Saturday, April 08, 2006

South Bend Council To Discuss Gay Rights Ordinance In Closed-Door Meeting

Executive Session Violates Indiana's Public Meetings Open Door Law
In an apparent violation of the state's public meetings open door law, the South Bend Common Council will meet in an executive session at its April 11 meeting to discuss a gay rights ordinance according to South Bend Tribute writer Jamie Loo. Loo writes:

A year to the day since the Common Council saw a presentation on adding sexual orientation to the city human rights code, the council will re-examine the issue behind closed doors. Council President Timothy Rouse, D-at large, is convening an executive session April 11 to discuss a proposal that would add protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people to the city human rights code.

Using a specious argument for the executive session, Council President Rouse relies on a letter written to the council in October, 2004 by Joseph P. Sergio, an Eric Miller wannabe who warned that the adoption of the ordinance was "likely to trigger an endless source of lawsuits" on both sides of the issue according to Loo's article. Sergio was writing on behalf of Citizens for Community Values, a local Christian right activist group. Loo writes, "In a memorandum to the council, Rouse said, 'in light of the threat of litigation, I believe that an executive session would be helpful.'"

Indiana's Public Meeting Open Door Law (I.C. 5-14-1.5) governs what matters a governmental body may discuss in an executive session, which is "a meeting from which the public is excluded, except the governing body may admit those persons necessary to carry out its purpose." The Open Door Law allows executive sessions in several instances, including "initiation of litigation or litigation that is either pending or has been threatened specifically in writing." A nearly two-year old opinion by Sergio, who is not even an attorney, that the adoption of the ordinance was "likely to trigger an endless source of lawsuits" can hardly be considered "litigation . . . threatened specifically in writing" as required by Indiana's Open Door Law to allow an executive session. This broad interpretation of the Open Door Law would allow a governmental body to go into executive session to discuss a pending ordinance everytime someone raised the likelihood of litigation, which opponents often do as an argument against adoption of proposed ordinances.

The gay rights ordinance has been before the council since July, 2004 when then-Council President Charlotte Pfeifer proposed it. According to Loo, numerous hearings have been conducted to gather public input. The South Bend Human Rights Commission issued a position statement in January, 2005 "asking the Common Council to investigate possible sexual orientation discrimination in the city and to consider a 'remedy'" Loo writes. The last action taken by the council was a presentation by South Bend Equality, a group representing the local GLBT community, to the Council Personnel and Finance Committee a year ago.

Several supporters have used citizens' opportunity to speak from the floor during council meetings to urge the Common Council to act on the ordinance. South Bend Equality believes that there are a sufficient number of council members who will support the adoption of the ordinance if a vote is taken.

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