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Erik Burgess, Published July 08 2013

Fargo commissioners OK study of LGBT discrimination ban

FARGO – City commissioners here agree: They don’t want Fargo to be a haven of discrimination.

After saying just as much, the commission on Monday asked the city attorney’s office to look into what Fargo can legally do in terms of preventing discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.

The motion, made by Commissioner Melissa Sobolik, passed unanimously 5-0.

The move comes about a month after the Grand Forks City Council amended a city law to prohibit the city, as an employer, from discriminating against employees because of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Fargo already has a similar law on the books – its human resources policy prevents the city, as an employer, from discriminating against employees or potential employees based on sexual orientation.

Fargo also has a city ordinance, 15-02, which establishes the city’s Human Relations Commission and states that the body will “discourage all forms of discrimination” based on a number of factors including race, color, religion, sex and sexual orientation, but that law does not include an enforcement provision.

Sobolik, who has spear-headed the movement, said she wants to see what more the city is legally able to do to further prevent discrimination and enforce such a ban.

“In talking with the other commissioners, none of us are for discrimination,” Sobolik said after the meeting. “So, we want to make sure you don’t get discriminated against for anything, and sexual orientation and gender identity is one of those missing pieces (in Fargo) right now.”

Even Mayor Dennis Walaker said he was on board. Walaker told The Forum last month, after Grand Forks passed its ordinance, that he didn’t believe discrimination against LGBT residents was an issue in Fargo and that he didn’t want to draft an ordinance just because Grand Forks did.

After Monday’s meeting, the mayor said he still doesn’t know if discrimina-tion is occurring in Fargo, but he said he doesn’t have a problem with going through the process.

“It needs to be determined if there is discrimination going on in our community, and if there is, we need to address it,” Walaker said.

Protection for all

For Sobolik, the problem is prevalent enough that it warrants action from the city.

“I do hear from citizens that this is a problem,” she said after the meeting. “When they get thrown out on the street because they have a partner, or they ask about partner benefits at work, and they find them-selves without a job. When people are on the streets (or) they’re unemployed, that’s a problem for the whole city of Fargo.”

While Sobolik told The Forum last month that she’d like Fargo’s ordinance to have a wider purview than that of Grand Forks and perhaps protect all residents from job discrimination – not just city employees – on Monday she backtracked and said she would wait to hear back from the city attorney’s office on what the city can or can’t do.

“I don’t really want to speculate on what I want because I want to be able to know what’s in the legal realm,” she said.

Grand Forks is also looking at protecting LGBT residents from discrimina-tion in housing, which Sobolik said she’d like Fargo to look at as well.

Sobolik said Kalamazoo, Mich., is currently discuss-ing a ban on discrimination for all employees across the city, and she’s is waiting to see what happens there.

Missing piece

Backers of the Grand Forks law, including their City Attorney Howard Swanson, have said that protecting all employees citywide falls under federal labor laws and is out of the city’s legal purview.

Commissioner Mike Williams said it’s a “good idea” to have the city’s legal team study what kind of ordinance is possible.

Unlike Grand Forks, he said Fargo, as an employer, has banned discrimination based on sexual orientation for the past 13 years.

“Fargo was ahead of the curve in 2000, so Grand Forks just caught up. It took them 13 years,” Williams said, which elicited some laughter from the audience. “So, we want to make sure we treat our residents equally, and that’s what this is about.”

The city’s human resources policy does not currently include “gender identity” protections, though, Sobolik noted.

“That’s the one piece we are missing, so at a minimum we could always add ‘gender identity’ to that,” she said.

Commissioners on Monday did not set a timeline for the city attorney’s office. Sobolik said the Human Relations Commission will now take the lead on the issue and provide recommendations to the City Commission.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518