Antigay referendums possible under home rule, TRI-PAC cautions voters

A proposal to overhaul Allegheny County government is causing concern among political observers within the local gay and lesbian community.

Allegheny County voters will have the opportunity to determine the future of the so-called Home Rule Charter Proposal when they vote in the regular primary election May 19.

A change to home rule would shift control of county government away from the state Legislature, where it is now centered, to the residents of Allegheny County, where proponents of the measure say it belongs.

Making the change to home rule would also abolish the current three-commissioner system of county government and replace it with an elected chief executive, a county manager and an elected part-time 15-member county council.

So far, those in favor of the proposal include both Democrats and Republicans, as well as all members of the last two boards of Allegheny County commissioners. Prominent Democrats who have spoken out against the plan include state Rep. Ivan Itkin, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, and state Sen. Leonard Bodack of Lawrenceville.

The one provision of the proposal that has met with opposition from gay and lesbian political activists is Article 12, which allows for voter referendums. TRI-PAC, a Pittsburgh gay, lesbian and bisexual political action committee, has recommended voting against home rule because of the “potential danger” it poses to gay rights laws.

According to TRI-PAC board member Eric Feder, Sections 1 and 2 of Article 12 led to the committee’s official position against the Home Rule Proposal.

Section 1 allows for a petition signed by 500 voters to pro-

pose an ordinance to the county council requiring council’s action on the proposed ordinance.

Section 2 of Article 12 would allow voters to place a proposed ordinance on the ballot for the next election by collecting signatures of registered voters amounting to 5 percent of the number of voters who voted in the most recent election for governor; current figures place that total at approximately 22,000 names. 

If a majority of voters were to approve any ballot referendum, it could not be vetoed by the county executive, nor could council take any other action on the new law for at least two years.

Feder told Out that Section 2 is “more dangerous” than Section 1 because voters themselves could place an anti-gay rights measure on the ballot subject to popular vote.

Similar referendums have been used to repeal gay rights laws in Maine, Colorado, Oregon and in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Although Feder, who is deputy prothonotary of Allegheny County, said he supports the concept of separation of powers in government that the charter proposes, he also believes that the provision for referendums in Article 12 is a “total negative.”

“It sets up potential battles that [gay men and lesbians] shouldn’t have to fight,” added Feder.

But Michael Lamb, campaign manager for Allegheny 2000, a citizens committee formed to support the home rule proposal, said he doesn’t believe such battles will occur.

“I just don’t believe that’s going to happen,” Lamb told Out. “Other counties in Pennsylvania that have adopted home rule haven’t had a plethora of referendum initiatives like you’ve seen in other parts of the country.

“Any referendum would have to be germane to the county government,” Lamb added. “Home rule also limits the type of referendum that can be proposed.”

“I understand [TRI-PAC’s] concern, but I don’t know how well-placed it is.” Lamb said.

Chris Young, chair of the League of Gay and Lesbian Voters, called voter initiatives “tools of the Christian right,” and explained that the LGLV has an official stand against the initiative process.

Young added that although he is personally unhappy with the current Allegheny County government, he cautions voters against supporting change just for the sake of change. Voters, Young said, need to determine if the way in which the new government is going to be drawn up is an improvement.

“It’s not just a question of the charter,” said Young, “it’s the implementation that’s important.”

TRI-PAC will hold a Meet the Candidates forum May 15, 7:30pm-midnight. Additional information on candidates and the Home Rule Charter Proposal can be obtained from TRI-PAC by calling (412) 471-9798, or the League of Gay and Lesbian Voters at (412) 421-4770.

This article originally appeared in Pittsburgh’s Out. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.

The Q Archives and articles like this are republished here by the kind contribution of Tony Molnar-Strejcek, the publisher of Pittsburgh’s Out. Maintaining the cultural history of Pittsburgh's LGBTQ Community is made possible by contributions by readers like you.