Boca Raton officials compare LGBT equality to canine rights & bad hair

Protecting LGBT employees from discrimination would be like protecting pet lovers from discrimination.

That’s what the assistant city manager of Boca Raton thinks.

Mike Woika was trying to make a point — saying if the city were to adopt an ordinance protecting LGBT employees, then who knows what other classes of people would crawl out of the woodwork demanding their rights, too.

“What’s to keep other groups from wanting to be protected?” Woika said. “How about me? I’m a pet lover. I think should be included in your anti-discrimination law. Someone who has dogs should not be discriminated against either.”

Palm Beach County's LGBT Benefits and Protections

The issue of gay rights in Boca Raton was thrust into the spotlight last week when the Palm Beach County Commission was informed that the City of Boca Raton opted out of the county’s anti-discrimination clause, which includes both “sexual orientation” and “gender identity and expression.”

Boca Raton doesn’t include either one in its anti-discrimination policy, instead deferring to the state and federal requirements.

The county meanwhile has a policy stating that it doesn’t do business with entities that won’t adhere to their anti-discrimination policy. The ‘business’ happens to be a regional plan for the county to pay for the costs of hazardous material emergencies in some of its cities, one of which being Boca.

But the county can’t save the city the $235,000 that the project is worth without adherence to its anti-discrimination policy. Now, Boca has 60 days to change its ways, or it loses out on almost a quarter of a million dollars.

Woika stressed that regardless of what people are protected, the City does not discriminate against anyone whether or not they are a part of a protected class.

But the issue gets even stickier.

Besides just not including “sexual orientation” and/or “gender identity and expression,” in its policies, in January 2011 Boca decided to take the unusual step of officially opting out of the county’s anti-discrimination requirements.

Woika simply called that vote a reaffirmation.

The only other city to have taken that step is West Palm Beach. The difference though is that WPB includes “sexual orientation,” and “gender identity and expression” as a part of their protected classes.

Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council has said he’s been approaching Boca Raton for more than 20 years urging them to add sexual orientation to their anti-discrimination requirements as well as offer city employees domestic partnership benefits.

Tony Plakas, the executive director of county’s GLCC, Compass, believes the opt out was done covertly and wonders if the City Council understood at the time the real impact of it.

Or was this something pushed for by the city management?

“This is a great example of things happening behind the public’s back and they don’t know about it,” he said. “Maybe they did think it was just housekeeping. But again it doesn’t matter. The motivation was to do it quietly.”

Woika, though, said the opt out came about because this isn’t the first time Boca has run into a problem with the county’s anti-discrimination requirements.

“There was a formal affirmation of the opting out. Because the city is under home rule it has established its own anti-discrimination [requirements]. There was always a conflict with the county,” Woika said. “I think when they legally adopted their own, that really was an opt out. But the city said ‘let’s make it very clear.’”

Last time around, though, the project fell through, Woika said, before the city and county came into conflict.

The current issue became muddied after Palm Beach County Commissioner Steve Abrams, whose district includes Boca, stressed to the commission that Boca only had a problem with adhering to the “gender identity and expression” requirement. He said they didn’t have a problem with the “sexual orientation” requirement.

Abrams then attempted to persuade the commission to give Boca an exemption, which it declined. Boca will now have 60 days to accept the county’s proposal or decline it and lose the funding.

Later, when Abrams realized that “sexual orientation” wasn’t a federally or state protected class, he wrote in an email:

“I want to state that the city manager advised me, as Boca’s district commissioner, only about their concerns regarding the gender identity and gender expression clauses.  I have no knowledge concerning their position on sexual orientation, which they did not raise with me.”

Woika said when Boca Raton opted out of county’s ordinance, they made it clear they would only follow state and federal requirements regarding discrimination.

Rand Hoch summed it up differently.

“What they are saying is that they wish to retain the right to discriminate against gay men, lesbian and transgender people. ‘We want to be able to preserve the right to discriminate,’” he explained. “No one else in Palm Beach County tried to opt out, except for West Palm Beach, which had its own law before the county had a law.”

SFGN reached out Boca Raton Mayor Susan Whelchel for a comment, but as of press time received no response.

Gender Identity and Expression

At the Palm Beach County Commission meeting Commissioner Steve Abrams defended Boca Raton’s right to opt out of the county’s anti-discrimination policies and claimed protections for gender identity are not a “settled area of law” and the city did not want open itself up to liability.

PalmHe also made this comment:

“Someone could sue because the entity doesn’t like the way their hair is styled or how they dress or something like that so I’m just explaining the basis of the city’s objection.”

Michael Keeffe, Executive Director of Transaction Florida, the only statewide trans organization, took issue with Abram’s comments.

“My first response to that is it’s just ludicrous. That’s an uneducated statement. These kind of comments come from a fear of cross dressers or fetish type of people will want to come in on different days and dress differently. One day as John and one day as Jane,” he explained. “This is about people who live full time as a certain identity. This is people like myself who was born as one sex, but live my life as the opposite of that, on a full time basis.”

Keeffe said more than dozen cities across the state now offer protections for “gender identity and expression.”

Three of those cities are in PBC and include West Palm Beach, Wellington and Lake Worth. The County and School District of Palm Beach County also includes it. Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton’s largest employer, already includes “sexual orientation” in its equal employment opportunity policy for employees and anti-discrimination policy covering students. FAU will consider adding “gender identity and expression” later this year.


Gay Rights in Palm Beach County

The Palm Beach County Human Rights Council and its president Rand Hoch has been surprisingly successful at getting the county and municipalities to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity and expression” to their anti-discrimination requirements as well as getting some of them to offer domestic partnership benefits to their employees.

But one city where they’ve had almost no success is Boca Raton, whom Hoch said has been less than receptive.

Here are a few facts when it comes to gay rights in Palm Beach County:

West Palm Beach was the first city in Florida to enact an Equal Opportunity Ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodation.  And that was in 1994. In 1995 a strong effort was made to repeal the law, but the voters upheld it with 56 percent. Even smaller cities in the county have been more progressive on gay rights than Boca.

Lake Worth is home to one of the Southeastern United States’ largest gay and lesbian community center, Compass. And Lake Worth was the first city in Florida to raise the gay flag during the week of Compass’ PrideFest, a tradition that started in 2000. Lake Worth also had no problem hiring a transgender city manager.

In addition to all of the larger cities in Palm Beach County (except for Boca) offering some type of protections or benefits for the LGBT community, many smaller county municipalities also offer such protections. A few of those include Belle Glade, Hypoluxo, Lake Park, Manalapan, Royal Palm Beach South Bay, and Tequesta.

Additionally, the county and school district offer protections and benefits for the LGBT community as well as the Office of the Clerk and Comptroller, Office of the Property Appraiser, Office of the Public Defender, Office of Supervisor of Elections, Office of the Tax Collector, Children Services Council, Palm Tran, Solid Waste Authority and South Florida Water Management District.