WILKES-BARRE — After the city council unanimously passed an expansive anti-discrimination ordinance Thursday night, Tony Brooks reflected on his vote.
The openly gay councilman framed the moment in historical terms and recalled his mother championing a similar law more than two decades ago.
“Twenty-two years ago, my mother brought this to the attention of the city — in 1994 — and it took us that long to do it, ” Brooks, the lone Republican on the five member council, said.
“But I think what we did tonight was we confirmed those endearing American values that our forefathers wrote down in the Declaration of Independence, of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Brooks said. “Now we have fairness for everyone to pursue their own happiness.”
He commended Councilwoman Beth Gilbert for taking up the cause again and introducing the ordinance to ensure equal protections to all people regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, marital status or physical or mental disability. The law that goes into effect in 10 days establishes a human relations commission to provide a forum to hear and address complaints of discrimination in housing, work and public accommodations.
Gilbert, a Democrat and newcomer to council like Brooks, said passing the ordinance was one of the first things she wanted to do and “the proudest moment of her time on council thus far.” She had been working with Dee Culp, a transgender woman from Wilkes-Barre, to draft the legislation.
“Honestly, when I was approached by Dee, that we didn’t have it to begin with, I was shocked, really. It seemed very antiquated,” Gilbert said.
Prior to the vote, Culp joined several others in urging council to pass the ordinance. A vote in favor would “make Wilkes-Barre a more equal place” to live, work and visit, Culp said.
Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, an LGBT advocacy organization, lauded council for addressing the issue and joining 36 other municipalities in the state with similar laws. Pittston and Scranton are the only other cities in Northeastern Pennsylvania among the group.
“You are taking the issue by the horns this evening and being real leaders,” Martin said.
A native of Plains Township, but living in south New Jersey, Christine Zuba said she returned to the area to visit her mother and speak in favor of the ordinance. “We ask for the same respect as everyone else, nothing more, nothing less,” Zuba said.
With the legislation already prepared, Jim Burden asked the council to consider adding kids with one small crime on the records to protected groups. “Give these kids a chance,” he said, adding that they’re paying all their life for a mistake and can’t get decent jobs. He suggested a 10-year limit before the record could be expunged. “And maybe they can go places, too,” he said.
Burden, a Marine Corps veteran, said he had no problem with the anti-discrimination ordinance. “What you do behind your doors, you do,” he said.
He later pulled down his shorts halfway to reveal his white briefs while asking council to do something to prevent high school kids walking through his neighborhood from sagging their pants almost to their knees to show their underwear. “It’s disgusting,” he said.
Agreeing that the ordinance lacked enforcement but was a “good thing in theory,” Sam Troy pushed for a delay of 30 or 60 days on the vote for council to see if there is anything similar done on the state or national level. A state Senate committee held a hearing last month on Senate Bill 1306, which grants similar protections as the city’s ordinance.
“I’m not trying to come off as a homophobe here,” Troy said of his concerns with the ordinance.
In other business, council approved :
• Preparing and submitting a Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant application for $3 million awarded by the state for the Wilkes University Engineering Initiative Project.
• An annual Winter Services Agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which will authorize the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to pay the city $52,571 to maintain 37 miles of state roads.
• Authorizing an agreement with the lowest responsible bidder for the demolition of 150-154 Kidder St.
• Authorizing the city to sell surplus police department equipment and vehicles through a yet-to-be-determined qualified auction service.
• Increasing the fee to remove a boot placed on the wheel of a vehicle for unpaid parking fines from $50 to $100.
• Setting annual cart fees at the Hollenback Golf Course to $400 for residents and $450 for nonresidents.