published Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

In final vote, Chattanooga City Council approves same sex benefits

IN OTHER BUSINESS

The City Council:

• Authorized the award of a $7.5 million contract to Layne Inliner for a sanitary sewer rehabilitation project, which is a required project mandated by the EPA consent decree;

• Approved the City Attorney’s office hiring outside legal counsel for help with issuing general obligation bonds;

• Appointed Tony Sanders, Vince Butler, T. Hicks Armor, Demetrus Menifee, Morris Chapman and Ray Adkins to the Sports Authority Board

With a final 5-3 vote, the Chattanooga City Council paved the way for employees to sign up next year to add their domestic partners, whether gay or heterosexual, to their insurance plans for the first time.

Tuesday night’s vote makes Chattanooga the third city in the state to offer domestic partner benefits, a movement sweeping across the nation specifically in states such as Tennessee, where traditional marriage is spelled out in state constitutions.

Those in support of the council’s vote packed the hallways after the decision to cheer, hug and celebrate their victory. Those opposed showed up to City Council in much smaller numbers this week and stayed quiet.

“I think this is a sign that Chattanooga is supportive of the LGBT citizenry, and I think that’s how it’s going to read to the public,” said Marcus Ellsworth, a local gay activist.

The controversy over the bill has lasted nearly 10 weeks. Residents who supported and opposed the bill, proposed by city Councilman Chris Anderson, packed the council chamber as they made their case to their representatives.

While the bill now becomes policy, the voters might still get the last say.

Chattanooga Tea Party Leader Mark West is gearing up for a petition drive today. He wants to gather at least 4,500 signatures that would force the council to repeal the benefit expansion or put the question on an upcoming election ballot.

The Hamilton County Election Commission is expected to vote this morning on whether the petition is valid. If approved, West has two weeks to collect the needed signatures.

“There’s no neutral ground on this. This came down to a tie vote,” West said last week after the first reading of the ordinance. “Something this contentious should be given to the people.”

Last week, council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem broke the 4-4 vote, providing a majority vote to go forward with Tuesday’s final reading. Those opposed said they couldn’t vote for the bill because of either moral beliefs or concern over the cost to the city.

Some in support of the council’s decision said the efforts to overturn the bill don’t worry them.

“I truly feel like if there is a citizen vote we will win,” said Collegedale Detective Kat Cooper, who convinced her city to pass domestic partner benefits this summer.

If those opposed don’t collect enough signatures, employees will be able to sign up their partners that meet specific stipulations by spring during open enrollment for medical, dental, vision and voluntary life insurance benefits. The benefits will go into effect in July.

The city’s Human Resource Department doesn’t expect a large number of employees to sign up based on the experience of other cities that have expanded benefits to domestic partners. The cost to the city to expand benefits is about $168,000, according to city estimates.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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