Exploratory committee on non-discrimination issues seems pushed through awfully fast

CHAMBERSBURG — On Tuesday, May 11, an exploratory committee of the Chambersburg Borough Council will hold a meeting at 6:30 p.m. to discuss amendments to local laws for non-discrimination policies for sexual orientation and gender identity issues, as well as the possible creation of a Human Relations Commission in Chambersburg.

The exploratory committee was asked to be formed by an informal discussion at a recent borough council meeting during the public comment phase, where a group of LGBTQ+ citizens addressed Chambersburg Borough Council about the need for such ordinances.

The meeting, which can be viewed via Zoom, will be muted for everyone except three borough council members and some invited experts.

A lot of the details about this — or the lack thereof, in some cases — have raised red flags for some people.

Attorney Clint Barkdoll, Council Member Allen Coffman, Pat Ryan and Michele Jansen talked about the exploratory committee yesterday morning on First News.

Jansen said, “The big problem I see with this first meeting is the broad community still has not really been very informed about what this is all about, who it could affect, who are all the stakeholder groups who should have some primary interest in this. In the news release they put out, they didn’t even say what the non-discrimination policy was for. They’ve been very non-transparent.”

She continued, “We are allowed to watch on Zoom, but there will be no input from the people watching on Zoom. If you have any concerns or questions, you must email. This is so clunky and complicated. It limits access. It limits involvement by the community. My first beef is that here’s no transparency. I criticized the last agenda because it did not identify what this group was actually going to explore. For what group are we having a non-discrimination ordinance.”

Coffman added, “The news release said the invited experts. Who are the invited experts? I’ve

asked that question. I asked for an answer before the close of business today.”

Indeed, initially, the meeting in May was supposed to be information gathering only and the experts weren’t to enter the picture until June.

Jansen noted, “I assumed they’d be making some kind of outreach to the community to let people know that this was being considered to allow these stakeholder groups to bring information to them or raise concerns or bring their own experts. We didn’t get any of that. It doesn’t look to the public like this is being transparent. If you’re already bringing in expert, if you haven’t been clear and transparent about what this is about well then you’re only considering the special interest group that brought you this in the first place and you’re not considering the broader community.”

Barkdoll concurred, “At any layer of government there’s always a red flag when there’s this commission or the ‘blue ribbon panel’ that’s put together to study an issue. They always come back with a recommendation to do it. I think the shocking news would be if the committee would say well we’ve looked at this an no we’re not going to do it. they go through the motions, they create this veneer of studying the issue when they know going into it that they’re going to recommend that it happen. I’m open minded about this, but they seem to put this stuff on the agenda at the last minute, they’ve not identified who the quote unquote expert is. it certainly seems like they are heavily leaning already from square one they’ve already developed the opinion, yes we’re going to do this.”

In terms of the larger picture, it’s still not clear what the jurisdiction or ultimate power of the local Human Relations Commission would be.

Barkdoll guessed that “they’re simply going to copy the ordinance that all of these other towns have already implemented but it’s still debatable what power they really have to the extent there’s already a federal and a state level agency that oversee these complaints.”

Ryan tried to look at it from the vantage of a small business owner downtown.

Let’s say a business hires an individual, however he or she identifies, and the references, qualifications and interview went off without a hitch. Two days after they’re hired, what if they show up to work dressed as, say Carol Burnett in the drapes with the curtain rod over her shoulders from the classic sketch comedy show, because that’s how they felt that day.

Does the business owner have any recourse?

Jansen pointed out the ordinance could come into play if “their appearance is tied to their identity. We don’t even have a good definition of the TQ+ group. That’s becoming a very culturally definitive, but way out there on the edges group. They may insist, ‘well, this is part of my identity. You can’t tell me how to dress.’ We’re already seeing it with racial culture identity. I’m terrified they’re going to start using this as a TQ+ cultural identity thing.”

Barkdoll suggested the person would presumably take the complaint to the new Human Rights Commission and said commission would investigate and adjudicate the complaint.

Testimony and evidence would likely be provided.

The question is, then what?

Barkdoll said, “My understanding is they would make some kind of a recommendation to the state Human Relations Commission which is the interface and the liaison with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) that would ultimately take these kind of things into court on a discrimination complaint.”

Barkdoll said from a borough council standpoint, it would be great if it would go to the state — let the state’s resource and staff and experts handle these kinds of cases. Keep it out of an already burdened local government.

Jansen said, “My concern is the community members mostly talked about how they feel so if that’s the standard by which we need laws, does that mean feelings will dictate how these laws are applied? How do you adjudicate stuff like that and are we opening a whole pandora’s box of offenses that normally we wouldn’t consider offenses by putting these laws into place?”

The third leg of the stool is where it could get particularly sticky for business owners.

The first two are investigation and adjudication from this potential Human Rights Commission.

The third leg is education.

Barkdoll said, “They develop essentially a curriculum that they take around to businesses, schools, other government bodies and they will try to then do these seminars, classes and many times that’s where they really start to try to exert some influence and power. I think the borough needs to be very cautious about this because it may be that educate realm where this thing really starts to spin out of control.”

Jansen lamented, “That could cost businesses a lot of money. We know there’s a whole huge cottage industry now on teaching you about equity, inclusion and diversity and if they make that part of the mandates to somehow fight discrimination against this particular group that we now have this particular non-discrimination law for, that could end up costing businesses a lot of money and schools and churches and anybody else this would affect.”

Barkdoll agreed, “You can almost envision some kind of an annual certification class that a small business or a church or even another government body would attend to get some kind of training certification and all of this stuff is money. We know these vendors that are doing this, it’s very lucrative and this could just become a perpetual, ongoing situation locally.”

Ryan urged, “If you’re a business owner, if you own a business or maybe your husband owns a business in Chambersburg, you better get your arms around this because what you’re

being sold by a select few is not necessarily the truth. We don’t need to ram this thing through. If this thing does go the way it goes, there should also be accountability. Because when this starts affecting business people’s lives, where will be the accountability? Who will be the people that will be held to accountability here?”

Jansen said, “Church leaders need to come out and express that this could impact them. Please give us some time so that we can look at what you’re trying to do and talk to some other experts and some other people who might be able to give you information before making this weighty decision.’

Ryan concluded, “We’re in the how did this happen moment. This is where we are. What can we do will be long gone if you are not involved in this borough council and these meetings that are coming up.”