In a decision that surprised the mayor and his advisors, Harrisburg City Council voted 4-2 tonight to reject a proposed lease agreement with Eastern University, a Christian college that wished to renovate and rent space in the city government center.
Council’s objection to the agreement, in which Eastern offered to spend $600,000 renovating city hall’s dilapidated basement, centered on the university’s religious affiliation and its requirement that its employees sign a doctrinal faith statement.
In remarks before the vote, Councilman Ben Allatt said he was deeply conflicted about the prospect of ceding public space to a private, religiously affiliated institution.
“The university would not hire someone like me,” said Allatt, who is gay. “I recognize they can do what they want, but they want to come into our city hall, which is a building of the people.”
Council previously pressed Eastern representatives on their commitment to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance, which outlaws employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Eastern embraced the non-discrimination policy in a letter to council.
“Eastern University agrees with the spirit and substance of the policy and agrees, in all cases, to stand against the discrimination of any persons in our services to prospective and enrolled students,” the letter reads.
In the same letter, however, Eastern affirmed its right to hire faculty who “fully embrace” the school’s religious mission. Members of council feared that exercising that right would translate into discrimination against LGBT applicants.
Eastern faculty members are bound by a doctrinal faith statement, but it does not provide explicit expectations for marriage or relationships.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse lobbied in favor of Eastern during the meeting, saying that the deal would save the city “real, significant money” by paying for necessary renovations. After the vote, he blasted council’s decision and accused them of squandering a one-of-a-kind opportunity.
“We’re going to have to take taxpayer dollars and devote it to fixing a building instead of fixing a pothole or fixing a park,” Papenfuse told reporters. “To me, it was a no-brainer to move forward in a partnership with Eastern.”
The proposal from Eastern offered to renovate almost 3,000 square feet in the city hall basement, which Papenfuse said is “substandard” for employees. City Council recently moved its offices out of the basement and into another part of city hall.
The renovations would have created two classrooms and a lounge area for Eastern students, as well as an Emergency Operations Center and media room for the city. City employees would have had access to the lounge and classrooms during the day, since Eastern would have only held night classes in the space.
Eastern also offered to extend a 25-percent tuition discount to all Harrisburg city residents for as long as the college occupied the city hall space. The agreement outlined a 10-year lease with a nominal yearly payment to the city.
Council had previously discussed the possibility of opening the project to a public bidding process. Papenfuse, however, does not think that the city will find widespread interest in its unfinished basement space.
“This deal was only done because of Eastern’s mission and its desire to connect to the city,” Papenfuse said. “We could put it out to bid all day, but there aren’t other business that are willing to make that kind of commitment.”
Papenfuse said that he has not received any public opposition to the Eastern deal, but Allatt said that he had heard criticisms from constituents.
Allatt voted against the resolution, joined by council members Shamaine Daniels, Cornelius Johnson and Dave Madsen. Councilman Westburn Majors and President Wanda Williams voted in favor.