Teton commissioners declare county a ‘hate free zone’


JACKSON — Teton County has passed a resolution affirming the “values of diversity, equity and inclusion” and declaring the county as a whole a “hate free zone.”

“This is a very important statement of our ideals and our values,” Commissioner Mark Newcomb said during the Teton County Board of County Commissioners’ meeting Tuesday. “It is a statement, it is a first step, and I look forward to continuing to follow through both in action, word and deed.”

The resolution came about after members of the public showed up at a December town and county meeting to raise questions about former library director Oscar Gittemeier’s unexplained departure. Gittemeier is transgender and, without an explanation from county officials, people wondered whether he’d been fired and whether his gender identity was a factor.

The resolution, attached to the online version of this article, speaks to “diversity, equity and inclusion” broadly in the final resolved statements rather than LGBTQ discrimination specifically. But, in a whereas statement higher up, it does mention “Americans of different races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, nationalities and political persuasions” and the role that pluralistic group has played in helping the country move forward.

The document is more of a statement of values than a legally binding decree. That’s in part because the county commission is understood to lack some of the authority municipalities have when it comes to promulgating binding ordinances that affect people other than its employees.

Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery, who previously told the Jackson Hole News&Guide the county could potentially pass a more binding resolution, told the commission at a Feb. 1 workshop that its purview was largely limited to its employees and buildings. That’s in contrast to the town of Jackson, which passed a non-discrimination ordinance in 2018 that applies to housing, employment and public spaces like hotels, restaurants and municipal buildings.

Nobody showed up at Tuesday’s commission meeting to give public comment about the resolution. A few people did, however, write the board before a Feb. 1 workshop to support the discussion.

“I support this work and showing the community that we value difference rather than shy away from it, that all are welcome here ... and that we are in fact stronger for it,” Adrian Croke wrote.

At that workshop, the commission discussed the resolution as well as the county’s employee policies that prohibit discrimination based on “sexual orientation” and “sex, including gender or gender identity.”

Commissioner Greg Epstein asked Human Resources Director Julianne Fries whether she thought the county’s “bases are covered.”

“I think they’re all encompassing,” Fries said of the policies.

Speakers in December asked the county commission to investigate the relationship between Teton County’s human resources department, which is headed by Fries, and the library. Fries did not respond to the News&Guide’s requests for comment about those complaints, and the county commission has not acted publicly on the requests for a review.

Gingery suggested at the Feb. 1 workshop that the county could also consider a move inspired by the Biden administration and the U.S. Supreme Court. In Bostock v. Clayton County, the court said the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s protection against employment discrimination due to “sex” includes protection against discrimination because of gender identity and sexual orientation.

“An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law,” Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion supported by six of nine Supreme Court judges.

Gingery said the Biden Administration has accordingly signed an executive order “telling all federal agencies to move toward compliance with the Bostock case.” That, he continued, could involve broadening agencies’ use of the words “sex” and “gender” to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” Gingery suggested Teton County could do something similar.

“It might be something just to work on over the next few months,” Gingery said. “Just to observe how other communities update their employment rules and incorporate some of that.”

Commission Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker asked in early February whether those updates could be incorporated into the next, regular update of the county employee manual. Fries said there was no set schedule for doing so, and that she would continue to monitor related developments “on the national level” and “see where there’s opportunities to tweak this terminology to make it more clear and inclusive and make recommendations.”County Commissioner Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker echoed Mark Newcomb’s sentiments about the resolution Tuesday, and asked staff to set up signage in county buildings reflecting the resolution’s sentiments, and highlighted the commission’s decision to make diversity, equity and inclusion a priority for the next two years.

“As we develop that action plan, we will be taking steps ourselves ... and hopefully with our community to realize some of the ideals that are listed here and find ways to work on them,” she said.