The Spokane City Council on Monday approved a controversial measure that would extend benefits to nonmarried partners of city employees if their unions negotiate for those benefits.
Nearly three hours of impassioned testimony culminated in a 5-2 council vote in favor of the “domestic partnership benefits” ordinance.
“It’s about respect, dignity, justice,” said Council President Dennis Hession, who sponsored the measure and won enough yes votes that he could also win an override of any potential veto by Mayor Jim West, who has previously said he’s against the extension.
Hession was joined by Council members Joe Shogan, Cherie Rodgers, Al French and Mary Verner. Council members Brad Stark and Bob Apple voted no.
Stark said he is concerned about the potential cost of extending benefits while Apple said that he, too, is concerned about cost, but also finds the measure to be morally suspect since unmarried employees might use the benefits as a lure to entice a partner into a relationship.
During lengthy testimony, proponents argued that extending benefits is a matter of workplace equity. Opponents warned that such steps are contrary to God’s law, undermine the institution of marriage and put government in the position of condoning alternative lifestyles.
“I hate to get God into it,” said Rodgers, explaining that she sees the issue as one of equity.
The ordinance as amended by the council during Monday’s meeting allows domestic partners to obtain health care benefits, city-sponsored life insurance and pension rights. Employees could take paid leave from work to attend to emergencies or illnesses involving their partners.
To qualify, employees and their partners of the same or opposite sex would have to submit an affidavit declaring their domestic relationship.
Also, labor groups within the city would have to bargain to include the benefit in future contracts. Currently, only 17 nonunion employees, plus the City Council, could qualify for extended benefits, and none of them is expected to seek the benefits under the ordinance.
Stark noted that the city this year has laid off employees, and that this would further crimp the budget. One estimate put the potential cost in extended health benefits at $176,000 or more if all city unions get it included in their contracts.
“I have some issues and concerns about how much it’s really going to cost,” Apple said.
He also complained that the ordinance could be used as a payment for engaging in a relationship, and that is too much like prostitution, he said.
Morality played a big role in Monday’s debate. Mary McDowell, the first citizen to testify said the measure would condone fornication. “What in the world are you people doing?” she said.
Penny Lancaster said, “This proposal sends the wrong message to our children.”
Patrick McCord said he doesn’t hate homosexuals but hates homosexuality, and he sees the ordinance as “endorsing the perversion of homosexuality.”
“It’s a perversion of God’s design for a man and a woman,” he said.
That brought a response from Chris Erickson, who told the council, “I am a gay youth. This is not a choice for me. I don’t see why I am discriminated against.”
He explained that the ordinance would attract good employees. “I consider myself a very worthy employee,” he said.
Proponents said morality seeks justice as much as anything, and the extension of benefits is an issue of fairness. “This ordinance is about workplace equity and not creating separate classes of employees,” said Brad Read, who had supported the ordinance as a former member of the city’s Human Rights Commission.
The commission endorsed the ordinance recently, Hession said.
Joe Cavanaugh, president of Local 270, the largest employee bargaining unit in Spokane city government, also spoke in favor of the change. “We consider it a matter of basic human dignity,” he said. Local 270’s current contract runs through 2006.
During deliberations, Stark sought amendments requiring domestic partners to grant durable powers of attorney to one another as a way to demonstrate their commitments. That failed. He then sought another amendment requiring domestic partners to enter a community property agreement. That, too, failed.
Hession said such requirements would place an unfair burden on employees seeking the benefits.