Merriam council advances nondiscrimination ordinance with protections for LGBTQ residents, employees after first reading

The Merriam city council on Monday generally agreed on the wording of a nondiscrimination ordinance which would provide legal protections for LGBTQ residents and employees. The council heard the first reading of the ordinance, which was drafted by city attorney Nicole Proulx Aiken, during its meeting Monday. The ordinance will come back to the council for consideration at a date yet to be determined.

Councilmember Al Frisby, who proposed the ordinance in October, raised some concerns with the current draft of the NDO.

Aiken highlighted a few provisions currently included in the draft ordinance, which is designed to protect residents and employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity — especially in the areas of employment and public housing.

She noted that ordinance applies to any individual or business with four or more employees, anyone selling or renting property with more than four dwelling units, and anyone offering goods, services, facilities or accommodations to the public.

Organizations that are exempt from the ordinance include faith-based organizations, social and fraternal associations and businesses with three or fewer employees. Aiken said this list reflects the format of state law prohibiting discrimination against other classes. She noted that state law uses the word “non-sectarian” to describe “faith.”

Aiken said staff chose to exempt religious organizations because state and federal law “isn’t clear right now. It just seems good to have that broad exemption,” she added.

Councilmember Al Frisby, who proposed the ordinance in October, flagged a couple of items he’d like city staff to consider rewording. Namely, one line indicates employers cannot fire an LGBTQ employee “without a valid business necessity.” Frisby would like that phrase to be removed.

Frisby also pointed out that a complaint of discrimination must be investigated “in a reasonable amount of time.” He thinks the wording is too broad. Aiken said putting a deadline of 30 or 60 days doesn’t necessarily enforce the time constraint, and it sometimes causes more harm than good to a civil case.

Frisby said he also wants to raise the penalty fee from $500 to $1,000, adding that he thinks $1,000 is more of a “deterrent.” But he was also concerned that complainants may have to drop their civil case “because they can’t afford to pursue it.”

Frisby also asked if the ordinance would require an employer to restore someone’s job if the employee had been found by the city-appointed investigator and hearing officer to be wrongfully terminated. Aiken said “actual damages” in the code would probably only require the employer to pay the employee back pay for lost time on the job, but not require a rehire.

Other councilmembers wanted to ensure the city would be unaffiliated with an investigator and hearing officer’s opinions on a civil case, especially because the mayor requires council approval to appoint those positions.

A few Merriam residents and people from outside the city also came to share their support for the ordinance. No one spoke against Similar ordinances are on the docket in neighboring cities Prairie Village and Mission.

Mayor Ken Sissom said he has received emails from concerned Merriam residents, including one about the use of public restrooms by transgender residents.

Staff will make adjustments to the ordinance before a second reading at a later council meeting.