Hot Springs is the latest Arkansas city at the forefront of a battle to provide legal protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation. The proposed ordinance, mirroring Little Rock’s recently passed measure applying to city employees and vendors, is being taken up Tuesday night.
City Director Becca Clark is leading the effort in the wake of a not-yet-in-effect state law banning local civil rights protections.
“People have been talking to me about this since I was elected but this really put some time limits around it. It really gave me a sense of urgency that we need to do something right now,” said Clark.
Republican Senator Bart Hester of Cave Springs crafted the state law curtailing local control in the aftermath of a short-lived, more-expansive Fayetteville ordinance. Clark says the Hot Springs ordinance would not run afoul of the state law barring local governments from adding discrimination protections not found in state law, since it is limited to city employees and contracts. But Clark said she’d still sponsor it either way.
“If it does and it comes to a court case then this will give us standing and I personally believe that it [state law] will be found unconstitutional anyway,” said Clark.
All of the state Representatives and Senators covering Hot Springs voted for the new law barring local anti-discrimination ordinances. All are Republicans, including Representative Bruce Cozart. In the Legislature he represents portions of Hot Springs but he resides outside of the city limits. Cozart will not be attending the city board meeting, “I try not to get too much into city business if I don’t have to.”
Cozart thinks the proposed ordinance conflicts with the 90th General Assembly’s new law.
“My big dilemma on this is that I thought we had a state law that took care of this, that they were not supposed to,” said Cozart. “Counties and cities should not be doing their own little thing. But if that’s what they want to do then I guess that’s what they want to do. I’m not going to stand in the way of local control.”
However, Cozart said he still supports legislation to ban local control over anti-discrimination measures not found in the state’s civil rights laws, such as adding gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes. He says it’s not needed.
“I’m going to stand on my moral beliefs. I’m not against everybody. I love all kinds of people and I know everybody’s a little different. You know, I’m different but I’m not different the way they are, as far as that. But I think everybody needs to be loved and taken for what they are. But I think there is a limit, sometimes on how far things get pushed. I don’t know want that is, but I think there is a limit,” said Cozart.
The city board has a different composition than the Legislature though and Clark says she’s only identified one opposition vote – Hot Springs Mayor Ruth Carney.
“One member has asked that we read it three different times. In other words, it would take six weeks to get to a vote and not allowing conversation or commentary during any of those readings."
Clark said she expects that effort, which she calls a delaying tactic, to fail. Cozart says he won’t be at the city board meeting but he would tell them to “slow down a little bit.” The Representative added, “I believe that’s what the mayor is doing.” KUAR has reached out unsuccessfully to Mayor Carney.
Clark said despite Carney’s opposition she is “fairly confident” it will pass. She said she personally prefers the measure be more expansive - to cover discrimination within both public and private accommodations, housing, and employment - rather than solely focusing on city employees and business that contract with it.
One of Arkansas’s other traditional tourist towns, Eureka Springs also has an ordinance aimed at giving protections to the city’s LGBT population. That was recently adopted and a referendum for repeal is underway. Clark said it would likely also be a supportive of Hot Springs tourism.
“As a side benefit I truly believe that Hot Springs, particularly as a tourism community, will benefit from this. I think people want to come to a city that they know is welcoming to everyone.”
But Clark said her impetus for crafting the resolution didn’t come from tourism or from advocacy groups like Human Rights Campaign Arkansas.
“I think it’s just the right thing to do. I think discrimination toward any segment of society really diminishes all of us. I just don’t see any need for people to be hurt because of who they are,” said Clark. “It’s about civility and fairness.”