A divided Prince George's County Council yesterday appointed Wayne A. Lerch, a gay activist, to a seat on the county Human Relations Commission. Lerch is believed to be the first openly gay person to win appointment to a governmental board or commission in Maryland.
Lerch, 25, who has also actively promoted women's issues and the rights of the physically handicapped, was nominated by County Executive Parris Glendening, who received considerable support from gay voters in last year's election.
The council approved Lerch's nomination yesterday by a 5-to-3 vote, but not before Glendening visited the council chambers to ask Councilman William Amonett, who reportedly was strongly opposed to Lerch's appointment, to refrain from making Lerch's homosexuality an issue. Amonett left the chambers before Lerch's name came up for a vote.
Lerch was the only one of 12 nominees to the 13-member commission whose appointment was not unanimously approved yesterday.
"I am thrilled that I got the appointment, but I feel there's also a dark cloud over it because of the fact that three members voted against me . . . the only reason they voted that way is because I am gay," said Lerch, who made no mention of his homosexuality during his presentation to the council.
"I think Parris Glendening should be applauded for having the guts to nominate me and for following up to have my nomination go through. He was really sticking his neck out," said Lerch, a resident of New Carrollton.
Voting against Lerch were Council Chairman Frank Casula and members Sue V. Mills and Anthony Cicoria.
None of the council members made any statements in opposition to Lerch at the meeting. But Mills said afterward that she believed Lerch represented too much of a "special interest" to serve on the commission. "You have to have a broad view of what's out there to serve on the Human Relations Commission," Mills said. "You're not there to promote what's of particular interest to you."
Asked about his reasons for opposing Lerch, Casula said, "I have no reason to express for the press."
Amonett said he "had to go to the bathroom" at the time of the vote on Lerch's appointment. He declined to comment on his conversation with Glendening other than to say, "I talked with the executive about a number of appointments."
Lerch, who works as an office assistant for a Washington law firm, said that as a commissioner he would like legislation passed that specifically prohibits discrimination against homosexuals in the county.
"As gay persons, we are being totally ignored by every facet of the state and county government," said Lerch, who added that he would like the state and local government to address the growing problem of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a disease prevalent among homosexuals.
"Although the gay community will be a major concern, I also feel strongly about women's rights, the rights of the handicapped and race relations in the county. Race relations are very tense," he added.
Lerch estimated that there are 65,000 gays in the county.