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Lehigh County News

Sunshine Act concerns force Lehigh County commissioners to defer vote on non-discrimination bill

Jason Addy
Lehigh County commissioners on Tuesday deferred a vote on a non-discrimination ordinance until next month.

LEHIGH COUNTY, Pa. — Lehigh County commissioners hit the pause button Tuesday night before a planned vote on an extensive non-discrimination ordinance due to concerns any action would violate state law.

Board chair Geoff Brace said commissioners intended to make several changes to proposed amendments before voting on them and the bill Tuesday.

But the county’s legal department urged them to wait until their Dec. 6 meeting to ensure any changes could be properly advertised, as required by Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act.

The law requires public agencies to advertise the language of any legislation it intends to vote on at least 24 hours ahead of the vote, Brace said.

“We want to make sure we are above board in all ways doing this. We don’t want to hurt this ordinance at all by putting it out in an incorrect way or amending it in any incorrect way.”
Lehigh County Commissioner Zach Cole-Borghi

Six amendments were submitted and advertised Monday ahead of that deadline, but there were “conflicts or competing language” in some amendments that commissioners must iron out, Brace said.

Recent court decisions indicate the board cannot amend those amendments and vote on them the same day, Brace said, citing advice from the county’s legal team.

“I’m not sure we agree with that, but we're going to err on the side of caution in proceeding with this,” Brace said.

The legal concerns will delay the conversation until next month, Brace said, “but given the magnitude of this subject and the importance of what we're trying to enact here, I would hate to see a tripping point over whether we're allowed to modify amendments — published 24 hours in advance — be the reason why this ordinance can't be enacted or gets challenged six months down the line.”

“That would be a shame,” he said.

Commissioner Zach Cole-Borghi, who sponsored the bill, pushed for his colleagues to defer their vote until next month.

“We want to make sure we are above board in all ways doing this,” said Cole-Borghi. “We don’t want to hurt this ordinance at all by putting it out in an incorrect way or amending it in any incorrect way.”

Many, many amendments

Commissioners initially expected to discuss the non-discrimination ordinance at their Nov. 8 meeting, but they delayed that Tuesday night’s meeting after receiving amendments hours earlier.

Bill 54 would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, education, health care and public accommodations throughout Lehigh County.

The legislation would established new classes protected from discrimination based on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, religion, creed, national origin, ancestry and sex, including pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions.

The ordinance also protects residents from discrimination related to gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, genetic information, marital status, familial status, education, income sources, physical or mental disabilities, and their relationship or association with a disabled person.

Protections would also be expanded to prohibit discrimination related to age, height, weight, veteran status, citizenship or immigration status, use of guide or support animals and/or mechanical aids, or domestic or sexual violence victim status.

Lehigh County administration, headed by County Executive Phil Armstrong, proposed amendments Nov. 8 that would eliminate several protected classes from the ordinance.

County officials want to remove education and healthcare protections from the bill, as well as protections for independent contractors. Their amendment would also eliminate height and weight as protected classes.

Commissioners Bob Elbich, Jeffrey Dutt and Dan Hartzell have also proposed amendments to the non-discrimination ordinance.