Two hot topics on agenda for Palm Beach County Commission

Palm Beach County commissioners will tackle a pair of hot button issues today — a proposed ban on the controversial practice of conversion therapy and a county-wide disparity study.

Both issues have generated strong support and opposition.

Conversion therapy, a form of treatment aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation, is viewed by opponents as a danger to young people who are told that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is unnatural, wrong or an affront to God.

Supporters see the county’s proposed ban on conversion therapy for minors as an infringement of the free-speech rights of therapists, an overstepping of the county’s authority and a limitation of the rights of parents looking to help their children deal with unwanted sexual attractions.

If commissioners adopt the proposed ordinance today, Palm Beach County would be the first county in the state to ban conversion therapy. A half-dozen local municipalities — Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Wellington — already have adopted conversion therapy bans.

Across the state, Tampa also has adopted a conversion therapy ban. It is being sued by a pair of people represented by Liberty Counsel, a non-profit legal and religious organization.

Liberty Counsel wrote to commissioners in November spelling out its objections to the proposed ordinance, which it said is “premised on a straw-man claim of barbaric practices, but in actuality bans verbal discussion of sexuality.”

Richard Otto, a Boca Raton therapist, says he will take Palm Beach County to court if the ban passes.

Otto says the move to ban conversion therapy is part of a cultural effort to ignore “absolute truths.”

“There is a big push that says anything goes,” Otto said. “In our country, we are starting to choose our gender. Can we choose our race? At what point does that become ludicrous? Where do we draw the line? It used to be that we looked at a boy and said, ‘You’re a boy,’ and we’d look at a girl and say, ‘You’re a girl.’ ”

Otto added: “There is such a thing as objective truth. There are absolute truths. Can I be a horse? I was born a horse. Where do we draw the line?”

Narrowly focused

Beyond what he and other opponents describe as the cultural implications of the proposed ban, Otto has raised several other points about it, including: how the county expects to enforce it; whether the county, which does not issue licenses to therapists, has the authority to fine those who violate the ordinance; and why it exempts clergy and parents.

“Why is it OK for clergy and parents to ‘abuse children?’ ” Otto asked. “If it’s that bad, why is it OK for clergy and parents?”

Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron said the ordinance does not extend to clergy or parents because the county wanted it to be as narrowly focused as possible so as to steer clear of “other bigger issues” like constitutional challenges.

He said the county would enforce the ordinance as it enforces other laws — by investigating complaints and levying fines when it has been determined that a violation has taken place.

As for whether the county has the authority to fine therapists it does not license, Bonlarron said the county has the authority in a variety of areas — tow truck operations and restaurants are two he brought up as examples — to fine those who violate county laws even if they haven’t violated state laws.

When commissioners discussed the issue earlier this month, most commissioners appeared to be supportive or at least open to the ban.

Commissioner Hal Valeche, however, said he shares free speech concerns of the ban’s opponents.

Disparity study

It is unclear how commissioners ultimately will come down on the proposed ban, just as it is unclear what they will do about the disparity study, which focuses on whether the county has provided fair opportunities for women and minority-owned firms to get contracts.

On Wednesday, the county is set to discuss a second study, one showing that women and minority-owned firms got far fewer contracts from the Solid Waste Authority than their presence in the marketplace suggests they should have gotten.

The study, conducted by Mason Tillman Associates of California, recommends the re-establishment of a program, frequently referred to as a women/minority business enterprise program, to address those disparities.

Such programs are often the targets of lawsuits from white business owners who see them as a form of reverse discrimination. Court rulings have required a study’s finding of disparities to justify such a program.

The Solid Waste Authority had a W/MBE program for 20 years, but scrapped it in 2012 in favor of one aimed at helping small businesses, which are often owned by women and minorities.

That program has not been sufficient to give women and minorities a fair chance at SWA contracts, supporters of the study have argued.

White male-owned firms collected 98 percent of all of the money SWA paid on construction contracts from 2009 through 2013, the 284-page study found. The study also found that white male-owned firms got 84 percent of the dollars SWA paid on professional services contracts, 94 percent of the money paid on commodities contracts and 77 percent of the value of trade services contracts.

Firms owned by white men accounted for no more than 63.2 percent of any of those marketplaces, the study found.

Commissioner Mack Bernard has been sharply critical of SWA leadership, arguing that it impeded the study and balked at acting on its recommendations, allegations SWA leadership has denied.

Bernard has pushed for a delay in the awarding of seven-year garbage hauling contracts worth as much as $450 million so a W/MBE program can be re-established.

Other commissioners and SWA Executive Director Mark Hammond have expressed concern about a delay and about the legal implications of re-establishing a W/MBE program.

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