Sexual orientation is again stirring up controversy for the Pierce County Council. This time, the debate centers on a proposed proclamation supporting Out in the Park, a celebration of the South Sound’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community Saturday in Tacoma.
Proclamations – in which government leaders go on record to support an event or group – rarely face opposition. Elected officials approve dozens every year. It usually takes about five minutes to rubber-stamp the mostly ceremonial items.
But that wasn’t the case this week, when a majority of the Pierce County Council rejected adding the Out in the Park proclamation to its meeting agenda, thus preventing it from coming to a vote. The amendment failed 4-3 on Tuesday, with Chairman Terry Lee and council members Shawn Bunney, Dick Muri and Roger Bush casting the “no” votes. They’re all Republicans.
The rejection by Pierce County leaders – who last year voted 4-3 to extend health benefits to domestic partners of county employees – caught council members Calvin Goings and Tim Farrell by surprise. They, along with Councilwoman Barbara Gelman, voted to amend the agenda. All are Democrats.
Goings and Farrell blasted their counterparts. As a Pierce County elected leader who is gay, Farrell was approached by event organizers to add the proclamation to the agenda.
“I’m embarrassed,” Goings said. “This is a sad, low day for the County Council, that we wouldn’t give you a chance to celebrate who you are and stand against discrimination of all forms.”
But Lee said the proclamation was presented shortly before the meeting. County leaders have an internal policy not to vote on such late items, he said, because they don’t have time to study what they’re proclaiming and there’s no input from the public.
Lee said the backlash is an attempt by some county leaders to play politics during an election year. Goings and Bunney are squaring off for county executive. “I think it’s unfair because, if you want to be accurate, we should have had that proclamation a week beforehand,” Lee said.
The inaction sparked calls of discrimination from gay and lesbian groups throughout the South Sound.
“I find it difficult to understand what the downside is to acknowledging the humanity and dignity” of the GLBT community, said Duane Wilkerson, executive director of the Pierce County AIDS Foundation.
It’s difficult to determine exactly how many local governments have passed resolutions supporting gay pride celebrations, but Joshua Friedas, executive director with the group Equal Rights Washington, said it’s fairly standard.
“It’s a fairly good barometer of whether local governments are treating their citizens with equality and respect,” he said Wednesday.
Shelly Maas is co-chairwoman for Out in Tacoma, the volunteer group that’s organizing Saturday’s pride celebration, now in its 11th year. She said the council members who didn’t vote for the move appeared disinterested in what she and other event advocates had to say.
“I honestly didn’t think it was going to be a big deal to get a proclamation, because all a proclamation is is a well-wishing for an event,” she said, noting that Tacoma issued a proclamation.
Muri suggested gay advocates at this week’s meeting act on their frustration by voting out incumbents in this year’s elections. He also said his vote was “nothing personal” to them.
Goings said he will attend Saturday’s festival and apologize for the council’s inaction. Bunney couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
Unlike Lee, Goings didn’t chalk up the debate to politics.
“This should be a wake-up call to all progressive Pierce County residents,” he said. “There is still a bastion of intolerance in Pierce County.”
Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653