Editor’s Note: On Monday, June 14, the Hilliard City Council approved the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance discussed in the following piece.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. Case in point: Hilliard, Ohio.
After years of research, meetings, and one-on-one conversations, this Columbus suburb will vote Monday evening to approve a nondiscrimination ordinance that offers protections to the LGBTQ+ community in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodations.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with Hilliard City Council member Cynthia Vermillion to find out how this all finally came to be on the agenda.
Tell us a little bit about the political climate in Hilliard.
CV: Hilliard has traditionally been more conservative. The makeup of the current Hilliard City Council is six Republicans and one Democrat. That’s me. I was the first Democrat elected here in 30 years in 2019
Wow! What has that experience been like?
<laughs> It’s actually been a very good experience, because I feel like I’m making a difference on Council by speaking up and letting people know my values. When we look at certain business on a Council level, I ask questions and come at things from a different perspective than they are used to. I had one Council member who is very conservative tell me that he appreciates that I allow him to see things from a different perspective.
What’s the backstory on pushing these LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination protections forward?
When we were running in 2019, Hilliard had their once-every-10-year Charter Commission going. Alex Cofield, one of the members of the Charter Commission, wanted to include a nondiscrimination section in the Charter that would extend protections to LGBTQ+ community members. But the Council at the time said no. They weren’t ready.
Then I was elected in November of 2019 and started my term in January of 2020. There was one Republican council member—Andy Teater—who also felt passionate about extending these protections. He and I got together in January of 2020 along with Alex Cofield, the resident who was on the Charter Commission. The three of us looked at other nondiscrimination ordinances from other communities. We took from some of those other ordinances that we thought would work well for Hilliard. We also talked to other communities like Westerville and Worthington who have been through this process. Then we took our draft to our legal department.
Finally in January of this year, we had a draft that we could present to the rest of Council. We sent that out to the rest of Council along with a letter I had written explaining my interest in passing this.
Tell us about that interest.
I am a mom of four kids, and two of my kids identify as LGBTQ. As I said in that e-mail, it’s really important to me that, not only my kids, but any parent ‘s children are treated equally and feel like they belong wherever they live.
Between January and March, we had a lot of one-on-one kinds of discussions. We were getting a lot of pushback from members of Council. So we did a lot of explaining to help people see things from a different perspective.
We had also a high school student who had reached out to me in 2020, and he wanted to work on these protections for his Senior Capstone project. He worked with other high school students to put together a website and a social media presence, and they got some speakers from the school to come out and say why this was important to them. We actually had quite a few students who wrote letters, and we presented those to Council members so they could see that discrimination was real and not just for LGBTQ issues. It almost backfired in that several members felt like it was just a school problem, and maybe it was the schools that needed to take care of this. But this is a community issue, not just a school issue, as schools don’t operate in a vacuum.
That high school student put together an excellent video, and the schools were going to show that, but…
Oh yes! I remember that. We covered when the school cracked down on that video being shown.
Exactly. The Council members tried to make that blow up into a huge issue. But it thankfully died down and we continued on. Finally at the May 24 meeting, we introduced the ordinance as a piece of legislation. We ended up having to make a couple of concessions.
Can you explain those concessions?
We had originally written it so that we would handle any claims through the city of Columbus’ Civil Rights Commission. But other Council members didn’t want the city of Columbus handling anything. We determined that we could handle complaints in house through our law director appointing a mediator. Most of these complaints are resolved at the mediation level, so they’ll never get beyond that.
We also compromised because the Council President showed a draft of the ordinance to his local Catholic diocese, so they wanted us to add religious exemption in public accommodations. We have this exemption under housing and employment, but he would not vote for it unless it had the religious exemption written into the public accommodations part.
Those are the two compromises we had to make to get it pushed through. We’ll vote on it on Monday, June 14th and hopefully it will pass.
Why is this ordinance something that is needed in Hilliard?
There are stories of so many members of the LGBTQ community who experience discrimination all the time, and these are stories we don’t always hear. There are people who feel like they might not get promoted or get a raise or may get fired or kicked out of their apartment if they are found to be LGBTQ. I sat through a couple of the hearings at the statehouse for the Fairness Act and I heard stories that were heartbreaking. It happens here locally too.
What’s your prognosis for the vote?
We think we have the votes. [Co-sponsor of the bill] Andy Teater is going to reach out to the individual Council members to make sure we know where everyone is sitting.
We believe it will pass. We are planning on having a lot of supporters there at the meeting. And then we will celebrate its passing at our Pride Event on the 26th.
I was talking to some business constituents this morning. They work a local bar and when I mentioned about this ordinance, the two people I was talking to said, “You mean we don’t have those protections already?” That’s what people think. People just assume that these protections are in place, and they’re not.
So we need this to pass.
Absolutely. We need this to pass and I firmly believe that it will.