Mayor Walt Bietsch vetoes the nondiscrimination ordinance for Chambersburg

September 30 – Mayor Walt Bietsch of Chambersburg has vetoed the nondiscrimination ordinance for the LGBTQ+ community that borough council passed in a 7-3 vote a week and a half ago.

The vetoed ordinance was sent to borough management this morning.

Mayor Bietsch, attorney Clint Barkdoll, Pat Ryan and Michele Jansen discussed the veto this morning on First News.

Mayor Bietsch explained, “My approach to this nondiscrimination ordinance was simply from the point of view of what does this ordinance actually do in its execution? And after reviewing both the exploratory committee’s findings and then looking at the ordinance itself, the language of it, there’s three main points that I come up with that were my rationale for applying a veto to this and sending it back to the borough management. The vetoed ordinance will be presented to the borough manager this morning. What I’d like to point out is this ordinance does not provide any enforcement authority to either the borough government nor to a local Human Relations Commission. It does not provide penalties for violations for the ordinance. Penalties for ordinance violations are normally in place to act as a deterrent for such behavior in regard to discrimination so there’s no bite to this ordinance. Secondly, the ordinance doesn’t provide for any mechanism that requires or even compels businesses or individuals who were accused of discrimination to respond to the complaints. Complaints may simply be ignored by the accused with no repercussion by the borough council or local Human Relations Commission. Lastly, the recommendation of the exploratory committee to enact this ordinance is completely contrary to the committee’s findings. The committee did not establish a single, verifiable incident of discrimination in our community. It appears that the recommendation by the committee is based upon supposition and speculation. Facts matter and facts are stubborn things, as we all know. There’s no factual foundation for the establishment of this ordinance. I find that the ordinance appeared to be nothing more than an ideological solution to an unproven problem. And that is my rationale for vetoing the ordinance. There’s nothing to prevent this borough council from going back to the drawing board, creating a different ordinance that has authority and penalties in it, but this ordinance isn’t really worth the paper it’s printed on when it comes to providing protections to anybody. It’s more symbolic in nature.”

Jansen said, “I’m afraid I did see a lot of ideology in there when this was being discussed, even in the comments that were coming at the end. There were a lot of sort of vague, and remember this was supposed to be about LGBTQ and unfortunately we know it also dragged in the idea of systemic racism and you heard a little bit of that, too, in some of those comments. It was almost like we need justice. We need justice for people who’ve been looked at badly in society. Well that’s not what an ordinance is supposed to be and one main thing they said was well we’re doing this because we want to push the state into adopting this law. Is that the job of a part time borough council to be getting involved with activists who are trying to push the state to do a law?”

“No,” Bietsch said. “My advice to this community of folks is get together, create a coalition, go up and lobby Harrisburg. The General Assembly is responsible for enacting legislation. When it’s wide-sweeping where in theory provides protection for this group of people, who want to be a protected class, that’s not the job of every individual community. There’s approximately 958 boroughs in this commonwealth. 69 of them passed these ordinances. We would be the 70th. Out of almost a thousand, now I think that probably what this group of folks want is they want it to be loud and clear to the legislature this is what these local communities want. Well then go up there and tell them.”

Jansen pointed out, “Remember those also include municipalities, the 70. So it’s 2,560 municipalities in Pennsylvania. I’d be curious to see how many of that 69 is boroughs compared to counties and cities.”

Bietsch, “We know that Shippensburg has an ordinance. Gettysburg has an ordinance. State College has an ordinance. And I heard that State College is considering abandoning theirs.”

Jansen said, “I was doing a Right to Know on why they did the internal policy expansion. When I read that internal policy expansion that they did to include any business that does business with the borough, any volunteer, elected officials, it says in there the goal, the commitment is to get every employee and volunteer and extended employee to demonstrate behavior and attitude that supports social justice. That’s in that policy. Can you define for me what they mean by social justice?”

Bietsch said, “I’m still waiting for someone to define that to me. I have this saying that I have, I’m not the author of it, but you cannot regulate and you cannot legislate free will. Regulate attitudes? No.”

Ryan said, “Is it your understanding then if you veto the NDO, do you have the juice in which to do that? I can hear the screams and the cries from the 7-3 vote on the uninformed side of borough council that if you just spent a couple of seconds here, you’d see the pain that you’re putting on people. We’ve got 34 days until Election Day and 19 days to get yourself registered and fix this borough council, straighten this thing out here, but does your veto have teeth? Can you do this?”

“Oh, I can do it,” Bietsch confirmed. “A mayor has that executive authority to do that. The mayor has to actually sign the ordinance in order to it be enacted into law. Under the borough code, a mayor has a couple of choices when an ordinance is presented to the mayor. To do nothing. It automatically would become law without signature. To send it back to council with a list of concerns and then to then revisit the ordinance. I’m not sure how to do that because they already voted on this one. And the third is to veto it and send it back to the management and council with the veto saying I don’t approve of this ordinance, I’m not going to sign it into law. The code says you have 10 working days from the time that the council votes on it and yesterday I came to my conclusion. I thought about it since the 20th and then I vetoed the ordinance, came up with a memo to the borough manager explaining my rationale and it was not politically driven, it’s not left side, right side. It has nothing to do with the LGBTQ community. It has to do with this bill does not have enforcement authority or penalties. There has to be a reason why it doesn’t. I don’t believe any of the other ordinances – we used Gettysburg’s ordinance – so there’s got to be a reason why there’s not this definitive authority placed with a local commission of volunteers who are appointed by council to sit in judgment over folks and compel them to respond or appear. Those are simply the things that that’s factual.”

Ryan asked, “How is that? So I’ve got a fueled, activist borough council, 7-3 vote on this then they get to choose who’s on this Human Relations Commission, correct?”

“I assume that they are the ones that do the appointments,” Bietsch said.

Ryan continued, “So anybody who’s within the sound of my voice in the borough of Chambersburg or anybody thinking about putting this nonsense into your own borough or your own township here, think about that. They get to choose the people who are going to be judge and jury against you.”

Jansen pointed out, “Let me make the link here. Remember those expanded internal policies, the exploratory committee said the ordinance is a way to apply this to the rest of the borough. Jeffrey Stonehill (borough manager) made that sort of same indication when he talked about this in the exploratory committee meetings. Okay, well we just said that they’re saying you have to have the attitude and behavior of social justice according to the subjective decision of the 10 council members. They’re the ones that decide for anyone who’s got a contract with the borough or is an employee of the borough or is an elected official of the borough, they’re the ones that decide. They’re also going to be the ones that appoint this Human Relations Council who will then also be the ones to decide on anything that comes in.”

Ryan said, “What a conflict of interest.”

Jansen continued, “And are you not then putting out this unbelievable uncertainty to all the businesses and all the people that live, work, go to church, go to school in the borough. They don’t understand. It’s not clear. It’s not clarified. So everybody’s now a little bit afraid of breaking a law that’s not well defined. Do we have to all pretend that somebody who’s trans like we agree with the way they identify under all situations including personal spaces where women expect privacy. We don’t know because we asked them that question and they would not answer it.”

Bietsch said, “Setting aside my rationale for this that’s another thing that concerns me. If you heard the comments made on the 20th one gentleman got up and said you have not answered the questions that the community asked of you. That’s a little concerning. This would seem to me, just from my perspective, I wasn’t involved in any of this because ultimately I was the one that had to decide on the ordinance, but it seems to me that the dialogue was one-sided.”

Jansen agreed, “We never had a discussion of the concerns and issues that five testifiers who said we have these concerns. There was no debate. We never heard a debate between council members. We saw nothing in the exploratory report that addressed those concerns and said why they shouldn’t be concerns. We got zero.”

Bietsch said, “I’ve said what my position is and it is not meant to be harmful to anyone. If you’re going to do this, do it right.”

Jansen said, “Neither are ours. We just want answers. I said that to President Elia. I’m not accusing you. I’m not trying to label you. I’m asking you questions and you’re not answering them.”

In terms of the veto, according to the Borough Mayors Manual from paboroughmayors.org, any vetoed ordinance or resolution returned to council can be reconsidered at the meeting where it is returned by the mayor, or at any further meeting within ten days of this date. Council can override the veto by a two thirds vote of all members elected to council, where council has nine or more members.

Barkdoll said, “It’s not going to stop the ordinance…this is largely a symbolic move. I think it’s great PR for Walt. I like it that he’s taking a stand, but ultimately the ordinance will still be enacted just like it was voted on a week or two ago.”

Jansen pointed out, “But it’s important for people to use their platform when they can, when they’re an elected official, even if he can’t stop it. I still say it’s very important, especially for something controversial that could have unintended negative impacts, which the council and exploratory committee would never answer the questions about and the concerns about from the community.
I see zero answers from them on this, so I think it’s very, very good of Walt to make a stand…I asked the question, what do you mean you’re going to hold everybody to social justice standards? What’s your definition of that? Again, crickets. Silence. So I say good for him.”

Ryan added, “Not answering any questions. But this is what’s happening at school board levels, at the state level at the federal level.”

Jansen said, “There’s an arrogance that we know what’s best and we won’t even answer your questions or concerns before we pass something.”

Ryan said, “You see that bumbling, dumbling idiot in the White House just turning away, not answering any questions.”

“General Milley,” Jansen added. “No accountability.”

“No accountability,” Ryan agreed. “Right.”

In terms of the mayor’s veto, does it set up a re-vote on the nondiscrimination ordinance?

Barkdoll said, “I don’t think so. I’m open to hearing what Walt says about that. I don’t see the scenario that there’s a re-vote. I think if he simply refuses to sign off or allow his name to be published on the ordinance, it doesn’t nullify what council already adopted, so I don’t think they would be required to re-vote on anything. To Michele’s point, I would also add, the mayor is the only elected official in that council scenario that he represents the entire borough. All these other council people are representing specific wards. He’s the highest profile elected official in city government. He has more of a bully pulpit, if you will, than any of the individual council people and I think he has every right to take this kind of a position. He has the same frustration that a lot of people do apparently with how this has been handled, the lack of transparency, the lack of responding to questions at these meetings and I think he’s properly exercising his role in trying to just amplify these points. He knows he’s not going to stop the ordinance, but I think he’s doing a job at bringing even more attention to the problem.”

Ryan asked, “If there is a re-vote, how do you get into the minds of a Dennis Schmaltz, who voted for it and is facing Larry Hensley in the election here on November 2. Schmaltz voted yes. Schmaltz also didn’t care about the weather. He said, in an email that we did a Right to Know on, it doesn’t matter President Elia, the weather doesn’t matter. I’ll be there, like a good boy. And then Barb Beatty, the same way. Barb Beatty’s facing Dom Brown. Dom Brown promised a no vote on it if he’s sitting in Barb’s chair. Beatty was a yes vote on this. Or Bigler. Sharon Bigler, which of ward we’re sitting in here right now. How do we get to them and go here, if you would just look at the connection between Southgate, how your systematic racism had nothing to do with the LBGTQ thing. This is a money grab, it’s a power grab and it has nothing to do with how this whole thing launched off. Here’s the evidence. Here are the Right to Knows.”

Jansen added, “Or at least ask some questions and have them answered before you vote on it.”

Ryan continued, “You’ve got enough information…you’re going to take $4 million of COVID relief money and buy Southgate Plaza and then you’re going to give the small businesses ($120,000 for some small licensing discount fee). You’ve got a restauranteur that’s…going what the hell? Oh, now it goes back to reparations. So if you just had an honest look at what’s happening here, Barb. Or Dennis. Or Bigler. You’d know you’re being played by a social justice warrior. How do we get into their heads if they’re going to do a re-vote?”

Barkdoll said, “I don’t know if over the next five weeks now there will be any kind of a public forums for these races. When they’re outside of council if they’re in some kind of a public forum or a debate, they would have to address these questions. I think to the extent there’s opponents in many of these seats, the opponents should be running on this platform. They should be doing ads, mailers, whatever it is they’re going to be doing campaigning door to door, making this an issue. I don’t think there’s going to be a re-vote. I do think there’s a scenario if the council changes, you certainly could have a vote post-November election if you have a majority that wanted to repeal the ordinance and there would be another scenario or another format where you would have more open discussion about all of this, but everything is going to hinge on that November election outcome.”