Consensus isn't solid as council members face the future of equal rights in Nashville 

Up in the Air

Up in the Air

The CANDO bill proposed to extend Metro protections against LGBT discrimination to its contractors has left any number of Metro Council members perturbed — personally, professionally, metaphysically. Less than a week before a crucial second-reading vote, once expected to bring the issue to a merciful close, things seem to be in an odd state of disarray.

Council sponsors suddenly lost their two-man consensus over whether certain amendments should be considered to broaden the bill's audience. Disparate vote counts among the council's wobbly lefty caucus led one member to privately declare the legislation all but dead, while another proudly announced it would pass without a single concession.

Meanwhile, Mayor Karl Dean — a self-described liberal for whom extending employment protections to gays and lesbians beyond the public sector has curiously proven to be a head-scratcher — has remained seated quietly on the sidelines. And yet a top mayoral aide met with the leader of the state's eminent LGBT group to discuss putting off the bill until after the filing deadline for August's council elections.

For city leaders who largely consider themselves progressive — if not in the Arianna Huffington sense, then at least by Al Gore standards — repeated whiffs on what should have been a home-run piece of legislation are puzzling. Considering that those opposing the bill on religious grounds (thus far the only declared opposition at all) have yet to lob a single curveball, the internal discord leaves Tuesday's vote uncertain at best.

Since the November 2009 passage of the city's current nondiscrimination law, Metro Human Resources has received only one complaint under the statute — and even that was dismissed. Nevertheless, the new bill's foes have promoted the mythic notion that by applying the same standard to city contractors, the city will open the floodgates to lawsuits. Businesses, the thinking goes, would suddenly face a raging tide of legal costs, administrative costs and whatever other costs might come of the idea that a contractor asked to abide another government regulation is necessarily burdened.

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, widely considered to be the stick in this mud, does not share this point of view. It has yet to indicate any position publicly. The chamber issued general surveys to members last week to gauge knowledge of and interest in (or against) the bill.

There were no results as of press time. Even so, according to Bill Phillips, who lobbies the council on the chamber's behalf and has been involved with discussions of this issue, there is interest among some to amend the bill.

"What they're trying to do is determine what that might be," Phillips says. "But I don't think they've come to any conclusions yet."

One amendment being discussed would narrow the scope of the ordinance so that it only applies to big businesses — most of which already have LGBT-friendly nondiscrimination policies because they hold contracts in some of the 136 cities and counties that require them. Businesses with fewer employees would be exempt, which could help bring along council members who are reluctant to vote for the ordinance based on complaints they've heard from small business owners, one member tells the Scene.

Councilman Mike Jameson, a co-sponsor of the bill, says he's willing to listen to the chamber, the mayor's office and anyone else who's offering serious amendments that might bring consensus.

"All I can say is, if anybody has any requests for additional language that makes a difference to their vote, we're certainly receptive to discussing it," Jameson says.

But Jameson might be alone in that flexibility. Co-sponsor Jamie Hollin says the bill as written has more than the 21 votes needed for passage on second reading (a bill that passes the critical second vote is all but certain to pass the third).

"Right now, I'm not in a posture to support an amendment," Hollin says. "I feel comfortable putting them on the machine right now."

Forcing members to put their names on the machine, as it were, is the more fundamental concern in what has been a clumsy legislative process. While Hollin and Jameson are in the final year of their council tenure, most others face re-election in August.

That, according to a source familiar with the matter, was the subject of a Tuesday meeting between a top mayoral aide and Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project, who would not discuss specifics of the meeting. The source said the mayor's office is pursuing a possible deferral of the bill until after the May filing deadline, to provide cover for those who might draw an opponent if they voted for the bill. Jameson could be amenable to that option, he says, if it means a public endorsement by the mayor, which is likely to solidify a few more members' votes.

Sanders says he expects the mayor — whose office declined to comment for this story — to make his position known soon.

"This is the only executive in the state's history to ever do anything for our community," he says, referring to the 2009 ordinance that Dean openly supported. "Our concerns and our interests are taken very seriously by the administration."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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