Columbus--Complaining that the panel �is discriminating against gays,� the Ohio Senate�s top Democrat has resigned her position on the Capitol Square Advisory and Review Board.
Senate minority leader C.J. Prentiss of Cleveland stormed out of the October 19 meeting in protest after the board rejected her proposal 5-5, mostly along party lines, to add sexual orientation to the non-discrimination clauses in two contracts it awarded. According to the board�s rules, tie votes are defeats.
The 13-member board oversees the day-to-day operation and historical preservation of the Ohio Statehouse and its grounds. It meets quarterly and is comprised of past legislators, Senate and House leaders, and individuals representing government agencies and the public.
Prentiss proposed to add sexual orientation to what she called a �laundry list� of other categories protected from discrimination in two contracts the board was considering. These were with the Headwaters Group, an art history consultant; and Shane�s Gourmet Market and Catering, which runs the Capitol Caf� and caters Statehouse events.
The approved contracts require the companies to protect employees from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, national origin, and ancestry. The contract for the caterer, which employs many people, also includes Vietnam-era veteran status.
These two contracts were the first approved this year, according to Prentiss, whose tenure on the board began in January.
�This was the first time we had a chance to weigh in on this, on actual contracts before us,� said Prentiss.
Before the October 19 vote, Prentiss made a motion to amend the contracts to include sexual orientation. It was seconded by House Democratic Leader Chris Redfern of Catawba Island, and was immediately met with opposition from Senate President Bill Harris of Ashland, a Republican.
Harris wanted to know what Prentiss� motive for the change was, and if such wording was legal.
Prentiss pressed that protecting gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination was the right thing to do. Assistant Attorney General Martin Susec, who advises the board, said, �It is the option of the body as to what additional language you put in them.�
After little discussion, the board�s chair, former Senate President Richard Finan, called for a vote.
Joining Prentiss in favor of the motion were Redfern, Marian Vance of the Ohio Historical Society, Larry C. Sowers, who represents the public at large, and Sandra Drabnik, with the Ohio Building Authority.
Joining Harris against it were Finan, Roger B. Booker, who represents the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, House Clerk Laura Clemens and Senate Clerk David Bottocletti.
House Speaker Jon Husted, former House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, both Republicans, and Susan Sofia, who represents the Ohio Arts Council, were not present.
Immediately after the vote, Prentiss accused the five of being �prejudiced,� saying that among that board it was okay to discriminate against gays
She then resigned �in disgust� and stormed out of the meeting.
�If this was a question of race, it wouldn�t even be an issue,� said Prentiss. �I am not going to be a part of a discriminatory board that conducts business in such an offensive manner.�
Prentiss pointed out that the Senate�s employee handbook states: �The Senate does not discriminate against applicants or employees in its employment practices on the basis of age, race, color, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, or disability.�
That language was adopted under Finan�s leadership.
Harris� spokesperson Maggie Ostrowski said Harris believes that, regardless of what the assistant attorney general said, the proper way to change the contract language is through the legislature, not the Capitol Square board.
�When the Senate contracts, it uses the standard language [without sexual orientation],� said Ostrowski.
�If [Sen. Prentiss] wants to offer a bill that would do that, it would be considered,� said Ostrowski.
Last year, Sen. Dan Brady, a Cleveland Democrat, introduced legislation to do just that. Senate Bill 77 was killed by Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Civil Law after only sponsor testimony.
That committee was then chaired by Republican David Goodman of Columbus, who also chairs it this term.
Harris became Senate president in January, replacing Doug White.
Ostrowski says Harris has a policy of all bills getting a hearing. However, when pressed, she conceded that means only sponsor testimony.
�[Harris] will commit that the bill would get the same open hearing process the others would get,� said Ostrowski, but it would be up to the sponsor to convince the committee to act on it.
�Senator Harris gives committee chairs wide discretion on the rest,� said Ostrowski.
State Rep. Dale Miller, a Cleveland Democrat, introduced a GLBT-inclusive non-discrimination bill in the House both last year and this year: House Bill 28. It has sat in the House Civil and Commercial Law Committee without action.
Redfern said Senate Democrats will appoint someone to fill Prentiss� place on the board, and that he is certain that the issue will come up again.
�I will make the motion,� said Redfern.
�It�s common for people to bring up contract changes,� said Redfern, �and I will bring this up every time we get a chance to approve contract language.�
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