As leadership changes, MeckPAC keeps pushing city leaders

Longtime chair Phil Hargett steps down as group continues conversations on employment non-discrimination, benefits

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: April 3, 2010 in News

CHARLOTTE — After four years at the helm of the Mecklenburg Gay and Lesbian Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), longtime chairman Phil Hargett has stepped down. Steering committee member Richard Thomas has ascended to the position. The leadership change comes as the group continues to pressure city leaders on overdue changes to employment non-discrimination policies and domestic partner benefits.

In his time as MeckPAC chair, Hargett has led the group through significant changes and political victories for the LGBT community. Appointed to the chair position with Cindy Hostettler in spring 2006, Hargett said MeckPAC has seen increased interest in the group from local candidates.

“In 2004, I went to a MeckPAC fundraiser — I was just a donor then — and there were only three or four elected officials at the event,” he said. “Candidates seek us out now. Last August we had 26 local candidates of all political stripes come to our pre-election event at the Morehead Inn.”

He added, “At our event for the general election at the Community Center we had both mayoral candidates there. For the first time ever, a Republican mayoral candidate showed up, as well as Republican council and school board candidates.”

Hargett has also spearheaded major victories. In 2008, MeckPAC was instrumental in behind-the-scenes discussions leading up to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ adoption of a fully inclusive anti-bullying policy, months before the legislature passed a similar statewide policy mandate last year. In 2009, the group worked closely with LGBT-friendly members of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners when they considered extension of domestic partner benefits.

While Hargett was certainly a key player in the success of these local policy initiatives, he’s reluctant to take any credit. “I by no means take or even want to take full credit for any of this,” he said. “This was certainly a community-wide effort.”

Thomas said Hargett has “picked up the torch and ran with it” during his time with the organization.

“What I’ve seen is a really dedicated, well-thought out, very professional person who has a mindset of recognizing the importance of relationship-building and maintaining those relationships,” said Thomas, who thinks Hargett’s open leadership style has allowed those with varying ideas to come together at one table.

As the reins of MeckPAC are handed over, Hargett says he’ll remain on the group’s steering committee. Thomas hopes to continue Hargett’s relationship building both within and outside the LGBT community. “There is an importance of working together to achieve common goals not only within the LGBT community but also supportive organizations and businesses and the leadership of Charlotte,” he said.

Thomas has worked in a corporate setting for years. Hargett says the new chair’s past career experience will bring more professionalism to MeckPAC and a willingness to work as a team.

“He brings a lot of corporate organizational skills that have proven already to be very efficiently running the organization,” Hargett said. “He’s also well known in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg LGBT community and has lots of ties to different parts of the community. A big strength for him, or any new chair, is also the strong steering committee he has to help him keep things going.”

At the end of the day, Thomas said he wants to see MeckPAC reach out to the community it serves.

“The whole time you’re building relationships, we need to be making sure that we are speaking to our community,” he said. “I’d like to see that done more visibly, whether it is through town hall meetings or other forums where we can get together and say, ‘Hey, let’s talk about it. What are the wants? What are the needs?”

Moving forward…

Since this story was written and sent to press for our April 3 print edition, some details have changed. Please see our April 1 online story, “Charlotte manager makes employment policy changes,” for updates.

Although Hargett is no longer chair, his presence on the MeckPAC steering committee will keep his institutional knowledge, history and connections with elected officials around for some time to come. That experience will come in handy as MeckPAC works diligently to see promises made by city council candidates last fall kept this year.

Whether LGBT-inclusive changes to the city’s employment policies and domestic partner benefits is a success depends on city council members’ willingness to make proactive moves. According to Hargett, many candidates said they were in favor of such changes when MeckPAC endorsed them before 2009’s election.

“We are working very hard to hold them to that now that they are elected,” Hargett said. “For some reason, the City of Charlotte has drug its feet more so than any other large municipality in North Carolina and its so illogical that county employees who oftentimes work in the same building with city employees already have non-discrimination policies and domestic benefits but city employees have nothing yet.”

Part of the hold up might be confusion over city government’s ability to make changes to their existing employment policies, which do not include sexual orientation or gender-identity. According to a 2003 memo from Charlotte City Attorney Mac McCarley, the city’s non-discrimination polices are tied to its charter — any changes to the policy contained within that document would require approval from the state legislature.

MeckPAC has argued against such claims and Hargett says McCarley’s opinion amounts to nothing more than a “smokescreen.”

In a 2003 memo if its own, MeckPAC said the city has the “legal authority to act unless it is prohibited by state law or contrary to state law,” and quoted the city charter, which states: “The Council shall establish by appropriate ordinances a system of personnel administration . . . governing the appointment, promotion, transfer, layoff, removal, discipline, and welfare of City employees.”

MeckPAC concluded the charter’s statements “make it clear that all employment-related decisions for city employees are to made on the basis of merit and fitness,” and that the listing of race, creed and other grounds are “merely examples.”

The group added, “The City has the authority either to add ‘sexual orientation’ to the list of protected categories or to define ‘merit and fitness’ to specifically state that sexual orientation and other factors shall not be considered in a person’s fitness for employment.”

Other cities across the state — including towns with populations as small as 5,000 — have added sexual orientation and/or gender-identity to their non-discrimination policies. In fact, Charlotte is the last of North Carolina’s major cities to take up discussion of such changes. The state legislature has not blocked or objected to other municipalities’ decisions to amend their non-discrimination policies.

Kim McMillan, director of the city’s Corporate Communications Office, said recent conversations regarding the employment policies have resulted in some discussion of possible changes.

“I know that [City Manager Curt Walton] has discussed revising and broadening our policy,” she said. “I don’t know if the final language has been adopted but we are moving toward that direction. We are moving toward adopting broader language in the non-discrimination policy.”

Thomas said movement on employment and domestic partner issues remain at a “conversation stage” with city leaders.

“We’ve started that conversation with the mayor, city attorney and council members have spoken to us about their support,” he said. “A couple of council members say they will support it if its brought up but they aren’t willing to take the lead on it.”

Lacey Williams, an organizer with the grassroots Charlotte Rainbow Action Network for Equality (CRANE), said conversation and relationships aren’t necessarily a bad thing but the community needs to hold elected officials publicly accountable.

“How many times do you have to be told ‘wait’ before we actually do something,” Williams asked. “I can imageine a forum like the kind Sue Myrick held with the Muslim community where all these Muslim people were able to hold her feet to the fire. I’d like to see a real sit down between our elected officials and our community where we can say, ‘We are you constituents. This is what we’d like. We’d like to have a measure of stability and safety in our relationships and workplaces. As elected officials, it is your job to provide that.’”

Hargett and Thomas said MeckPAC has increased their volunteer base over the past year and are now engaging in more direct lobbying efforts to let elected officials know our community expects them to act.

Williams said the lobbying efforts are fine, but would like to see quicker action, more public answers and consequences for empty promises. “What we need to do as a community — nationally, statewide and locally — is ask people to put their money where their mouth is. If we are giving them our votes and money and they keep saying, ‘Wait,’ then we need to actually enact some consequences. I think we literally say, ‘Do this, or we are not voting for you anymore.’”

qnotes contacted Mayor Anthony Foxx and asked for comment on these issues. Through his assistant, Erica Johnson, Foxx declined our requests at this time and said he could better answer any concerns in a month’s time. : :

Since this story was written and sent to press for our April 3 print edition, some details have changed. Please see our April 1 online story, “Charlotte manager makes employment policy changes,” for updates.

[Ed. Note — This writer is a volunteer organizer with CRANE.]