FAIRMONT, W.Va. — The great debate over a seemingly benign Human Rights Commission didn’t simply play out in the more civil and public forum of the Fairmont City Council chambers on a mild Tuesday night in September.
“I do sincerely think there’s a lot being read into this that really is not there,” Mayor Thomas Mainella said following Tuesday’s meeting.
Rather, there was an enormous, roaring debate that occurred on social media in the weeks in between the ordinance’s passage on first reading and it’s September 12 passage on second reading.
“This council was befuddled and confused,” Allen Whitt of the WV Family Policy Council said. “And there are about four activists on this council. There was no changing their minds, and we knew that for a couple weeks.”
What caused that debate, precisely? Mayor Thomas Mainella said it was a concern that the Human Rights Commission ordinance, which included additional language protecting members of the LGBTQ community by sexual orientation and gender identity, was actually secretly masquerading as a bill that would permit those who identify as transgender into private, traditionally gender-oriented spaces like public single-sex bathrooms, dressing rooms, and showers.
“They were indoctrinated by the Family Policy Council to use the bathroom issue as the hot button,” Mainella said. “And it was the hot button for most of the people who called me.”
When that debate finally ended — or at least found resolution — in the Fairmont City Council chambers Tuesday night, it included a number of divisions among religious and business leaders, property owners, students, professors, and rank-and-file citizens. It had the endorsement of the Marion County Chamber of Commerce, but at least one public speaker noted that the support of the voters in that body hadn’t been unanimous.
“It actually made a Human Rights Commission that probably, typically in other communities garners very little attention, now will actually be utilized and engaged in a way that it probably wouldn’t beforehand,” Andrew Schneider of Fairness West Virginia said following Tuesday’s meeting. “If it weren’t for all the people who came out, no one would probably know about this Human Rights Commission. So, I think it’s very positive all around.
The final vote wasn’t unanimous. Two of the nine council members dissented from the majority. That, in and of itself, offered some degree of surprise for it’s supporters both in the audience and on council. How exactly did an ordinance establishing a non-authoritative commission become a great roaring debate over a ‘bathroom bill’ similar to what was passed in North Carolina last year?
“There had to be something set up by the Family Policy Council that was controversial more so than what is actually in the Human Rights Commission ordinance,” Mainella said. “And that’s what they chose to do with it.”
Eventually, that friction led to a showdown between Mainella and Allen Whitt, the Executive Director of the conservative Family Policy Council. Whitt spoke to Council during the procession of 86 public speakers. In that time, he displayed notes from a phone conversation he had with a Marion County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney. Whitt said he and the Attorney, T.J. Hodges, had combed through a number of scenarios that could or couldn’t lead to the arrest of a man or woman using a gender oriented space meant for the opposite sex.
“15 or so minutes, and we went through various scenarios of when a male in a private space typically reserved for women would be arrested,” Whitt said.
And, according to Whitt, he was told a man “undressing” in a bathroom, or shower, or dressing room was a scenario that would not lead to prosecution. Then, after all the public speakers finished, Mainella called Whitt back into the chamber. At that point, Mainella claimed to have received a text from T.J. Hodges, who disputed Whitt’s characterization of their conversation. Mainella then ordered Whitt to leave the chamber.
“I expected that,” Whitt said. “The mayor’s a hot head. I knew when I pointed out by reading to him my notes from a phone call earlier in the day that the mayor would be embarrassed and he wouldn’t be able to handle that.”
“I’m really sincerely sorry that happened the way it did,” Mainella said. “His time was up. You know, he needed to sit down. If he would’ve, he wouldn’t have gotten thrown out of the building like he did.”
Among the 86 public speakers, 51 offered their opposition to the ordinance. Andrew Schneider doesn’t believe that was a fair representation; neither does Whitt for that matter, but for very different reasons.
“I think if you were to follow the advice of some of the opponents in the room who said ‘subject to this to a referendum,’ I believe the majority people in Fairmont would have endorsed a Human Rights Commission,” Schneider said. “And you will see that reflected by the votes in the next City Council election.”
Whitt said it was Council’s mismanagement of the situation that resulted in a smaller turnout for his side.
“Some of the opponents of the ordinance were here since 8 a.m. Tuesday morning standing on the concrete all day long,” Whitt said. “Twelve hours before the meeting began because the city would not explain whether or not someone was going to speak if they weren’t inside.”
Mainella said he wasn’t afraid of the apparent backlash — nearly 60 percent of the speakers opposed the ordinance. He said he was more concerned about how 60 percent could believe this ordinance was a “bathroom bill.”
Whether the concerns of the opposition will ever be alleviated, perhaps only time will tell. Mainella said he won’t be apologizing to anyone.
“I think Council did the right thing, and I’ll think that forever,” Mainella said.
The 34 people who voiced their support for the ordinance Tuesday night, for now, can breathe easy.
“We’re not done yet,” Allen Whitt warned ominously. “Nothing may have happened tonight, and in a couple of days that will make more sense.”