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University City addresses domestic partners, Loop concerns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2011 - Same-sex couples and their supporters rejoiced in the University City Council chamber Monday night when the municipality became the first in St. Louis County to establish a registry recognizing domestic partners.

The action was among major debates that dominated much of a council session that lasted more than three hours. The other big issue involved a controversial proposal to address what some describe as unruly behavior by teens in the Loop. That measure was tabled.

The domestic partnership measure won approval in a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Arthur Sharpe Jr. being the sole dissenter. The rights defined in the ordinance include giving a registered domestic partner the same visitation rights as provided by a spouse or a parent, the right of a partner to make health care decisions for an incapacitated partner and the right to visit a partner or family member of a partner at a correctional or juvenile detention facility.

Plenty of people lined up for and against the measure. One was Joan M. Schneider who told the council as she held up a Bible, "God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and I don't want the United States destroyed."

Zuleyma Tang-Martinez, who attended the session with her domestic partner, says she was pleased by the ordinance. She says she's accustomed to the opposition but was "surprised that some of the stereotypes are still there, such as gay people being responsible for the failure of heterosexual marriages."

A biology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Tang-Martinez added that the "Bible can be interpreted any number of different ways. I don't think one individual interpretation should rule what a city does in terms of policy and attempts to reach social justice."

The ordinance's provisions are applicable only to facilities and institutions inside of University City. That's partly why Carl Hoagland, husband of former state Sen. Joan Bray, tried to put the ordinance in perspective by noting, among other things, that it doesn't solve all problems for same-sex partners.

"It serves as a model for adoption for other cities," says Hoagland, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "It is especially important that cities with hospitals adopt this ordinance. It would guarantee that domestic partners have full visitation rights if a partner were hospitalized."

Mayor Shelley Welsch noted that University City enacted in 2003 a housing ordinance that forbade discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. She says the new ordinance "finalizes what we started in 2003. It was a long time coming, and I was pleased that we got it here this quickly and that it was passed tonight."

Councilman Terry Crow, the measure's sponsor, acknowledged the broad range of opinion during the public comment period. But, he said, "it's interesting that most of the opinions against the bill came from outside University City. Most of the council and citizens spoke of University City as being an open, welcoming, diverse community that show respect for people to live in relationships (of their choice). That describes the essence of university city."

The Teen Issue

Most speakers were against a proposed University City ordinance to make it illegal to stand or walk on a public sidewalk or street in a way that impedes others from using the sidewalk or street.

Among those urging the council to reject the initiative, which was tabled, was Sara Ferrill , a former University City resident who now lives in Jefferson City. She told the audience of her own days when she and youngsters such as herself were "persecuted" because of the way they dressed. She recalled it was not unusual for her to have magenta hair, an eyebrow pierced, striped stockings and cut-off pants.

"I'm now 32 years old, a very responsible mother and contributing to society. These kids are disenfranchised, too. They have nowhere to go, nothing to do after school. They are not thugs. We need to offer them a chance to engage in our community rather than turn them away."

She urged merchants and others to have more dialogue with youngsters about why they visit the Loop, their parents and what their home environments are like. Getting to know the youngsters will help them engage in positive activities, she said.

The public criticism of teens and young adults in the Loop began the weekend of April 9 when warm weather drew many people to the area. Merchants and some others complained that some of the young people were rude, harassing customers and impeding traffic on crowded sidewalks and streets. The criticism quickened after a St. Louis police officer allegedly was assaulted by a 21-year-old man when the officer attempted to make an arrest at the Metro Station just east of the Loop.

Reports of arrests this spring, since April 8, show that juveniles aren't the only people causing disturbances in the Loop. During the past five weekends, police have arrested 17 people in the Loop, 11 adults and six juveniles. Some merchants have accused juveniles of taking items from sidewalk tables. Two such incidents have been reported to police in five weekends. Both occurred on April 8 and 9.

In one of the incidents, police say a large group of males ran past an outdoor table and took a wallet and cell phone. In the other incident, police say a cell phone was also taken from a sidewalk table. The police reports don't indicate that juveniles were involved in either incident. Most of the juveniles taken into custody in the Loop this spring have accused of fighting or curfew violations. A University City police spokesperson reviewing the crime statistics said the volume of incidents this spring seemed no different from last year.

Many of those who spoke against the proposed new ordinance said the plan raised constitutional issues because the law would end up targeting African-American youths. Ed Reggi, who describes himself as an entertainer, told the council that he was troubled by the proposed ordinance. "I come to the Loop two or three times a week to eat, shop or go to the Tivoli," he said. "These laws are usually created in cities that can't deal with crowds, and they are used to target African-American youngsters."

University City Police respond that they do not target anyone but merely confront or apprehend anyone who is caught breaking the law.

William Schwulst, who lives in University City, argues that the proposal as written is too broad and too vague. When in the Loop last week, he said he saw instances where the ordinance would have applied to law-abiding people "blocking my way, children and families pushing strollers and window shopping. But they were blocking my personal way to the sidewalk. This law is a little bit overkill."

Mayor Welsch says growing public opposition was behind the council's decision to table the measure and perhaps take up a revised proposal in two weeks.

"I came in today and had lots of email from people around University City and St. Louis" against the proposed ordinance, the mayor said Monday. "The issue that resonated with me was whether the ordinance was specific enough on how the police could enforce it. This ordinance is not directed toward one group. It in no way mentions children, does not mention the color of their skin. We were thinking of a way to try to keep traffic moving on nice days when we have hundreds of people coming to the Loop."

She said the city attorney would take another look at the proposal "just so we are clear that what we are proposal is in fact constitutional."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.