Meridian Township Board Split Over Non-Discrimination Ordinance

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During the Tuesday, September 17 Meridian Board of Trustees meeting, the Board revisited the issue of the Human Relations Ordinance. In July, the Board amended the Township’s Fair Housing Ordinance to prohibit housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. The Board is now entertaining an ordinance that would prohibit not only housing discrimination, but also employment and public accommodations discrimination.

The ordinance’s language was largely influenced by the existing non-discrimination ordinance in East Lansing and the proposed non-discrimination ordinance in Delta Township. The Meridian Township Complaint Procedure is strikingly different from both Delta Township and East Lansing. Whereas both Delta and East Lansing rely on appointed committees to review non-discrimination complaints, Meridian Township charges the Human Resources Director with the responsibility of reviewing all complaints.

Although the Board previously indicated unanimous support for a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance, several board members indicated concerns about including employment protections in a local ordinance. Trustee Milton Scales was quoted as saying that the Township’s effort to include employment protections “goes too far.”

Prior to this meeting, the Board had directed the Township Attorney, Andrea Dichtman, to draft an ordinance which included both employment and public accommodations protections. Trustee Scales referred to employment protections as “feel good legislation” and cited potential costs to the Township as the reason he would be voting against an ordinance that prohibits employment discrimination.

Trustee John Veenstra cited the East Lansing ordinance in rebutting some of Trustee Scales’ fears that the Township would be facing obscenely high litigation fees if it passes an employee nondiscrimination ordinance.

Treasurer Julie Brixie also cited concerns regarding the potential costs of an employment nondiscrimination ordinance and proposed drafting a resolution as well as extending domestic partnership benefits to Township employees. Clerk Dreyfus echoed Treasurer Brixie’s suggestion and also added that he feared that passing a non-discrimination ordinance that addresses employment will create a “far more litigious” Township.

Rather than addressing the issue of employment discrimination at the municipal level, Treasurer Brixie, Clerk Dreyfus, and Trustee Scales all indicated that the state legislature take up the cause. They cited lack of legal authority and costs as the two main reasons for their opposition.

Although Brixie, Dreyfus, and Scales stated their reasons cogently, their concerns seem misplaced. As to authority, in addition to the fact that 27 other municipalities in Michigan have enacted similar laws, the Township Attorney clearly laid out how and why Meridian may enact an employment non-discrimination ordinance. Attorney Dichtman repeatedly cited MCL 42.15 which states “ The township board of any charter township may enact such ordinances as may be deemed necessary to provide for the public peace and health and for the safety of persons and property therein…”

Additionally, the Michigan Constitution provides that “[t]he provisions of this constitution and law concerning counties, townships, cities, and villages shall be liberally construed in their favor” thereby granting Meridian Township authority to enact an ordinance that provides basic civil rights protection and enforcement. Const. 1963, art. 7, § 22. Moreover, Michigan’s courts have held that the legislature did not intend the Elliott-Larsen act to be the sole mechanism to protect civil rights in the state (see JF Cavanaugh & Co v City of Detroit, 126 Mich App 627, 636).

As to the issue of cost, the municipalities that have passed similar nondiscrimination ordinances report minimal implementation and enforcement costs. East Lansing reports that the annual operating expense of its Human Relations Commission is less than $2000. The low level of costs are far outweighed by the value prospective and current residents place on knowing that they are protected by their municipality and that they are truly welcome.

Trustee Angela Wilson has been a champion for the non-discrimination ordinance since day one. She addressed quite a few of the concerns raised by the other board members, including the low cost of enforcement and the Board’s authority in such matters.

Upon hearing his concerns addressed, Trustee Scales then took issue with the penalties in the ordinance, fearing that they were too low. It is worth noting that this ordinance would not limit an individual’s right to seek remedies in other venues such as through a private right of action or a complaint filed with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Trustee Scales also restated that he did not see a reason for the ordinance. Trustee Wilson responded to this concern saying, “..it gets to the point of who are we what do we in Meridian Township believe in? Do we support all of our community members or not?”

Trustee Scales had the last word on the discussion and reiterated his opinion that the ordinance was unnecessary,

“Well I think we should support all our community members but when we’re talking about employment, you look at the Township and the majority of the people that live here don’t work here. The people that work here don’t live here….To think that that is a compelling reason to do this because there is no protection — there’s no protection for baldheaded white guys but we’re not doing an ordinance for them. We need to look at this in a rational fashion.”

So there you have it, as it stands right now, the Meridian Township Board is split on whether or not to cover employment in its nondiscrimination ordinance. Despite the fact that it has proven to be a low cost measure with a high return in other municipalities, and the fact that the Michigan Municipal League Board of Trustees recently adopted a policy position that encourages member municipalities to adopt local human rights ordinances inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity, some of the Board members feel that it’s not their place to pass this type of law.

The Board will likely address the matter again during the Tuesday, October 1 meeting. In the meantime, please email the Meridian Board of Trustees at board@meridian.mi.us and urge them to adopt a comprehensive ordinance that will protect everyone who lives, works, and plays in Meridian Township from housing, public accommodations, AND employment discrimination. 

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