It’s been nearly a decade since the City of San Antonio last updated its nondiscrimination ordinance — and about a year and a half since Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) called for an update and expansion of the policy, but the city is on track to make changes by the end of this year.

The timing and scope of those changes — including whether the ordinance will apply to private businesses and employees — are still unclear, city officials told council committee members Wednesday.

“We have not shared the proposed update or revised [ordinance] to any stakeholders, including community groups, because we wanted to get input first from this committee to ensure that we were on the right track,” said Jennifer Mata, director of the city’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Department.

City staff will return to the Community Health, Environment and Culture Committee in May after community engagement efforts, Mata said.

The nondiscrimination ordinance protects city employees and contractors from workplace discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or veteran status. The latter three categories were added in 2013.

McKee-Rodriguez wants the law expanded to cover private-sector businesses in San Antonio that have 15 or more employees. That topic wasn’t addressed during the meeting.

But city staff went “above and beyond” what the councilman requested, he said, by recommending the formation of a local Human Rights Commission, which would advise council and city staff on inclusivity in policies.

“We’re looking at creating a space where those conversations can happen,” said Samantha Smith, the city’s civil rights manager.

While private businesses are covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (which includes gender identity and sexual orientation) and national origin — the language of the local ordinance could be adjusted to protect gender expression more broadly and include hair texture and protective hairstyles in race discrimination.

It’s unclear if a local ordinance could be expanded beyond what federal and state law define as discrimination and applied to private employers, City Attorney Andy Segovia told the San Antonio Report.

“That’s what we’re looking into. … We don’t know the answer to that question yet,” Segovia said.

McKee-Rodriguez, the first openly gay Black man elected to San Antonio’s City Council, was hopeful that Wednesday’s discussion could lead to more protections and a better complaint system for public and private employees.

“I’m excited for what I heard today,” he told reporters after the meeting. “Even if I don’t get everything that I want out of it, we’re moving in a very positive direction.”

He expects the conversation about expanding protections to private employees “will take place over the course of the next few months. It’s still my intention.”

The ordinance currently applies to city employment, city contracts and subcontracts, appointments to city boards and commissions, housing, and places of public accommodation, such as hotels, restaurants, and retail stores. It goes further than the federal standards to also prohibit employment discrimination based on family status, including pregnancy, age and military veteran status.

It’s still unclear if the community and a majority of City Council want the nondiscrimination ordinance to apply to private businesses, Segovia said. “We’re going to come back in May with an update of where we’re at [based on] what we’ve heard from the community, where we’ve ended up … in the Legislature [and] further analysis of what other cities are doing.”

For instance, a bill proposed by Texas Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) would limit local regulations on small businesses to state and federal law. In a hearing on the bill Wednesday in Austin, Burrows said his legislation wouldn’t affect nondiscrimination ordinances.

Regardless of whether San Antonio’s ordinance is expanded, it clearly needs an update, Smith said.

The language needs to be updated “to really reflect the accurate policies and practices that we’re doing in the city,” Smith said. That includes adding a definition of gender expression, using more inclusive language to describe the spectrum of sexual orientation, explaining how police investigate complaints, adding and expanding statutes of limitations, and explicitly calling out discrimination based on hair texture and protective hairstyles as race discrimination.

City staff also recommends a mandatory review of the ordinance every five years, Smith said. That would “essentially ensure that we’re not in this place where we’re so far behind.”

Earlier this month, McKee-Rodriguez also called for the city to adopt a Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act aimed at addressing discrimination against race-based hairstyles. Similar initiatives have been adopted by cities across the country.

The first part of the councilman’s ask could be addressed by updating the nondiscrimination ordinance, but the local CROWN Act would direct the city to oppose any state legislation that jeopardizes the protection of race-based hairstyles.

Expansion of the nondiscrimination ordinance was McKee-Rodriguez’s first policy push as a freshman on the dais in 2021. Now, he faces a crowded ballot for reelection in May.

He knew it would take a while for the local legislative process to work, but it was “also kind of a test to see how long will it take before this is finally heard,” he said.

McKee-Rodriguez is not worried about whether he’ll be in office to see it happen.

“What I’m excited about is that we got that commitment [from staff] for the five-year review” and language clarification, McKee-Rodriguez said. “These changes are at least being made.”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org