Pittston to combat discrimination

June 27th, 2015 1:15 am

First Posted: 5/23/2013

It’s an effort to make Pittston more welcoming.

That’s why City Council will vote to form a city Human Relations Commission at a special meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The new group will investigate allegations of discrimination in employment, housing and other areas in Pittston.

According to a draft of the ordinance, all residents of Pittston, no matter race, color, sex, religion, ancestry, nationality, sexual orientation and gender identity, marriage and familial status, age, mental or physical disability, will be given equal opportunities for employment, housing and the use of public services.

Former mayor Michael Lombaro said the city is taking a progressive approach.

“A lack of understanding results in fear,” he said. “The face of the city is changing and if we don’t recognize that change, we can’t respond to our constituents. It’s a philosophical shift.”

The commission will consist of 7 to 15 members, always an odd number, who shall serve overlapping terms of three years each. Members will be appointed by City Council. The commission may elect three, nonvoting members to broaden the diversity of the group. Members shall be residents of Pittston or individuals who work full time within the city. No member may hold office in any political party.

No salary will be offered to members, but expenses will be paid when approved by council. Paid staff may be hired to assist in the performance of the duties of the commission. Council must approve the hiring.

Council will appoint a chairperson. That person will be responsible for setting meetings, coordinating with the Pittston City administrator regarding complaints and responses.

Councilman Michael Lombardo said the NEPA Rainbow Alliance approached the city about enacting such an ordinance.

“It’s just common sense,” he said. “We’re just giving everybody an equal opportunity.”

The alliance acts as an advocate of the area’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and allied community.

“The Rainbow Alliance and Equality Pennsylvania applaud the City of Pittston, the first municipality in Luzerne County to protect its citizens and workers from discrimination,” said John Dawe, executive director of the NEPA Rainbow Alliance and a board member of Equality Pennsylvania.

“It is surprising that elsewhere in Luzerne County and Pennsylvania it is legal to fire someone from their job, deny them housing and restrict their access to public accommodations because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression,” Dawe said. “We hope that someday soon, LGBT Pennsylvanians can all be protected by such laws.”

There is currently legislation under consideration in Harrisburg that would amend the state Human Relations Act to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. The act already protects based on other criteria, including race, ethnicity and other categories, Dawe said.

According to Pittston’s proposed ordinance, an individual who claims to be aggrieved by an unlawful practice may file a complaint with the city administrator or the chairperson of the commission.

After a complaint is filed, it will be reviewed by the commission and the target of the complainer will be notified and given 60 days to respond. A fact-finding conference will be scheduled and the accused and the accuser may present evidence to a commissioner. If the issue is not resolved, the commissioner will prepare a summary and an opinion. The Commission will then meet and accept or reject the finding by public vote.

If the commission adopts an “expanded procedure” format and a conclusion is not reached in the fact-finding conference, an investigation will occur. The commission will then determine if any other actions are needed.

A person found in violation of the ordinance, depending on the situation, could be required to pay back pay or damages according to the state Human Relations Act, emotional distress damages, exemplary damages, reasonable attorneys’ fees and court costs.

Councilman Lombardo said Pittston is trying to foster a “more welcoming atmosphere.

“We want to get people to move into the city, buy property here, buy a house here, patronize our businesses,” he said. “We thought that by fostering a more welcoming attitude, it would help us do that.”