Alcona County rescinds LGBT resolution

Photo by Crystal Nelson Greenbush resident Joe Lukasiewicz on Wednesday speaks out against the Alcona County Board of Commissioners’ decision to oppose an excutive order signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer meant to strengthen protections for individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

HARRISVILLE — The Alcona County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday reversed its decision to oppose Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order strengthening protections for individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The board voted 4-1 to rescind a resolution opposing Whitmer’s move after hearing from a number of county residents and regional business owners who expressed concerns that the resolution discriminated against the LGBT community and made the county look bad.

Commissioner Gary Wnuk, who had originally proposed the resolution against Whitmer’s executive order, cast the lone vote against rescinding the resolution on Wednesday.

The Alcona County board, during its Jan. 16 meeting, voted unanimously to ask the governor to withdraw her executive order, which prohibited discrimination against LGBT individuals in state services or by state contractors or grant recipients. Alcona County receives several state grants.

Whitmer’s action followed years of legislative inaction. Democrats and others have for years pressed the Legislature to expand the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to explicitly include protections for the LGBT community, but those efforts have repeatedly stalled. However, last year, the state’s Civil Rights Commission, which investigates allegations of discrimination, said it interpreted the law’s prohibition on discrimination based on “sex” to include discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Gov. Rick Snyder, Whitmer’s Republican predecessor, had issued an executive order similar to Whitmer’s, though the one from Whitmer — a Democrat — was more expansive.

The Alcona County resolution said Whitmer “circumvented the legislative process” and that her actions undermined legislators in the state House and Senate.

While county board Chairman Craig Johnston said he had heard from members of the community who had agreed with the board’s resolution, no one in the audience at the board meeting on Wednesday spoke in support of the board.

Greenbush resident Joe Lukasiewicz told commissioners Wednesday he was appalled by their actions and asked them what they were thinking when they voted unanimously to discriminate against residents in the community.

“You work for me. I pay your salaries. This vote does not represent anything that I believe in — my faith, my morals, my politics,” he said to the entirely Republican board. “If this was a political move, I’ll tell you what, it blew up in your faces.”

Echoing Lukasiewicz’s sentiments, activist and Harrisville resident Patty Thomas said she doesn’t understand the board’s decision to discriminate against a particular population of people who are also taxpayers and members of the community. She said the board has, historically, been so entrenched in being conservative that it’s to the point of being “unchristian and immoral.”

Connie Syszak, from Greenbush, said her parents are from Mexico and that she is a first-generation American — born and raised in Jackson. Syzak said she has been told to “go back where you came from.” She told commissioners she doesn’t like being singled out and said people who are LGBT don’t deserve to be singled out, either.

“These people are not horrible people. They’re your brothers, they’re your sisters, they’re your daughters and your sons,” she said. “They’re people in this community, just like you.”

Dion and Molly Stepanski, who own Presque Isle Farm in Posen, attended the meeting because they do business in the county and work with organizations like Inspiration Alcona and Farm to Fork Alcona to promote tourism in Northeast Michigan. Molly Stepanski said the board’s decision shines a negative light on the region, which “really takes us way far back.”

Molly Stepanski also pointed out that, because the county receives money from the Michigan State University Extension office, they are required to follow the extension’s non-discrimination policy. She said the board’s action on Dec. 16 seemed to be in direct contradiction to that.

“As a small business owner and someone who’s trying to grow a business and in an inclusive community, to raise a family, I’m going to be working directly with MSU Extension to make certain that if you’re not following through on non-discrimination that, hopefully, funding will be pulled,” she said.

Johnston, the county board chairman, cited the county’s employee guidelines and read from those guidelines a paragraph about equal opportunities, which stated the county does not discriminate on any unlawful basis, including, but not limited to, race, color, age, religion, national origin, ancestry, marital status, height, weight, gender, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation or genetic information.

He said the county’s policy is inclusive and that the board’s resolution didn’t have anything in it about excluding anyone.

Johnston said that, personally, he has no ill will toward the LGBT community. However, a member of the board drafted the resolution for the board to consider. He said the resolution was amended before it was adopted.

Johnston said he personally felt that the board’s intent had been misinterpreted.

“The resolution was not to be against any group of people, the resolution was to be for everyone having a say in this — not just one governor or a five-member commission,” he said.

Dion Stepanski asked why the board hadn’t taken action arguing that the legislative process needs to happen with every other executive order that’s ever come from a governor.

“You chose this one,” Dion Stepanski said. “That’s why it sticks out.”

Commissioner Dan Gauthier said he thinks it’s “unfortunate” the resolution was misinterpreted the way it was. He said that, while he can see everybody else’s point, it was not interpreted at the board table that way, and there was no way anybody on the board was looking to discriminate.

“That was not even part of the conversation, never entered into conversation when we were discussing the resolution, but yet it has turned into that,” he said.

Wnuk said part of a person’s First Amendment rights is to act on their conscience. He said the problem he keeps going back to is the legislative overreach via an executive order.

“We all at this table raised our hand and said we would support the Constitution of the United States and part of that is protecting constitutional First Amendment rights,” he said.

Crystal Nelson can be reached at cnelson@thealpenanews.com or 989-358-5687.