SANDPOINT — Even the smallest town can provide an example for the rest of the state.
The sentiment proved amply true for Sandpoint this year.
In December 2011, Sandpoint became the first Idaho city to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance prohibiting discrimination to housing, employment, commercial property and the use of public accommodations on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. The ordinance has proven influential for other Idaho cities — most notably Boise, where council members passed their own version of the ordinance this month.
Several other Idaho towns, including Pocatello and Ketchum, are considering similar measures.
According to former council member John Reuter, who introduced the issue for council discussion, the ordinance was a labor of love on the part of several city officials and residents.
“The core reason behind the ordinance was the basic principle that when we can step up and stop discrimination, we have an obligation to do so,” he said.
The idea was born from conversations Reuter had with residents who described the difficulties of being gay in a small town. He also recalled reported instances of discrimination with serious consequences. In one case, an individual was assaulted at a bar as a result of his sexuality. In another, a family moved away because of the constant bullying a gay student suffered in school.
“I think the biggest issue was a silent fear people lived in,” Reuter said. “People were concerned about losing their jobs, their homes or their lives.”
After conversations with former mayor Gretchen Hellar and Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce president Kate McAlister, Reuter brought the matter to the Administration Committee for discussion last October. Members decided to pursue the issue, asking Reuter to work with City Attorney Scot Campbell in fashioning the ordinance.
According to Campbell, the key in designing the ordinance centered on establishing a diplomatic tone between parties. Rather than simply hitting an individual accused of discrimination with a citation, Campbell and Reuter set up a governing body — the Human Relations Review Board — that would consider complaints and attempt to mediate between parties.
“Our intent was that this not just be something the city was telling you to do,” Campbell said. “We wanted to make sure there was a group of citizens reviewing these things.”
In the Sandpoint ordinance, citations only came into play if negotiations between the review board and the parties broke down. At that point, city staff could determine whether or not to pursue further action. In the event of legal action, a citation would be considered a misdemeanor. By contrast, the newly-adopted Boise ordinance uses an enforcement mechanism similar to other citable offenses. According to Campbell, this is probably due to Boise’s much larger size and the possibility for more cases.
Of course, there were other considerations, particularly in connection to Sandpoint’s church-going community. According to Reuter, he saw the ordinance as a means to protect everyone, and that included people who had religious qualms with homosexuality.
“We had several meetings to hash out how we would put in the religious provisions,” Reuter said.
The ordinance’s structure met the approval of city council members, who noted that no one attended any council meetings to speak against the proposal. Members passed the anti-discrimination ordinance unanimously on Dec. 21, 2011. Since that time, only one complaint has been filed. The matter is under consideration by the review board and the city’s legal staff.
Reuter sees the ordinance as reflective of Sandpoint’s pioneering history in respect to civil rights. The town adopted Martin Luther King Jr., Day well before it became a national holiday, and according to Reuter, this is another step in the right direction.
“This is a part of our heritage as a city,” he said. “It says a lot that the council and mayor stood up unanimously to do what was right.”