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Politics

In Bizarre Meeting, City Council Rebuffs General Assembly’s Overtures On Possible HB 2 Deal

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Tom Bullock
/
WFAE

Charlotte City Council last night was expected to cast a symbolic vote on whether to repeal recently-passed LGBT protections. Council approved those protections in February as part of an expansion of the city’s non-discrimination ordinance, but they were rendered moot by House Bill 2.

A symbolic repeal was portrayed as a way forward, a sign of good faith which would spur North Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature to modify House Bill 2.

But the vote was pulled from the council agenda at the last minute. End of story, right? Not even close.

Just minutes before the Council’s dinner meeting was to begin, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts did her best to explain the sudden removal of any discussion on Charlotte’s LGBT non-discrimination ordinance.

“We had several conversations over the weekend,” she said, her eyes darting back and forth to prepared remarks.

“We heard from a lot of people, we got a lot of input and feedback and we concluded that a discussion of House Bill 2 by the city council would not be helpful in advancing a solution to the ongoing challenges.”

For the record, the measure was only added to the agenda Monday afternoon, and then removed a few hours later. People were itching for a fight. However, since the LGBT vote had been scuttled, only 10 people would be allowed to address the council.

And all those who spoke on this particular issue, save one, cheered on the council for not giving an inch to lawmakers in the fight for LGBT rights. Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, was one of them.

“Thank you for continuing to stand up and stand your ground today by defending the equal rights and equal dignity of all LGBT people.”

The one vocal dissenter was Phil Behnam, an evangelical preacher from Concord. He tried to address the council after the public comment time had expired.

“I’m asking you to repent for what you have done to our city,” he kept repeating.

“Do you hear me? Do you hear me speaking? I’m going to have to ask the officer to remove you from our chamber. You are disrupting our meeting,” Roberts told him.

Two officers then escorted the preacher out of the council chamber. And that, it seemed, would be the extent of the House Bill 2 fireworks at the meeting.

The audience evaporated as the council went on with the decidedly mundane acts of running a city. They made appointments to committees, called on citizens to obey posted speed limits and to not throw trash out their car windows.

With the business of the night seemingly concluded, council members began putting their belongings in bags and purses. Then Republican Kenny Smith, who represents parts of South Charlotte, decided to bring up what wasn’t suppose to be brought up at this night.

“I would like to put forth a motion,” he said, “drafting a resolution that affirms our values that our city opposes discrimination and an ordinance that will clean up our code book, taking items that have been invalidated by the North Carolina General Assembly off the books.”

Translation – vote to repeal Charlotte’s LGBT ordinance that the Republicans in the General Assembly say led to House Bill 2 in the first place.

The response, at first, was a stunned silence. It took a moment for Mayor Roberts to gather her thoughts.

“Ok, discussion of the motion. It’s kind of an odd time in the agenda to do this but…” Roberts awkwardly said.

Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield was happy to break that silence.

“The moment our general assembly passed this legislation was null and void. It was rescinded. There was nothing else for us to do on the Charlotte City Council.”

But lawmakers in Raleigh disagree. And they’ve been trying to work out a deal with a breakaway group of Charlotte City Council members, namely Republicans Ed Driggs and Kenny Smith, as well as Democrats Vi Lyles and James Mitchell.

Here’s the thrust of the deal: With the economic impact of House Bill 2 boycotts mounting, some in the General Assembly seem to be looking for a way to save political face. They may be willing to modify House Bill 2 but only if Charlotte acts fist by repealing its ordinance. It’s a move that makes sense to Councilman Ed Driggs.

“We should be really interested in finding any way that we can relieve the pain of North Carolina and Charlotte and if it means a few people have to swallow their pride than I think that our responsibility to the city should make us willing to do that,” Driggs said.

But the council and the public don’t know how House Bill 2 would be modified, which Councilman Al Austin pointed out.

“I would not support any wink, nod or any other thing that they’re requesting us to do. I don’t know why Charlotte has to do anything.”

A symbolic gesture is the “surest pathway to build trust” with lawmakers, countered Smith.

There was a lot of back and forth. Even though the ordinance is already invalid, Smith said a vote to repeal would show lawmakers “they have a partner in Charlotte.”

Republican Councilman Ed Driggs added, “At some point you’ve got to look a little further down the road and you’ve got to say, How do we end the bleeding? And how do we not get into a contest we can’t win with the General Assembly? There is nothing at stake here. There is no ordinance. This is just about us saying “no” to them. And congratulations. Go ahead and say no and see what happens.”

That threat fell flat for Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield. She had some advice for the General Assembly.

“Grow up, do your job. Fix the mess that you made instead of looking to the city of Charlotte, which was expanding our ordinance to protect our people. I would gladly consider it if you would get something in Raleigh stating what they plan to do as opposed to having private conversations with them about what they might do.”

In the end, the council voted 7-4 against putting a vote on the agenda for this Wednesday’s budget meeting.

After the vote, Smith filled in some of the blanks of what lawmakers were offering. Though he would not go into specifics, he said there was a lot on the table and there would have been a way for Charlotte to make sure the General Assembly came through, such as “making our recension effective June 30th to allow time for the state to uphold their commitments that had occurred during some private conversations.”

But one person’s compromise is another person’s capitulation.

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