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Sterling Heights

August 20, 2014

Petition supporters discuss process, councilmen’s protest

By Eric Czarnik
C & G Staff Writer

The signatures haven’t been officially confirmed yet, but some Sterling Heights residents were eager to talk about a referendum petition drive — and a protest that involved two City Council members — at the Aug. 6 City Council meeting.

Petition drive organizers say their goal was to collect enough signatures by Aug. 6 to let the public have the last word by voting to approve or reject a recent ordinance, titled the Sterling Heights Non-Discrimination Ordinance, which the City Council unanimously passed in June.

That ordinance added sexual orientation and gender identity to factors like race, religion, age and sex that were already covered under state nondiscrimination law.

Supporters have said the ordinance protects civil rights for everyone and is beneficial for attracting businesses to Sterling Heights, while opponents have said that the proposal was rushed through too quickly, or that it could threaten religious freedom.

During public comment, former Councilman Paul Smith said the bar for getting the required signatures in was an “extremely high hurdle.” But he said petition organizers were helped by a groundswell of public participation, and “it looks like they will, in fact, be able to get it on the ballot.”

“They did it. By the time the city clerk closed today, they had their signatures, and they put them in,” he said.

Smith alluded to a YouTube video that shows a protest near the petition drive at the Sterling Heights Public Library. He described the setting as four or six people waving signs and “coming between you and the voter to get your petition signed.”

Smith also criticized as “absolutely disgraceful” the behavior of Mayor Pro Tem Michael Taylor and Councilman Doug Skrzyniarz, who had shown up to protest at the site.

On the YouTube video, dated Aug. 4, a man wearing a baseball cap and identified in the caption as Skrzyniarz is shown walking back and forth on a sidewalk near the library and near where petitioners were collecting signatures.

The protester in the video holds up a sign that said “Decline to Sign” on one side and “Reject Bigotry” on the other. He is joined by a few other protesters, including some who chant, “Equal rights for Sterling Heights.”

Another Sterling Heights resident, Verna Babula, said she attended the petition drive, and she said she was disappointed with Skrzyniarz and Taylor for “interfering” at the scene.

“I was there at the library, Doug, when you called our residents bigots just because they exercised their right to sign a petition, which would allow a yes or a no vote on the nondiscrimination ordinance,” she said.

When it was the City Council’s turn to speak, Taylor said he was proud to be there, just as he thought the petition collectors were, too.

“Sometimes it gets a little unruly when you have two groups, and they have differing viewpoints,” he said. “But I thought it was democracy in action. I thought it was great.”

After the meeting, Skrzyniarz said that just like everybody else, he has a right to free speech and to let people know about what they were signing.

“Let me be clear: There was never a time when myself or anybody else ... was engaged in anything other than educating people and communicating what the petition was, what the ordinance was,” he said.

Skrzyniarz said he didn’t know why the YouTube video was posted online.

“All it does was show exactly what I did,” he said. “I went back and forth along the sidewalk. I never got in anybody’s face or anything. I was very peaceful in letting folks know what I was saying.”

City Clerk Mark Carufel did not comment by press time in regard to the current status of the signature checking. City spokesman Steve Guitar did not say whether the petitioners collected enough to go over the required amount but commented on what the clerk’s office is doing.

“We are going through the process of validating the signatures,” Guitar said.

In late July, Carufel said his office would check to see if petitioners produced an estimated 5,900 valid signatures required in order for the ordinance to go to the City Council for either possible repeal or a referendum.

If enough signatures are disqualified during the validation process to fall below the threshold, petitioners would have 15 more days to meet the benchmark, he said.

Carufel said a successful petition campaign that produces a referendum would suspend the ordinance until voters could decide its fate.

Learn more about Sterling Heights by visiting www.sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2489.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Eric Czarnik at eczarnik@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1058.