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March 12, 2007

General Assembly Journal 2007 - Volume 8

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Annapolis Dictionary

Local courtesy: a unique, uncodified phenomenon in Annapolis whereby bills that only affect one jurisdiction are given an easy path to approval.

As the chairman of the Frederick County Delegation, I hate to be forced to withdraw a local bill. Withdrawal is tantamount to surrender, an admission that the delegation lacks the "juice" to get a bill through the maze of the General Assembly.

Sometimes, though, a withdrawn bill is the best way to solve a problem. An example that illustrates the point perfectly occurred last week.

The Frederick County Commissioners had included a bill regarding fair housing in the package offered by the last board. That was the Thompson Board, composed of Commissioners' John L. "Lennie" Thompson, Mike Cady, John Lovell, Jan Gardner, and Bruce Reeder.

The bill granted expanded powers of investigation and adjudication to the local Human Relations Commission (HRC) and the county's Human Relations Department. Under existing law, any housing discrimination complaint must be filed through either the Maryland HRC or the courts.

The debate that led to adoption of the bill in the legislative package touched on the question of protected classes, meaning the groups that would be able to use this mechanism to pursue housing discrimination justice.

Under state law, protected classes include gender, race, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and source of income. The county HRC felt it would be easier and more effective to adopt the state investigation and adjudication functions locally, to save both the complainants and landlords the trouble of having to travel to Baltimore on these complaints.

The HRC asked the commissioners to include these provisions in a local bill, and - after considerable deliberation - they chose to include all but sexual orientation as a protected class in the county definition. It would remain a protection under state law, just not in the county language.

The current board, now referred to as the Gardner Board, reiterated their support for the bill by voting 5-0 to keep it in the 2007 Legislative Package.

The Frederick County Delegation voted 7-1 to move the bill into the legislative process. The one "nay" vote was from Sen. David Brinkley, reflecting his serious concern over the fact that we would be duplicating protections already existing under state law. He didn't seem moved by the argument about convenience.

I suspect several others shared my view, and that is that this was a fairly easy vote to cast. Little did I suspect that there were subsurface rumblings.

Within a few weeks of the delegation vote to submit the bill, the calls from the property managers and landlords started coming in. Almost universally, the callers expressed negative opinions about the bill. Sadly, that feedback was about two weeks too late, if not two months.

There was no opposition offered at any of the county commissioners' public hearings or the delegation hearing in December. One might have assumed this idea was widely embraced because the only testimony was favorable.

Last Tuesday afternoon, I received a call from Ann Cekot, a lobbyist who represents Equality Maryland, a statewide outreach organization for gays and lesbians.

Ms. Cekot had some bad news for me. She, on behalf of her client, was going to propose an amendment to a "local courtesy" bill to eliminate the language exempting sexual orientation. I raised the issue of the normal path for a local bill, and I also discussed the idea that there were other important provisions that would be impacted if - to avoid an unwanted amendment - I was to withdraw the bill.

At last Wednesday's hearing, Ms. Cekot decided against proposing her amendment. Unfortunately, the American Civil Liberties Union did request an amendment. At least two of my colleagues from other counties (Montgomery & Baltimore) expressed their intent to pursue the amendment.

I decided, after consulting with my delegation colleagues, to withdraw the bill. Had I kept going, we risked being cast as supporters of institutional discrimination if we opposed the amendment, even though local courtesy was supposed to apply.

So now, instead of having some additional housing discrimination remedies available in Frederick County, we have a withdrawn bill. Gay rights advocates can now approach the commissioners to make the case for the removal of the exclusion of sexual discrimination as a protected class in Frederick County. Won't that be a fun time at the ol' corral?

Rest assured that I will remember the lack of local courtesy extended to the Frederick County Delegation. There is a little firearms regulation bill coming down the pike being sold as a Montgomery County local courtesy issue.

Yeah, right!

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