May 14, 2005 in City

Partner benefits challenged

By and The Spokesman-Review
 

Opponents of an ordinance that extends benefits to unmarried partners of city employees filed a referendum petition Friday seeking to overturn the measure.

Members of a group called Choice of the People now have a month to gather 5,145 signatures to force the measure onto the ballot this year.

Spokane City Council members approved the “domestic partners benefits” ordinance in a 5-2 vote on April 25.

Mayor Jim West had told opponents he would veto the measure but backed off that pledge in the past several days, said Nancy McLaughlin, a volunteer with Choice of the People. Even though the 5-2 vote indicated that the measure had enough support on the council to override a veto, the delay resulting from a veto would have allowed opponents to organize and gather public support, McLaughlin said.

“We just didn’t believe it would pass that easily,” McLaughlin said. “It just shocked us into action.”

A couple of dozen volunteers for Choice of the People met Friday night at Fourth Memorial Church in Spokane to discuss their strategy for collecting the signatures, including the possible use of radio advertisements.

Penny Lancaster, director of Community Impact Spokane, is advising Choice of the People. Lancaster is a local veteran of political organizing on conservative causes, such as opposition to gambling, pornography and gay rights.

The ordinance now targeted by the group will allow the city to provide benefits to unmarried partners of employees of the same or opposite sex. However, any extension of benefits is contingent on future labor agreements between city unions and management. For now, the measure directly affects only the city’s 17 nonunion employees, the mayor and City Council members. Employees seeking the benefits would submit an affidavit declaring their domestic partnership with a person at least 18 years old.

Proponents argued that the extension was a matter of fairness to unmarried employees. Opponents said the measure condones alternative lifestyles and undermines the institution of marriage.

One estimate put the cost of extending health-care benefits to domestic partners upward of $176,000 a year. Rights under the pension plan and other benefits, such as family leave, would be extended as well.

McLaughlin noted the benefits were approved just months after dozens of city jobs were eliminated.

“We think it’s fiscally and morally irresponsible,” she said.

But council President Dennis Hession said the cost to the city would be negligible because if unions request the benefits, they likely would see reductions in other parts of their benefit packages.

The issue of cost is “truly a red herring in this discussion,” Hession said.

Opponents would need to submit the signatures of registered voters before the ordinance goes into effect June 11, city officials said.

The council would then schedule a public hearing to take action on the referendum. The council could reverse its earlier vote and strike down the ordinance, or it could request that the signatures be validated by the Spokane County auditor.

If the signatures are validated, the council would hold another hearing and again could grant the petition and strike down the ordinance or submit the petition to voters at a special election or during the primary or general elections this fall.


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