CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Three months after Chambersburg became the 70th and most recent Pennsylvania municipality to specifically prohibit discrimination against gender and sexual minorities, Franklin County’s seat, and most populous municipality is preparing to repeal its new anti-discrimination ordinance.
The move comes after a dramatic change in the composition of the borough’s council following November’s election, from a veto-proof Democratic majority (which, sure enough, overrode a mayoral veto of the ordinance) to a 7-3 Republican majority.
A reversal of progress? Or of government overreach? That depends on whether you ask the former borough council president, Alice Elia (D), who fought for the ordinance, or the new one, Allen Coffman (R), who also served in that role years ago and who ran for re-election on a slate of Republicans whose priorities included the repeal.
At the newly-seated council’s first meeting last week, Republicans asked the borough’s solicitor to draft legislation repealing the ordinance. Technically, it’s not a done deal: The actual vote on the repeal is scheduled for Jan. 24. But a 7-3 GOP majority and a newly-elected Republican mayor portend little drama about the outcome.
“Many people in the community saw [the local ordinance] as a win for the LGBTQ community and other members of the community who are not protected at the state level,” said Elia, who said she was sorry but not surprised about the move. “I was mostly just disappointed that at the very first meeting, this was what they chose to do.”
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Coffman’s view? It really wasn’t a choice.
“It became a priority because that was a mandate that each and every one of us were hearing from the people that elected us,” he said.
Coffman’s opposition is both philosophical and technical. He says he’s against discrimination but thinks the issue should be settled at the state level and in the courts, not on a local council: “Why do we have duplication with something the state already does? To me, government needs to be more simple and more streamlined?”
And Coffman says the ordinance wasn’t properly vetted by the borough solicitor and creates confusion about where state law ends and borough law begins.
Elia agrees the issue should be addressed at the state level. But in her view, addressing it would mean adding the protections for all Pennsylvanians — as other northeastern U.S. states have done but not a current priority of Pennsylvania’s GOP legislative majority — so the patchwork of municipal ordinances is better than nothing.
Even more immediately, the newly-elected council reversed the mask mandate in borough offices for employees and visitors.
“If they strongly believe in the mask, they can certainly wear that,” Coffman said. “But those that have equally strong feelings about not wearing the mask have that option too.” He said he has heard only positive feedback about the move from municipal employees.
“Obviously it can be terrifying if we have an entire department go down,” said Elia, questioning the decision’s timing. “And recently we’ve had quite a few members of our electric department come down sick. that’s not going to be good if we have any issues that we need to have multiple staff members available for.”
A move that could have the longest-term impact of all, although one that for now is less controversial: an extension, until March, of the borough’s window to purchase the aging Southgate Shopping Center for redevelopment. Originally, council members were supposed to vote tonight on whether to move forward. Elia agreed with Coffman that a council with so many new members should have more time to make a big decision.
In that realm too, though, Republicans are more skeptical. Elia sees it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to using federal rescue money to transform the borough.
Coffman? “I said, ‘Well this is beautiful. But tell me, what is this going to cost?'” he said. “And the answer came back: ‘Well, it might be 50 million dollars. It might be 100 million dollars.'”
The GOP electoral victories in Chambersburg came on a day when the commonwealth and nation took a right turn.
“I think what happened in Chambersburg is just indicative of what happened throughout the rest of the country,” Elia said.
“I certainly think part of it was the national wave,” Coffman said. “But the other part of it are some of the things this previous council had done.”