Cook: Domestic partner benefits plan

Cook: Domestic partner benefits plan

November 1st, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

This morning, City Councilman Chris Anderson will introduce legislation that would provide medical and health benefits to committed domestic partners - same sex and opposite sex - of all Chattanooga government employees.

In the months leading up to this day, Anderson and the rest of the council have witnessed a storm of public demonstration and standing-room-onlyprotest. The issue, easily the most contentious before this council or others in recent years, has turned into a microcosm for the 21st-century tension among religion, sexuality and civil rights.

Anderson, who says he is the first openly gay politician to win a contested election in Tennessee, has heard people compare Chattanooga to Sodom and Gomorrah. He's been called wicked, evil and a pedophile. He's had an armed Chattanooga police officer guarding him at each meeting.

"Every Tuesday," he said. "Since this started."

So before we review what this legislation actually is, it is important to distinguish what it is not.

"It is not a recognition of same-sex marriage. It is not a new definition of marriage. It is not a moral or religious issue in terms of homosexuality," Anderson said.

Simply: It is an issue of workplace fairness and equality.

The legislation would provide benefits to any domestic partner of a city employee. These benefits include medical, health and family leave.

"Whereas, a qualified domestic partner ... of a City employee shall be eligible for the same medical and leave benefits as are available to the spouse of a City employee," the proposed ordinance states.

To be eligible, employees and domestic partners must meet certain qualifications. Both must be over 18 and shared a primary residence for at least 365 days prior. Both must be living in a committed and intimate relationship, and both must be jointly responsible for basic living expenses.

To prove this, an employee and his or her domestic partner must provide to the city at least three of the following documentations:

• Joint ownership of residence or joint lease.

• Utility bills listing both names.

• Joint ownership of a car.

• Joint bank or credit account.

• A will or trust that designates the other as beneficiary or trustee.

• A retirement plan that designates the other as beneficiary.

• Signed power of attorney that designates shared powers between employee and partner.

Neither the employee or his or her domestic partner can be married or in a legal union with anyone else. Neither can be related in any way (two sisters living together cannot apply, for example), except any same-sex couples who have been legally married in other states.

Employees and their partners must offer a sworn affidavit about their relationship and must also submit a letter to the city should it ever dissolve.

The legislation, which would create a domestic partner registry within the city, includes an updated nondiscrimination clause. The city's current clause does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Making us the largest city in Tennessee to not include that," Anderson said.

Anderson said roughly 50 employees have contacted him in support of the legislation; only one has said otherwise. While it's been suggested Anderson should recuse himself from the council vote since he could benefit from its passage, Anderson said he won't even enroll in the plan.

"I don't have any plans to apply for the benefits therefore I won't receive any financial benefit if it passes so under state law I don't have to recuse myself," he said.

He estimates a miniscule cost increase to the city.

"$180,000," he said. "Less than one-tenth of one percent of the city budget."

The legislation reflects a trend moving across the country. According to a recent Forbes report, roughly four out of five American employers offer domestic partner.

While drafting the legislation, Anderson researched more than 130 other American cities (focusing mainly in the South) and multiple area employers -- BlueCross BlueShield, Unum, VW and "all the major banks in town," he said -- that already offer similar benefits.

"This is about attracting and retaining the best employees we can get and treating all of our employees fairly," he said. "It is not a social crusade. It is just good government policy."

The work is to see legislation for what it is instead of what it isn't. This domestic partner benefits plan is fair, forward-leaning, just and smart. It is not hysterical, wicked, a covert op or a gay agenda.

This Tuesday, there is an 3:30 meeting at City Council that's open to the public. The council is expected to vote of the proposed resolution the following week.

Between now and then, plenty of things will go said and unsaid. Just remember this about the proposed ordinance.

"It's fairly standard," Anderson said.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.