Mayor, UA chancellor denounce chamber’s decision to oppose civil rights ordinance

Mayor Lioneld Jordan and University of Arkansas Chancellor David Gearhart said they want the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce to take back its opposition to Fayetteville’s civil rights ordinance.

Jordan and Gearhart both sent letters to chamber president Steve Clark and board chair Bill Bradley this week calling for the chamber to rescind the board’s recent decision to oppose and lobby against the new law, which would prohibit business owners and landlords from unjustly firing or evicting someone because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and other characteristics.

Chamber officials last week held a press conference to announce the board had unanimously adopted a resolution to oppose the new law and to begin a campaign urging residents to repeal the ordinance in the Dec. 9 special election.

As ex-officio board members of the chamber, Jordan and Gearhart said they were never invited to offer an opinion on the matter, and were denied the opportunity to address the issue at all.

“I was surprised to learn of this decision since I received no notification of the board meeting in which it was considered, and I was certainly disappointed in the announced decision to work for repeal of the ordinance,” said Jordan in a Nov. 10 letter to the chamber.

While ex-officio board members do not cast votes in board meetings, Jordan and Gearhart said the inner workings of the chamber are not common knowledge, and that the chamber’s announcement of a “unanimous” vote created uncertainty as to whether the city and university support the chamber’s position.

“Since you list me as an ex-officio member on your website, many citizens might infer that I supported this position,” said Jordan. “I do not.”

Gearhart agreed, and added that the board’s lack of transparency is out of step with Fayetteville’s character.

“The failure to include all ex-officio members in the discussion contributes to the perception that the board operated under a veil of secrecy and was opposed to any divergent views,” said Gearhart. “Such a perception undermines the ability of the board to demonstrate that it consistently functions within the best traditions of our city which embraces openness and fair play.”

The chamber currently contracts with the city to provide economic development services for $150,000 per year. Jordan said if he’d known about the meeting, he would’ve attended and discussed the reasons why he thinks a non-discrimination policy enhances efforts at economic development in Fayetteville.

Clark has said the chamber does not condone discrimination of any kind, but instead chose to rally for repeal of the ordinance because board members believe the new law was written poorly and is too vague in its definition of what is prohibited.

Supporters of the new law have argued that if any changes are needed, they should be made by amending the ordinance, not by throwing the law out entirely.

Gearhart said he was disappointed in the chamber’s decision to take a stand on the issue when the law is already in the hands of voters.

“Many people favor allowing the citizens of Fayetteville to decide the issue at the ballot box in December, rather than having pressure exerted by the chamber,” said Gearhart. “If, indeed, the law is vague and too broad, the court system of Arkansas will clarify the law in due course.”

Gearhart said the chamber’s public opposition has only helped make the ordinance a flash point issue in Fayetteville, and that the decision has strained relations among the city, the university, and individual citizens.

“The chamber should promote harmony and prosperity, not create crisis,” said Gearhart.

Chapter 119, Civil Rights Ordinance

Fayetteville City Council members passed a controversial anti-discrimination ordinance at around 3:45 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20 after nearly 10 hours of public discussion and debate inside City Hall.

The ordinance prohibits business owners and landlords from unjustly firing or evicting someone because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic background, marital status or veteran status. It also creates a civil rights administrator position to receive and investigate complaints from residents who feel they are victims of those specific types of discrimination. Offenders could be fined up to $500 if it is determined they violated the ordinance.

The ordinance was approved 6-2 with council members Adella Gray, Sarah Marsh, Mark Kinion, Matthew Petty, Rhonda Adams and Alan Long voting in favor of the measure. Ward 3 aldermen Justin Tennant and Martin Schoppmeyer voted against the ordinance.

A group called Repeal 119 immediately began a petitioning campaign to stop the implementation of the ordinance, and eventually turned in enough signatures to put the new law on hold and force a Dec. 9 special election to decide the fate of the ordinance.

» Read all Flyer coverage of the civil rights ordinance