© 2023 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Leon Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Wins on Surprise Vote Switch


Tallahassee, FL – A hotly-debated ordinance banning discrimination against gays and lesbians sailed to victory late Tuesday after a surprise switch by a Leon County commissioner. Margie Menzel reports.

"The motion passes 5-2," announced Leon County Commission Chair Bob Rackleff, to wild applause.

By the time of Tuesday's public hearing, commissioners had been deluged with calls, letters, emails - even a small plane buzzing downtown with a message for two commissioners up for re-election, "Dailey and Thaell: Vote yes and be voted out." Last month the panel had moved the measure forward, 4-3, and on Tuesday, Commissioner John Dailey, one of its supporters, moved to delay the final vote for more input from business owners.

"Yes, it is an extra month, and I know there are people who are interested in seeing this go through tonight and only tonight," Dailey said. "But I put this before you before we start the public hearing, and I leave it up to the decision of the commissioners. I would make a motion that we move in this direction, and if it gets a second, let's have discussion and possibly a vote. If not, I'm prepared to go forward with tonight as proposed."

The ordinance is designed to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender people from discrimination in housing, employment and access to public accommodations. There were 103 speakers, most passionate; the hearing didn't end until nearly 11 p.m. But supporters had momentum from early on, when Dailey's motion to delay met with unexpected opposition: Commissioner Bill Proctor, formerly a "no" vote.

"I have been demonized. I'm tired of this. I'm ready to vote," Proctor said. "I don't think anyone has taken more arrows on this, and I don't think anyone is more strongly for it."

That meant Dailey was no longer the swing vote, and the public hearing began. Commissioners Bryan Desloge and Jane Sauls were the other "no" votes going in, and many speakers addressed the two directly, some urging them to hold fast and others to make it unanimous. Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres and a candidate for state attorney general, popped in to voice his support. Opposition fell into two major camps: religious, as from Sallie Hallmark...

"I know several men and women whom God has delivered from that that lifestyle and set them free, and you can be, too, if you want to be," she said. "My prayer for you, chairman and commissioners, is please don't pass this law to keep them in bondage and then demand that we accept that darkness and that bondage. God can set them free."

...and business, as from Bobby Kelly, who employs 60 workers.

"I can tell you this ordinance puts me in the cross-hairs, and it's not a good feeling," Kelly said. "I feel like the minority now."

But supporters spoke in greater numbers. They included the Rev. Brant Copeland, pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

"I sometimes wonder if my fellow Christians are reading the same Bible I am," he said.

...and small business owner Jackie Madsen.

"Many of our clients and vendors are in support of this ordinance as well. Like me, they do not feel it's going to create any costs for small businesses as long as you don't discriminate," Madsen said.

After four-plus hours of the public hearing, commissioners weighed in. Desloge called the ordinance "a poor piece of legislation."

"The issue here is, are you creating a system that's going to somehow penalize small business? And as a small business owner, I would say you are," Desloge said. "And I think this could be better written. There were several attempts earlier tonight to go down that path. It is what it is. I'm voting because I think this is not a moral issue, and I think it is a poor public policy."

The ordinance passed 5-2, with Desloge and Sauls against. Several attorneys present, including County Attorney Herb Thiele, observed that the measure could yet be changed. It remains to be seen how the vote will affect the campaigns of several commissioners who are up for re-election this fall.