March 5 2014 12:00 AM

Milton Scales, the lone Meridian Township trustee to vote against a non-discrimination ordinance

Back in November, Meridian Township Trustee Milton Scales was the only board member to vote against an ordinance that prohibits discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While he supports equal protection for LGBT individuals, he thinks changes should come from the state level, rather than a local one.

On Friday, the Ingham County Democratic Party gave him an award for it.

While Scales received the Zolton Ferency award — named after the late liberal politician from East Lansing — for what he believes was for “taking a principled stance,” some local Democrats are puzzled by the choice.

“That doesn’t make sense to me,” said Meridian Trustee John Veenstra, who received the award in 2011 and supported the ordinance. “His position doesn’t make sense to me.”

Sandra Zerkle, chairwoman of the county Democratic Party, confirmed Monday that Scales’ position was “one of the final things the committee of past winners used as a catalyst to have him win this award.” Zerkle said the final decision to award Scales was made by a committee of past winners and that she didn’t have a final say in whom the award went to.

“I know there was some disgruntlement,” Zerkle said. “The executive officers are going to re-look at how the awards are given out. … I know there has been some concern about not Milton as a person or as a Democrat, but for the stance he took and whether Zolton would have taken the same stance or not.”

But it’s not as if Scales is for discriminating against the LGBT community. Citing his reasons for voting against the ordinance, Scales believes discrimination protections should be built into state law, not local ones. He also thought the punishment for violating the ordinance wasn’t stiff enough. At one point late in the summer, Scales called the ordinance “feel-good legislation” and the overall effort a “misguided campaign.”

“Zolton Ferency was an advocate of principled stands,” Scales said Monday. “I voted against (the ordinance) for those very same reasons.”

Scales, who chairs the Meridian Democratic Club, also sent a letter last month to state House Democratic leaders supporting an expansion of the Elliott- Larsen Civil Rights Act to include the LGBT community. “The fruit of hate is always rotten, and by expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act you will spread a message of inclusion, compassion and freedom from fear,” he wrote.

As for his critics, “I told them it’s a daunting task trying to go community by community when you have 1,773 municipalities in the state,” Scales said. “That’s why it needs to be pushed at the state level so we can cover the entire state all at once with significant penalties.”

But the coalition that’s worked to pass these local ordinances, One Capital Region, doesn’t see it that way. Meridian joined Delhi and Delta townships in passing these local protections in the past year. According to One Capital Region, more than 100,000 residents are now protected after these local ordinances passed. East Lansing and Lansing had similar laws in place. Statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality Michigan tracked 29 other communities that had protections in place before Meridian passed its own.

Advocates say passing such laws would be more effective at prompting statewide change than, say, writing letters.

Zerkle said she told Scales she “didn’t agree” with his position. “My position is that we have to start somewhere on these things,” she said in support of the local route.

Veenstra said his analysis is “totally different” from Scales’. “The more places that have a local law is entering a wedge to prove we ought to have a state law. I think the more local ordinances we have paves the way for state law” changes.

According to a New York Times obituary from 1993, Ferency was a “perennial crusader for liberal causes,” which started at the age of 11 when he marched in a protest alongside labor leader Walter Reuther. Ferency was former chairman of the state Democratic Party and an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate who lost to George Romney. He also served on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners and the East Lansing City Council.

Angela Wilson, the Meridian trustee who led the effort to pass the ordinance, countered Scales at the time by saying, “We are giving our community members that not only work in Meridian Township, but also live here, protections against discrimination that the state has failed to give them. … It isn’t feel-good legislation by any means. It is what-we-ought-to-be-doing legislation.”

Still, Scales thinks his position and recognition is a “non-issue. I think there’s an attempt to put a wedge where a wedge doesn’t exist. I’m in favor of non-discrimination laws. At the end of the day, I do not disagree with my fellow Democrats: We need protection under the law for the LGBT community.”