In a uniquely forward-thinking move at its meeting on October 2, 2023, the Saline City Council voted unanimously to update and enhance its nondiscrimination ordinance, first enacted in 2018. The change stems from the city council’s previous request to, “assemble a working group to review the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance,” said City Manager Colleen O’Toole.

O’Toole, who chaired the working group, provided an overview of the proposed amendment to begin the discussion. According to her remarks and a draft version of the amended ordinance included as part of the council’s meeting packet, there are three categories of changes to the 2018 version. Those include updating and adding groups or statuses protected against discrimination, updating the process for receiving and processing a discrimination complaint, and updating common definitions.

Other members of the working group were Councilperson Dean Girbach, City Assessor Jacob Sutton and Kerstin Woodside, chair of Saline’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.

Regarding updated groups or statuses, there are very few. Age has always been a protected status but the language was updated to read “perceived age” rather than just ‘age.’ This helps protect those who may be discriminated against because they ‘appear’ or are perceived by others as older or younger than they are.

Similarly, while martial status has always been a protected class, the amendment has been reworded simply to further specify “familial status” in addition to “marital status.” This helps protect individuals who provide care for minor children. Finally, protection for military and veteran status was added. This means no resident can be discriminated against related to their military or veteran status.

As far as updating definitions, this is a common practice for any ordinance. As Mayor Brian Marl said, “I think this approach is indicative of a best standard and when we have ordinances and regulations we shouldn’t just view them as antiquated dictums that just sit on a desk collecting dust and are never reviewed, or modified, or improved.”

The biggest change to the ordinance is related to how reported violations will be received, investigated and adjudicated. Currently, complaints are directed to Saline’s City Manager, who has singular authority over the entire process–from receipt to resolution. The approved amendment calls for the establishment of a Human Rights Commission that will take over this area of responsibility from the City Manager.

The Human Rights Commission will be comprised of members of City Council, members of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and city staff, all of whom will be appointed by their respective bodies. There are many benefits to this redesigned process but the most noteworthy is upgraded transparency and accountability.

Rather than having only a single person responsible for every aspect of all complaints, the commission will ensure that multiple people will be aware of and responsible for the processing of any reported complaints. This will make it much more difficult to hide, ignore, or otherwise unfairly arbitrate reported violations. The by-laws for the newly established Human Rights Commission can be found in the October 2, 2023 meeting packet, and are largely based on the by-laws in place for the Ethics Committee.

Though the amendment passed unanimously and there were no public comments made during the meeting, it seems not everyone in Saline is supportive of the change, with some in a Saline Facebook group alleging this could be used by the city, “to silence people that have different opinions and/or dissenting views on subjects.” It’s unclear how those who disagree with the update expect the change to silence opinions since discrimination–as defined in the ordinance and in state and federal laws–is already illegal.

Regarding the establishment of a Human Rights Commission, City Manager O’Toole said, “There is precedence for this, this was reviewed by legal counsel and found to be quite sound.” Chair of Saline’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, Kerstin Woodside underscored this point when she said she wanted to “… acknowledge the fact that the city of Chelsea did help us a lot with this. We modeled a lot of this off the work they did.”

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