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Huntington continues to lead in LGBTQ+ equality, according to national report

HUNTINGTON — Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said in 2014 he was shocked to learn that the city had only scored a 45 on the Municipal Equality Index (MEI), the only nationwide assessment of LGBTQ+ equality regarding municipal policies, laws and services.

“I did not believe this truly indicated the hearts of the majority of people in Huntington, so we became intentional in our actions, with the goal to score 100,” Williams said.

On Thursday morning, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the educational arm of the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization, in partnership with the Equality Federation, released its 10th annual Municipal Equality Index (MEI) and it was announced that Huntington had received a perfect 100 score for the third year in a row.

“I am unbelievably proud to be the first West Virginia municipality to score 100 and even more proud that we have been able to do it for three consecutive years,” Williams said. “This is a strong indication on how communities can lead the state in diversity, equality and inclusion.”

Williams said the city’s “Open to All” anti-discrimination campaign now has over 300 participating businesses and organizations and continues to grow. He said the goal of the campaign is to promote diversity and inclusion by broadening views beyond race, gender and sexual orientation.

“Those participating in this campaign place a sticker on their door to let all citizens know they are coming to a safe place that is open to all,” he said.

Williams said it also encourages maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all employees, customers, visitors and vendors, regardless of race, religion, ancestry, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or income status.

“Receiving a perfect score in the 2021 Municipal Equality Index validates what our community already knows — that Huntington is a city of honor, respect and compassion,” Williams said.

Morgantown also received a 100 score for the first time, and Charleston was recognized with an “All-Star” designation with a score of 94.

Jack Jarvis, communications manager with Fairness West Virginia, said MEI All-Stars earned over 85 points despite hailing from a state without statewide non-discrimination statutes that explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Currently there are 21 states with explicit protections for LGBTQ+ people, including our neighboring state of Virginia,” Jarvis said. “Unfortunately, West Virginia is not one of them.”

This means in 29 states, including West Virginia, LGBTQ people can be denied access to public services because of who they are.

Jarvis said the Fairness Act has come before the West Virginia Legislature but has not progressed.

“While we have had support from both Democrats and Republicans, there are still others that have not supported us in passing the Fairness Act,” he said.

The average score on the index for cities in West Virginia is 65 out of 100 points, which falls 2 below the national average of 67. The City of Parkersburg scored a 13.

Williams said there is still a lot of work to be done.

“We are organizing our community so that every person has a distinct and vested responsibility to advance our city’s prosperity,” he said. “Our vision is that we embrace our diversity and actively seek inclusiveness as we learn to stand as one people celebrating our differences. We will be able to shape our future by assuring every person in our city has a seat at the table and has a voice to be heard.”

Williams said one concern he has on a state level is some legislators want to take away a municipality’s right to enact these types of protections and invalidate actions already taken by cities like Huntington.

“I believe municipalities in the state should have the right to self-governance. We will fight any attempt to take this away,” he said.

Jarvis added that 15 municipalities in West Virginia have adopted ordinances and laws to protect those in the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination.

“Those most recent have been Keyser and South Charleston,” he said. “These 15 cities represent about 15% of the state’s total population.”

“In West Virginia, we believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. That’s why so many of our communities have stepped up to the challenge to advance LGBTQ equality in new and exciting ways,” Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, said in a prepared statement. “I’m proud of the hard work our municipal leaders have done over the past year, especially leaders in Morgantown and Charleston for being the first communities to ban the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy.”

This year, a record-breaking 110 cities throughout the country earned the highest score of 100, which is up from 11 in 2012, illustrating the striking advancements municipalities have made over the past 10 years, officials said.

The report also contains an issue brief for policymakers that covers how municipalities can support transgender and nonbinary individuals, as well as the types of challenges they face, ways that a city can support them and guidance on forming an anti-transgender and nonbinary violence prevention task force.

The full report, including detailed scorecards for every city as well as a searchable database, is available online at www.hrc.org/mei.

Holiday displays light up Ashland park

ASHLAND — The glow of more than 800,000 lights is shining from Ashland Central Park as it welcomes the annual Winter Wonderland of Lights.

The lights decorate 60 holiday displays, which include everything from a Christmas tree forest to a chorus of angels spread around the 52-acre park. Opening ceremonies for the event took place Monday, and the lights will be available to view daily through Jan. 2, 2022.

As part of the five-week festival, the annual Christmas parade will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 23, in downtown Ashland. This year’s parade will feature a theme of “Christmas Miracle” and will be led by grand marshal Montana Fouts. Other events, including train rides, visits with Santa and karaoke, also are planned as part of the festival. A complete schedule of events can be found online at www.winterwonderlandoflights.org.

The Winter Wonderland of Lights is open from dusk until 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from dusk until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is free.

The festival is a project of the Ashland Alliance.

Hospital says union continues to violate judge’s order

HUNTINGTON — Cabell Huntington Hospital officials say union workers on the picket line continue to violate a judge’s temporary restraining order limiting many of the activities and actions in and around the hospital campus.

More than 900 Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members in the service and maintenance units went on strike for the first time in 23 years after walking off the job Nov. 3.

“Sadly, the union and some of its supporters have chosen to ignore the temporary restraining order, and continue to violate the judge’s order,” Molly Frick, director of human resources at Cabell Huntington Hospital, said in a statement. “The hospital remains committed to providing its patients an environment that is conducive to the healing process, and will take the steps necessary for our visitors, staff and vendors to feel comfortable on our campus. The temporary restraining order goes a long way in addressing activities on the picket line that have been disruptive to our patients, visitors and staff.”

Cabell County Circuit Judge Alfred Ferguson issued the temporary restraining order from the bench Nov. 10 after the hospital filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop some actions by the striking workers. It came at the same time striking workers found out their health care benefits had been cut off by the hospital.

The order prohibits those on the picket line from engaging in or encouraging loud and boisterous conduct, including the use of bullhorns, air horns, loud music and honking; using burn barrels near the Lung Health Center at 13th Avenue and Elm Street; blocking, obstructing or in any way hindering the use of handicap curb cuts; picketing, patrolling or gathering within 15 feet of the corner adjacent to the Emergency Department entrance; interfering with traffic or hindering the free use of roads and streets; doing anything to prevent the hospital from the delivery of medical services to the public; trespassing on hospital property; any direct communication with patients, visitors, employees, vendors and neutral trade union members entering and exiting the hospital; picketing within 20 feet of a reserve gate used by neutral trade union workers or communicating in any way with those utilizing the reserve gate; and use of vulgarities, obscenities or threats to intimidate hospital employees, patients, neutral trade union members and members of the general public.

Frick said the hospital has not called law enforcement, but it could.

“The hospital has a number of avenues available to it, including seeking relief from the court and law enforcement, should either become necessary,” Frick said in an email responding to questions. “This is specifically set forth in the order.

“The order declares SEIU’s activities to be an impediment to the healing environment, which must be preserved for patients and their families. The order limits picketers to no more than eight during the day and no more than four overnight,” Frick’s statement said.

The union claims the judge signed an order inconsistent with transcripts of the hearing.

“The judge was handed an order to sign by CHH attorneys that was inconsistent with his original ruling,” the union response stated. “We agreed with the judge on his terms and believed it was fair; however, this current TRO (temporary restraining order) is not the same conditions we agreed to in court. We remain in compliance with the previous and current conditions laid out by the Judge in the TRO, which is in force until we go to court again.”

The union says the hospital actions are scare tactics.

“The hospital’s executives are trying to scare and intimidate workers on the strike line, as well as patients and community by making outrageous alleged claims against our members’ conduct while constitutionally practicing their right to strike over labor disputes,” the union statement said. “The constant tactic of CHH executives is to silence anyone who raises issue with their unfair labor practices and bargaining contracts to detract from the reality that the CEO and CHH Board do not want to offer any transparency with their workers. They refuse to face their workers, not the union, to admit that the CEO and Board Chair Beth Hammers are taking away 10% of their wages, increasing health care costs, reducing benefits and ending health care for all hospital retirees. CHH is willing to stick its workers so far in poverty they can’t provide for their families. This is the real issue at hand, not a false TRO complaint by hospital hypocrites.”

Another hearing in the matter is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 23, before Cabell County Circuit Judge Chris Chiles, according to the union.

GOP-led Ohio Legislature OKs fast-tracked congressional map

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio’s new map of congressional districts cleared the state Legislature along party lines Thursday, after a breakneck sprint through both chambers that was defended by majority Republicans and decried by Democrats and voting-rights advocates.

Opponents immediately stepped up pressure on Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to veto the plan, which Republicans defend as more competitive than any other map considered.

The plan creates at most three safe Democratic districts out of 15 new U.S. House seats in a state where voters are split roughly 54% Republican, 46% Democratic. The nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the map an F grade.

The map divides populous Cuyahoga and Hamilton counties — the respective homes to Cleveland and Cincinnati and their concentrations of Democratic voters — three ways each. Franklin County, home to Columbus, is divided two ways. It also draws the western Cleveland suburbs in Lorain County into a district that stretches to the Indiana border, a nearly three-hour drive.

State Rep. D.J. Swearingen, a Republican, defended the map as fair, constitutional and not unduly favoring either political party or its incumbents.

Swearingen reiterated the position of sponsoring Sen. Rob McColley, a Republican who’s been arguing in hearings since the map’s latest iteration was released late Monday, that the final plan is superior in competitiveness and captures the spirit of what voters asked for in a 2018 constitutional amendment.

“If you have the right candidate on the right issues, you can win a competitive district,” he said. “Whereas the Democratic map that was offered in the House offered a determined outcome.”

Swearingen criticized national groups, including the National Democratic Redistricting Committee backed by former Attorney General Eric Holder, for interjecting themselves into Ohio’s process.

Democrats, meanwhile, blasted the Republican-led map-drawing process as unfair, partisan and cloaked in secrecy.

“The legislators and the redistricting commission have failed the people miserably and should be ashamed of themselves,” said Democratic state Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson, the former mayor of Toledo, ahead of the House’s 55-36 vote. “You did not deserve our votes, and you do not deserve our respect.”

The Senate approved the bill Tuesday, about 16 hours after the new map was released.

Under a new process established under a popular 2018 constitutional amendment, creating a 10-year map — the ideal — would have required robust Democratic support. Without it, the plan will last only four years.

That is, if DeWine signs it and it withstands an almost certain court challenge. Fair Districts Ohio, a coalition of voting-rights groups and labor organizations, called on him to strike down the bill.

“The Buckeye State was supposed to be the poster child of bipartisan, transparent redistricting,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, a member organization. “Instead, Ohio leaders have disrespected voters, trampled the Ohio Constitution and rigged the congressional map to serve partisan, political operatives rather than fairly represent Ohioans.”

A spokesman for DeWine said that he had been briefed on the redistricting process but would likely not comment until a vote was taken and he had physically received the bill.

States must redraw their congressional districts every 10 years to reflect new population numbers. Under this year’s U.S. Census results, delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ohio lost one seat in Congress starting next year — taking it from 16 to 15.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, pointedly took on Democrats during Thursday’s floor debate, suggesting perhaps it’s their party leadership and not the map that’s holding their candidates back. He questioned their cries of unfairness as disingenuous.

“There’s been enough hypocrisy around this issue to fill a Texas-sized outhouse,” he said.