Gay and lesbian activists in Ferndale are preparing for a battle in the wake of a petition drive that has suspended the city’s recently passed anti-bias law.
The law, approved by the City Council in September, protects people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation on the basis of categories including race, gender and sexual orientation.
Robert Paczkowski, the only council member to vote against the ordinance, obtained 491 petition signatures — 13 more than the minimum required —calling for the ordinance to be either repealed or put to the city’s voters. Ferndale has a population of approximately 25,000.
The council’s earliest decision would be at its Nov. 8 meeting. A majority of the members told the Metro Times they intend to let voters decide the issue. That could happen as early as February.
Paczkowski says he opposes the ordinance because it "endorses homosexuality." Beyond that, he says, the public should have been allowed to decide the issue. In 1991 more than 60 percent of voters rejected a measure with protections for homosexuals.
Mayor Charles Goedert says that, except for language protecting homosexuals, the new ordinance is substantially different from the earlier proposal. "It’s a good message to all of metro Detroit that we don’t tolerate hate in Ferndale," Goedert says.
Paczkowski, who holds one of two at-large seats that were up for grabs Nov. 2, did not run for re-election. The election results were not available when Metro Times went to press.
Business owner Michael Lary, who sits on the council-appointed committee that helped write the ordinance, says the committee plans to hammer out a campaign to promote it as a ballot proposal.
"The most important thing we need to do is educate the public," Lary says. "People are led to believe that if they agree to this ordinance, that gay people will have more rights than they do. … No. It says if you’re going to provide the public with services, you don’t bring your personal beliefs into it. You don’t bring your religion into it."
"Sometimes a hate crime starts with disliking someone first," says Lary. "What do we have to do, have somebody like Matthew Shepard become a victim in Ferndale?"
Councilwoman Gerry Kulick says the ordinance allows people facing discrimination to fight at the local level. "Somebody who’s been a victim of this isn’t going to take it to state or federal (courts)," Kulick says. "This, to me, is one of the reasons it has to be passed."
Ferndale gay rights leader Craig Covey says some residents, even some who favor the ordinance, have expressed disappointment that they weren’t able to vote on the issue.
Covey, CEO of the Ferndale-based Midwest AIDS Prevention Project, says Goedert and the council originally led residents to believe the issue would go to a vote.
Goedert says the committee appointed to study the issue was charged with drafting ballot language for a human rights ordinance, once the committee determined if such a law was needed. However, Geodert says the committee’s ballot language was so different from the 1991 proposal that the committee asked council to consider just passing it.
"I’ve always said that elected representatives shouldn’t override … a direct democratic vote," Goedert says. "We felt it was like any other ordinance within our capability to enact directly without overriding the 1991 vote."
Regardless, now that it appears the ordinance will go to a vote, Covey says he plans to play a leading role in promoting it. "We have a great opportunity to show that you can educate the public and turn them around," he says. "This is about compassion."