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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Feb. 9, 201712:00 PM EST

Gulliford likely to seek HRO referendum at Tuesday's City Council meeting

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by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

It appears the latest chapter in Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance story that started nearly five weeks ago could end Tuesday.

Maybe.

Three City Council committees — Finance, Rules and Neighborhood, Community Investment & Services — voted this week to send Ordinance 2017-15 to the council as a whole.

If enacted, it would expand the city’s anti-discrimination law to include members of the LGBT community, based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Council members Aaron Bowman, Tommy Hazouri and Jim Love introduced the latest legislation Jan. 4.

Since then, the debate has centered on many of the issues that surrounded similar proposals in 2012 — which was defeated by a 10-9 vote — and in 2015 when a bill protecting the rights of LGBT people was withdrawn before it was put to a vote.

When the proposed ordinance was taken up Wednesday by the Finance Committee, council member Bill Gulliford offered an amendment that would put the question to the voters in a referendum in August 2018.

Gulliford said he has received hundreds of emails from constituents who wanted to voice their opinion on the issue and it looks to him like a nearly even split.

“To me, it’s (a referendum) the only way,” he said. “Since it affects so many people, it makes sense to put it out there.”

Citing the discussion about expanding rights protection that started in 2012, Gulliford said he’s convinced that no matter what the full council does Tuesday, the debate likely will continue.

“If you think simply passing this ordinance will end it, you’re wrong. Put it on the ballot and be done with it,” he said.

Putting the question up for a popular vote — and putting off a decision on HRO for 18 months until the midterm election — isn’t a path Bowman could support.

“It would hang over our heads for a year and a half. It will get us an incredible amount of attention we don’t need,” he said.

Council member Sam Newby joined Gulliford and Matt Schellenberg in supporting a referendum.

“I trust the people of Jacksonville to make the right decision,” Newby said.

When Gulliford contended council already voted on the proposal in 2012, Hazouri pointed out that was a different council.

“The bill was not debated in 2012 by 11 of us,” he said.

Hazouri said council was elected to consider and vote on issues, such as the HRO, and added, “We should vote our conscience, our heart and what’s right for the city.”

The people voted when they elected the council in 2015, said Love.

“We have a responsibility as City Council members to do the right thing and move the city forward,” he said.

Schellenberg, addressing comments that failing to enact human rights protection for LGBT people harms the city’s economic development, said he’s not sure that’s the case.

“Companies that don’t come to Jacksonville — they don’t know us and they are discriminating against us,” he said. “We don’t need this bill to tell people that we’re wonderful people.”

After the committee voted 4-3 to send the ordinance for a vote Tuesday — with Gulliford, Newby and Schellenberg voting against it — Gulliford said he probably will introduce an ordinance that would require the HRO question be put on the ballot in 2018.

“We might as well take it all the way,” he said, but admitted there might not be any more support for a referendum among the full council than there was among members of the Finance Committee.

He also thinks the ordinance may have enough support to be enacted Tuesday.

“Right now, I think they’ve got the votes,” Gulliford said.

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