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    Rights proposal to extend to gays

    If approved, Largo may have one of the broadest employee policies in the state protecting gays and lesbians.

    By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 30, 2003

    LARGO -- Lara Khoury never thought much about the rainbow flag sticker on her car until she started an internship with the city of Largo. A couple of weeks into the job, she got rid of the sticker.

    She was in uncertain territory, and Largo has no policy to protect gays and lesbians from being harassed or discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. So Khoury, hoping to land a full-time job, decided she couldn't take the risk.

    "You can't always be yourself until you test the waters," said Khoury, 32, now a full-time management analyst in Parks and Recreation. "I need this. This is my career."

    For employees like Khoury, the city is poised to write extensive protections into its internal discrimination policy and into a proposed new ordinance that will apply to housing and employment throughout the city.

    It started after a racial slur in the Fire Department prompted the city to review its policies. But in drafting the policies, the city has taken the more radical step of writing in sexual orientation.

    "We are trying to do the right thing," said City Manager Steven Stanton. "I've met with each commissioner about whether they are comfortable doing the right thing, and they are."

    If the City Commission approves what is proposed, Largo will have one of the broadest employee policies in the state. It will not only prohibit harassment and discrimination against gays and lesbians, it will extend benefits to their domestic partners and to the long-term partners of unmarried heterosexual employees.

    Stanton only knows of four other Florida cities that provide those benefits: Key West, Gainesville, Miami Beach and West Palm Beach. "Very liberal, progressive communities," he said.

    But Largo's leaders are ready to take the city in that direction, even if it draws controversy, he said.

    "There's nothing wrong with being a leader on human rights issues," Commissioner Charlie Harper said.

    In the City Hall workplace, the discrimination and harassment policy would be broadened and clarified. Harassment of all kinds would be more clearly defined. It would provide for discipline ranging from a written reprimand to termination.

    Providing benefits for domestic partners is an extension of the policy. If the city doesn't discriminate, it shouldn't withhold benefits either, Stanton said.

    The city has no citywide human rights ordinance now. The proposed 25-page ordinance, to be called the Community Relations Ordinance, is modeled after St. Petersburg's. It would create a community relations officer and a board to investigate complaints about discrimination in housing, lending or hiring.

    A housing code already prohibits some forms of discrimination, and federal, state and county rules provide other protections. But none of those regulations cover sexual orientation, said assistant city attorney Tammi Bach.

    "That's going to be an extra protection for residents in Largo that they never had before," she said.

    Harper was one of the first to push for a citywide discrimination ordinance. But when Stanton asked him how he felt about adding sexual orientation, he had to talk to his priest about it. He talked to friends. One told him the policy was a good idea, but Harper would never get re-elected if he supported it.

    "It's a tough one," Harper said. He expects opposition in the community. He expects residents to bring religion into the discussion. But he also expects the controversy to subside and the policies to pass.

    "It's about treating people fairly in the eyes of the law," he said. "I haven't found anyone who disagrees with treating people with respect and dignity."

    Commissioner Pat Gerard has advocated the sexual orientation policies for months. "I want it in there," she said.

    Mayor Bob Jackson is a bit uneasy about the finer points of the policy. Since the city would be providing benefits to nonlegal unions, the details could get tricky, he said.

    "If it was legal, I'd say no question at all," he said. "The concept doesn't bother me; it's the idea of jumping into some of these areas."

    The city will need ways to keep people from cheating the system. The city health care provider has guidelines for making sure couples applying for the benefit are committed by sharing a home and a car or checking account.

    Khoury says she has never felt mistreated in the workplace. When the subject comes up, she talks about her family and relationships just like her co-workers do. But not everyone feels so comfortable.

    "Sometimes you don't know who you are talking to and what their beliefs are and what kind of lashing you could get," she said. "So many people out there are afraid. Some are rightfully afraid because their environment is not as supportive as mine -- within the city, outside the city, everywhere you go."

    She was surprised when she heard what the staff had proposed. She hadn't heard city workers demanding such protections and benefits. She has marched on Washington and she served on an advisory board on sexual orientation policies at the University of South Florida. She has even thought about trying to broach the subject with the city.

    "I didn't have the guts to do it," she said.

    She hopes it will stand by the idea, and that other governments might follow suit.

    Harper, for one, has made up his mind.

    "If supporting the human rights ordinance would cause me not to be elected again, I'd rather not be elected," he said.

    He has lived in Largo all his life. He thinks the community has been ready for this for years. "I can read the signs on the wall as well as anyone," he said. Community leaders, businesses and religious leaders are ready, he said.

    "They're demanding a new Largo," he said. "And it's coming."

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