City Council Committee Unanimously Endorses Anti-AIDS Bias Law

Times Staff Writer

A San Diego City Council committee on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to an ordinance that makes it illegal to deny housing, employment and government services to people diagnosed with or suspected of having AIDS.

By a unanimous 5-0 vote, the Public Services and Safety Committee decided to send the anti-discrimination measure to the full council in the near future for consideration and final approval.

But Councilman Bruce Henderson warned that he might switch his vote to "no" if his colleagues don't scratch a provision in the proposed ordinance that allows for AIDS patients to sue for punitive money damages against landlords and employers who discriminate.

"You're going to have to anticipate that those people who have AIDS, or who are perceived to have AIDS, are going to be treated in an irrational or emotional way," Henderson said.

"I would like to have them (members of the public) educated so they don't react emotionally," he said. "But on the other hand, I don't want to make them liable for millions of dollars in damages."

Fight to Keep Provision

Proponents of the measures, however, said the threat of punitive damages is a necessary deterrent, and Councilman Ed Struiksma said after Wednesday's committee meeting that he would fight "adamantly" to keep that provision in the ordinance.

"With the vote here today, I know it is going to pass when it gets to council," said Struiksma, who proposed the ordinance late last year.

If passed, the city's ordinance would become the second AIDS anti-discrimination law on the books in San Diego County.

On Tuesday, the County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a nearly identical version of the ordinance. Both measures are the result of a coordinated effort between officials for the city, county and the San Diego Regional Task Force on AIDS.

As approved Wednesday, the proposed city ordinance would apply to people diagnosed with AIDS and AIDS-related complex, or ARC. It also applies to people who are "perceived and treated " as having AIDS.

Would Prohibit Discrimination

The law would prohibit discrimination in housing and housing "services," such as utilities connections, water service, routine maintenance, the use of elevators, access to washers and dryers, use of common recreational areas, garbage pickup, parking and janitorial services.

Employers would also be barred from turning away, segregating or firing people with AIDS. Employers could not require blood tests from employees suspected of being exposed to AIDS unless it was a "bona fide occupational qualification."

Businesses--such as restaurants and private schools--must provide services and goods to AIDS patients. City facilities and services must be made available as well, the ordinance says.

Penalties for violating the ordinance will be left up to the courts. AIDS patients who've been discriminated against must file a lawsuit to obtain an injunction and collect actual losses, such as back pay, as well as punitive monetary damages.

Henderson said he objected to the punitive damages provision because the public generally "is fearful . . . frightened . . . and uneducated" about AIDS.

He said the punitive damages would create a new "industry" for overzealous trial attorneys who want to sue landlords and businesses.

In addition, Henderson and Councilwoman Judy McCarty also questioned whether it was fair to pass a special anti-discrimination ordinance for people with AIDS since there have been no similar protections for people with tuberculosis and cancer.

"I can certainly recall when I was younger that people who had TB not only were discriminated against, they had to leave town and go to a sanitarium," McCarty said.

McCarty also worried aloud that the ordinance could become a legal shield for prostitutes and drug dealers, but Deputy City Atty. Mary Kay Jackson said the new law couldn't be used by law-breakers.

Despite those minor misgivings, a long line of speakers--including representatives of the San Diego Catholic Archdiocese--urged council members to give the measure preliminary approval.

They argued that the proposed ordinance would not only help people with AIDS retain their dignity by staying off welfare rolls and out of homeless shelters, it would also be an effective way to show the public that the disease cannot be transmitted through casual contact.

2 Epidemics: Health, Fear

"In connection with AIDS, there are two epidemics," said Penn Lerblance, a professor at California Western School of Law and a member of the San Diego Regional Task Force on AIDS. "One is health; the other is fear."

Lerblance said AIDS patients frequently face discrimination. He cited the anonymous cases of a bookkeeper fired from a restaurant because he was exposed to AIDS, a grocery store employee fired because his roommate was tested for AIDS, and a local convalescent home that has stopped hiring male nurses for fear they have been exposed to the disease.

Timothy R. Pestotnik, a San Diego attorney who works in a free legal clinic for people with AIDS, said that 50 of the 200 AIDS patients served by the legal clinic have complained of discrimination.

In addition to giving preliminary approval to the ordinance, committee members on Wednesday instructed the city attorney's office to meet with their counterparts at the county and iron out several details in the proposed law before it reaches the full council for a vote.

One point of concern was how far the anti-discrimination protections should extend. Original language in both the county and city ordinances included people "associated" with AIDS patients, a broad category that could include family members and friends.

But some county and city elected officials, including Councilwoman McCarty, say they are uncomfortable with that sweeping language. Attorneys for the city and county will be meeting to discuss whether to drop that provision from their respective ordinances.

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