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Will Park Hills Be Kentucky's 10th City with a Fairness Ordinance?

There are nine cities in Kentucky that have adopted human rights - or fairness - ordinances aimed to protect minority groups. In January, Paducah became the ninth city and the first in western Kentucky to take up such an ordinance. In Northern Kentucky, only Covington has such an ordinance, adopted in 2003.

Park Hills is poised to be next.

City council hosted a panel of experts on the topic Monday night as it mulls the possibility of adding a human rights commission.

The panel featured Covington city solicitor Frank Warnock, human rights specialist John C.K. Fisher of the Kentucky Human Rights Commission, Rev. Don Smith of the Covington Human Rights Commission, and Bonnie Meyer, the director of LGBTQ Programs & Services at Northern Kentucky University.

Meyer sat in for Butch Callery, the Villa Hills mayor who was mayor of Covington when its human rights ordinance was adopted fifteen years ago.

She said Park Hills has the opportunity to take a stand and declare itself to be an inclusive community. When people ask her for a recommendation on where to live in Northern Kentucky, she encourages them to look at Covington because of its protective ordinance.

"What matters is that we are all allies," she said.

Smith worked to get Covington to adopt its human rights ordinance and cited his ministerial background in saying that the most important task for people is to love God with all one's heart and soul, and the second most important is to love one's neighbor as one's self.

Warnock has helped craft Covington's ordinance and offered advice to Park Hills from a legal standpoint.

"Ours is lengthy, you can access it online," Warnock said. "You should consider being creative with it, keep it simple and basic, and you don't have to look to the punitive aspects. There are ways to provide incentives. Try to look at the educational side."

Fisher used an example from the Covington Human Rights Commission: a developer and built new apartments, and a woman who uses a wheelchair asked if they were handicapped accessible. The developer said that they were but it was later discovered that the showers in the units were not large enough for a wheelchair-bound person and a caregiver.

The developer had not considered that issue, Fisher said, but with a commission in the city, there is a forum to discuss these issues.

He said that just because the public may not hear about a problem doesn't mean that a problem doesn't exist. 

Mayor Matt Mattone set up the public forum on Monday night ahead of the regular city council caucus meeting because there was disagreement last fall about whether a human rights ordinance was necessary in Park Hills. The conversation was triggered by debate over a resident's bumper sticker that suggested that marriage was only between one man and one woman, which is no longer correct now that same-sex marriage is legal across the U.S.

"It started with a misunderstanding about a bumper sticker," Mattone said. "People felt that they were threatened. I thought like we needed a venue to communicate with each other, and to find out what it could mean for Park Hills if we passed an ordinance like this."

The mayor acknowledged the skepticism about the need for the ordinance, but said that everyone in town has in common the fact that they chose to live in Park Hills, and that the ordinance offered an opportunity to declare that the city was welcoming and inclusive.

Lawrence Flick, a resident, was concerned about costs associated with the creation of an ordinance since Park Hills is facing fiscal challenges.

"I'm against this because of the money and because of the outstanding liability," he said.

Mark Koenig also spoke up.

"I have lived here 47 years," he said. "I was watching people at Reality Tuesdays and seeing the grand diversity of people, and I thought, this is what Park Hills is. Most people have nothing but respect for each other. I think actions speak louder than words."

Another person who lives in Cincinnati but has businesses in Kentucky wanted to know how many incidents other than the bumper sticker the city has had.

Fisher said one incident is too many and Meyer agreed. She said people want to be in a place that supports them.

"If we are all so sure we get along, is it a problem to have a commission?," asked Mattone. "Is there a disadvantage to having a framework for addressing underlying conflicts in order to get along better?"

Council members Pam Spoor and Kathy Zembrodt talked about their neighborhoods, saying that they are diverse, and that people get along. Councilman Steve Elkins argued that if the city grouped people into categories, people wouldn't necessarily be thought of as individuals, and that might pit groups against groups.

Councilman Karl Oberjohn said that he didn't think it was fair to say that the city didn't need a human rights ordinance and Councilman  Jason Reser said that a commission would be a place to air feelings. He said it would help the lady whose car had the offending bumper sticker because after the reaction to the sticker, she became afraid and didn't feel safe. If the city had a human rights commission, she would have been able to work out the issue with neighbors, he said.

Mattone closed the session by saying 20 percent of the population of the city lives at or below the poverty level, amounting to about 600 voices that are never heard from because they work two jobs and can't participate. He said an ordinance and/or a human rights commission might be a vehicle to expand inclusiveness.  

He said the city of Park Hills is changing and he asked rhetorically, how is the city prepared to meet that change?

Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor
Photo: (L to R) Bonnie Meyer, Don Smith, Frank Warnock, and John C.K. Fisher (RCN)