepted or welcome. The people are subjected to harassment and violence, but I have yet to hear a specific case where somebody had some. If they were discriminated against, the mechanism is there right now. For people that are physically hurt, they’d go to the police department. If they think they’ve been maligned in some manner, there’s a court system that’s standing by. The mechanism is there already. Why would we want to bring this to a local thing and have the tax payers pay for this? Because it’s going to cost money. Believe me it will.”

And who will wield the power and be on this commission?

Barkdoll noted, “This is a solution looking for a problem, as the saying goes. Council is going to jump into this. You can bet that committee is going to come back with a recommendation to move forward. It’s a fait accompli. I don’t know what this looks like on the other side. Do they develop some kind of a board that has a staff member that’s overseeing these quasi-judicial proceedings that are going to investigate and adjudicate complaints? I think the borough’s got just a host of issues on its hands as to how they create this commission, who the staff person is going to be that oversees it, do they have to hire someone?”

Add to that the fact that to the extent that the borough will be engaged in a quasi-judicial operation of investigating cases, there would need to be a set of rules that would govern the process.

Ryan asked, “If they accuse and then run a person’s name through the ringer with slander and libel can that commission and anybody who sits on that commission be held responsible if it doesn’t work out? You can throw around all the feelings you want here. You start doing that, then I want some teeth and return for if this is what you’re coming after me on then I get to sue you right back.”

There is a recognized tort in Pennsylvania that’s a civil claim for what’s called malicious prosecution.

That means that if you’re charged maliciously and there’s no merit to it, you can file a civil suit against the person or people who brought the charges.

Barkdoll warned, “Those are difficult cases, though, because to the extent this would be a government entity, governments are typically immune. But if it gets into the realm of a malicious prosecution, an allegation with no merit, an allegation with nothing behind it, there very well could be a scenario that an accused person could sue for damages and I think this is where the borough needs to be really careful.”

Consider the scenario where someone walks into borough hall off the street and is LGBTQ and says that they feel a borough employee said something discriminatory or offensive to them.

“It’s classic he said, she said,” Barkdoll said. “There’s no way to verify it. It goes through this whole process and what if there’s no evidence it happened and in the process, you really damaged or soiled the reputation of someone that’s been accused of this? Yeah, there could be a scenario there that there’s civil liability.”

“Good,” Ryan said.

Jansen added, “This is dangerous. This is people judging each other on a very low level, not a high standard, not a clear bar of violation. I talked to some of the folks last night who are pushing for this in the LGBTQ community and someone expressed to me if your belief system hurts my feelings, you can’t express it. The problem is with critical theory and how they’re telling people in these different intersectional groups that they are victims, they’re hyper-sensitive. They’re looking for the problems everywhere. I was told your freedom of speech ends at the tip of your nose. That’s not freedom of speech. We are really risking freedom of speech. I brought up the fact that religious rights could be interfered with. I resent the fact that they’re moving forward with this exploratory committee before making it clear to the public what they’re considering.”

More than 60 municipalities in the state have set something like this up. Most of them don’t have members, but the legal framework is in place.

The Pennsylvania State Human Relations Committee has already been attacked by one of its own employees saying that they feel unsafe in the office.

Barkdoll wondered, “What are the penalties in these quasi-judicial hearings? What authority do they have to issue these penalties? Are you going to be fined? Is it a summary offense that could even involve jail time? I’m not sure how much authority they would have to do that, but I’ve not heard in any of the discussions, even in these other municipalities what the authority is of this body to issue some kind of penalty on the accused if this board determines a violation occurred. Presumably if that’s the decision this board would make, the accused would be able to appeal that to a county court, which once again would involve borough government. They would have to spend more time and money prosecuting the case if it went to that level. There’s a lot of questions about this that I don’t think they have answers to.”

Ryan said, “What do they care? They’ve got hot and cold running solicitors and lawyers. I want the people that are on that commission, they have to be held responsible as well. The dollars have to flow where the pain is.”

Jansen lamented, “Nobody’s thinking ahead. Nobody’s even thinking of these practical things.”