Boca Raton Expands Health Insurance Benefits, Updates Discrimination Policy
More than seven years after human rights advocate Rand Hoch first asked the Boca Raton City Council to protect its LGBT employees, he can finally claim victory.
Hoch, the president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, started lobbying the Boca City Council in 2006 to update its 47-year-old anti-discrimination policy, and extend the same health insurance benefits to employees with domestic partners, just like the city already offered to employees with opposite-sex partners. Hoch claimed City Manager Leif Ahnell refused his requests at the time. But on Sep. 10, the city council voted 4-1 to update its policy and extend its health insurance benefits.
Between Hoch’s first request seven years ago and the city’s vote to expand equality this September, in January 2011 the city council voted to opt-out of a Palm Beach County Equal Employment Ordinance, which protected its LGBT employees from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
"No city resident asked for this invidious action to be taken," said Hoch, who credited Ahnell and City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser with the prejudiced legal maneuver in a press release.
Back then, Boca Deputy Mayor Susan Haynie told the Sun Sentinel the decision was not about civil rights.
"We feel very strong that ... it’s not necessary to impose the county’s rules on us," Haynie said. Hoch told a city council community relations board in March 2013 that this had never been done before.
"There is no record of any elected officials, anywhere in the United States of America, who have opted out of any civil rights laws in this century, and perhaps longer," Hoch said.
But during the vote to expand equal protection and insurance benefits for the city’s LGBT employees, however, Haynie, who is now a 2014 mayoral candidate, took a different position.
"I think it’s the right thing to do," Haynie said.
One Boca resident did not agree with her. Bill Whiting, a 32-year Boca resident who attended the meeting, asked the council members to resist favoring discrimination protection and health insurance benefits for the city’s LGBT employees.
"These changes, which have been pressed on the community by an out-of-town, elitist, political lobby, seem to expand an entitlement to a small group who identify themselves by their sexual preferences," Whiting said. "As far as I can tell, there is no civic benefit to justify this unfunded entitlement expansion."
Whiting called it "just a coincidence," that his house was egged after he emailed city council members with his opinion about the changes. He called it the "first such vandalism" he’s experienced in 32 years of being a Boca resident.
"This isn’t an issue about fairness or human rights," Whiting said. "It’s an attempt to pervert an age-old reverence for families that’s universally recognized as a cornerstone to society. I urge you to uphold that principle."
City Council member Constance Scott disagreed with Whiting’s interpretation of the changes.
"With pride and respect for the City of Boca Raton employees and someone who was not unduly influenced or pressured, I’m proud to bring forward these ordinances," Scott said before motioning to bring the changes to a vote. Haynie backed Scott. Then the motion was approved 4-1, with City Council member Anthony Mahjess supporting the policy update, but not the expansion of domestic partner health insurance benefits.
"What would normally be a benefit to marriage will now be provided to any two people living together," Mahjess said. "While I understand Ms. Scott’s motivation to find a way to accommodate the LGBT employees, this avenue is too broad-brushed."
In October 2012, more than a year after Boca became the only city to opt-out of its county’s Equal Employment Ordinance, Rand Hoch launched a media campaign called "Boca Bigots Run City Hall," to spotlight the city’s decision to reject a $235,000 contract from the Palm Beach County Commission to clean up hazardous waste materials. The city tried rejecting the contract, according to Hoch, because "the agreement granting the funds included language requiring the city of Boca Raton to represent that it treated employees equally without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression."
But the Palm Beach County Commission gave Boca 60 days to accept the money, and agree to protecting its LGBT employees as much as its other employees, or lose the funding. So the city accepted the contract and money, but was only willing to protect LGBT employees working under the hazardous waste materials contract.
Around this time, Assistant City Manager Mike Woika compared LGBT equality to pet lovers’ rights, while City Council member Constance Scott started asking Ahnell and her fellow council members what prevented them from moving into the 21st century.
One year later, Hoch’s patience became its own reward.
"Good things come to those who wait," Hoch said. "And the lesbian, gay and gender nonconforming employees of the City of Boca Raton have been waiting for a long, long, time."