Transgendered witnesses Kal Rocket(left) and Ellyahanna Hall meet with media after Wednesday's committee session.
In a General Government committee meeting Wednesday which saw mixed results in the matter of defining residency requirements for sitting commissioners, the Shelby County Commission gave preliminary approval to another carry-over matter — that of explicitly including gays and transgendered persons within the compass of the Commission’s formal non-discrimination policy.
A resolution that Commissioner Steve Mulroy succeeded in getting passed in 2009 had barred discrimination against employees on the basis of “non-merit factors.” On Wednesday, Mulroy tried again, with the help of two transgendered witnesses — Kal Rocket (aka Kal Dwight), who had made the passage from female to male, and Ellyahanna Hall, whose gender-identify change was from male to female.
Both had undergone surgery to complete the change of gender, and both, as Rocket testified to the Commission, had also completed a full agenda of approved counseling. The two also told the commissioners of various difficulties they had encountered in social and employment situations and in complying with a unique Tennessee statute that allows a change of name on state-recognized official forms and documents but prohibits a change in the gender that appears on one’s birth certificate.
That circumstance made it necessary to make verbal explanations in applying for jobs and in other formal situations, said Hall, adding, “ I always carry my papers with me” She said her current job was a comfortable fit, but her preceding one had not been one because of the gender issue.
After a debate in which only two commissioners, Republicans Chris Thomas and Terry Roland, demurred (with Roland saying that he was not biased but followed what he saw as the will of God ad was against giving anyone “special status”), the committee approved the newly changed resolution 5-2.
If approved by the full Commission on Monday, the county’s non-discrimination policy will now read (with added language indicated by italics) as follows:
"There shall be no discrimination in the County employment or personnel or in the promotion or demotion of County employees because of religion, race, color, sex, creed, national origin, political affiliation, age, handicap, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, familial association(s), or other non-merit factors.
• Residency issue
; In a wide-ranging debate that skirted the edge of the recent Henri Brooks controversy and, a time or two, plunged directly into it, the General Government Committee approved one resolution by Mulroy establishing “guidelines” for determining the validity of commissioners’ residence and rejected another, which would have required a “residency certification form” to be completed by all Commission members.
During the debate, committee chair Justin Ford, whose own residence has at times been an issue, discreetly stepped aside, allowing Commissioner Mike Ritz to moderate. The change was efficacious, in the sense that Ritz is known for keeping a tight rein on debate, especially when it produces controversy.
And there was some — mainly coming from Commissioner Walter Bailey, who was a stout ally of Commissioner Brooks during all the recent hearings, on and off the Commission, regarding whether Brooks’ seat should be vacated because of her apparent non-residency in her district.
Bailey made the flat assertion that the Commission had “no authority” to prescribe such guidelines, citing a ruling made last month by Chancellor Kenny Armstrong striking down the action by County Attorney Marcy Ingram of declaring Brooks’ seat vacant after an investigation and preparing the way for Commission action to name someone else to the seat. He said he proposed resolution smacked of a “witch hunt.”
After a good bit of back-and-forth between Ingram and Commissioners Bailey, Mulroy, and others, the kernel of Armstrong’s ruling, which had been that the County Commission, rather than Ingram, was the appropriate “tribunal” to declare a seat vacant, and which was apparently at variance with Bailey’s interpretation, was ultimately accepted.
In the debate, Commissioner Roland voiced his disdain for arguments that “it doesn’t matter where you live.” If that were so, he asked, “Why do we have districts?”
On the matter of the resolution’s wording, Commissioner Sidney Chism cited what he saw as the ill treatment he’d received during a recent ethics complaint against him because of vague language in the county’s governing conflicts of interest (in his case, concerning federal wraparound funds which he’d voted ongoing to a day care center run by his family) and said the Commission should be in a position to make a decision.
Mulroy’s resolution, as originally written, applied the “sleep test” (i.e., where one customarily domiciled for the night), but Commissioner Heidi Shafer objected to that as “overthinking” and too controlling and argued instead for evidence, in the form of utility bills and the like, similar to that used by Shelby County Schools and other districts in determining students’ residence.
Mulroy agreed to accept the amended language suggested by Shafer, and the resolution received a favorable recommendation by a 5-2 vote.
The other resolution by Mulroy regarding a certification form was not as happily received, with Commissioner Thomas, on one hand, calling it a “great idea” and citing the actual incidence of “dishonest” representations of residency and Bailey denouncing such allegations as “outrageous.”
In the end, he committee’s recommendation was negative, by a vote of 3 to 5, with Commission chairman James Harvey pointedly abstaining.
Both resolutions will be acted on again on Monday. It remains to be seen if Brooks, who was the unspoken focus of Wednesday’s debate, will be present for that meeting, which will be the final one for her and several other term-limited commissioners. Brooks has not attended a Commission meeting since it became an acknowledged fact that her seat would not be legally vacated.