NEW PORT RICHEY — The city of New Port Richey is accepting of all law-abiding residents and visitors and does not tolerate discrimination in all its forms.
There was no disagreement about that among all five City Council members during last week’s regular meeting. How the city can officially express that, or potentially enforce it, however, was another matter.
Toward the end of its June 18 meeting, council discussed a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance that follows up on a request made to the city last year. The request was to adopt an ordinance similar to one adopted years ago by the city of Gulfport in Pinellas County.
As described in material associated with the agenda item, the Gulfport ordinance relates to providing protections from discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodations and education. It assigns responsibility to the city to hear and investigate complaints, conduct hearings and initiate civil action when appropriate related to presumed incidents of discrimination.
Coincidentally, the ordinance Gulfport enacted was authored by New Port Richey’s current city attorney, Tim Driscoll. City Manager Debbie Manns opened the discussion by stating she did not believe the ordinance was a fit for New Port Richey.
“It is overbearing and may not be appropriate for our implementation, so I want to have a discussion with you tonight to determine the form and content of any ordinance or resolution that you may determine to be appropriate as it relates to the unprotected classes of the LGBTQ group,” Manns stated.
The ordinance’s stance against “employment, housing, public accommodations and education” discrimination gained complete and unanimous support, but how the city and staff could respond to and enforce incidents raised questions.
“We hear this term ordinance a lot,” said Councilman Jeff Starkey. “An ordinance is a law. A law has to be enforceable. I’m all for a resolution saying that we welcome anyone to our city.”
The concept of drafting and passing a resolution gained traction from Councilman Chopper Davis and Mayor Rob Marlowe. Councilmen Peter Altman and Matt Murphy supported passage of the ordinance but eventually agreed that a resolution, if strongly worded and stood by, is an acceptable compromise.
“I think an ordinance has some teeth to it, a resolution does not,” Murphy said. “It’s kind of a goodwill thing. If we go that way with a resolution we have to really mean it. And if it’s not being followed we have to take action on it, or really a resolution is just a feel-good thing that we didn’t mean. If we’re going to do a resolution we need to really take it seriously.”
Starkey disagreed with the idea that such a resolution would be meaningless, adding that the city displayed its openness to the LGBTQ community with actions last year by hosting the Pasco Pride festival in Sims Park.
“I personally think it makes a pretty bold statement,” Starkey said of passing a resolution. “I don’t know if any other city in Pasco County or the Pasco County Commission has done such a thing.”
Passing an ordinance similar to Gulfport’s concerned some on council that it could potentially strain city resources. “My biggest concern with the Gulfport ordinance is that were there to be a problem, we could wind up having to litigate absolutely everything and sit there being the body where that litigation is coming up,” Marlowe said. “It sounds like it could get very expensive very, very fast, and we do have limited resources.”
Gulfport has not had that issue, Driscoll said. The ordinance was passed in 2005 and Driscoll was informed by Gulfport’s city manager that they have not had a single claim that has gone through the entire process to prosecution. A mediation session was held over one claim but that was it.
Six audience members addressed council before its discussion. Some mentioned past local discrimination incidents and all voiced their support for passing an ordinance and New Port Richey setting an example for the rest of Pasco County.
The entire council agreed with wanting New Port Richey to be seen as a welcoming, progressive, forward-thinking community and council’s consensus ended up being for city staff to begin drafting an anti-discrimination resolution.
“I would like to see us on a list of cities who have passed some kind of resolution advancing our unanimous forward thinking,” Altman said.