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December 2, 2011

Cuyahoga domestic partner benefits advance to full council

Cleveland--Two committees of the Cuyahoga County Council advanced domestic partner benefits for county workers to the full body on November 18, after hearing another morning of testimony on it.

Both the Human Resources, Appointments and Equity Committee  and the Justice Affairs Committee voted to send the ordinance to the full council, which will consider it at its next meeting, 6 pm on December 6.

The committees heard testimony on the measure October 25, but surprised onlookers by putting off a vote that day and setting it for another committee meeting. This was done at the behest of Human Resources chair Yvonne Conwell and Justice Affairs chair Sunny Simon, who is the measure’s sponsor and also council vice president.

At the earlier hearing, four people spoke against extending benefits to domestic partners, the only ones to speak on the proposal.

At the November 18 meeting, however, 13 people signed up to speak about the benefits. Of those, only two were opposed, and the other 11 were in favor of the benefits.

The two speaking in opposition were Doris Durica, who also spoke at the last meeting and has opposed the city of Cleveland’s benefits, and Suzanne Redhed, who with her husband James led the opposition to a domestic partner registry passed by Cleveland Heights voters in 2003.

Speakers in favor of the benefits, on the other hand, included two clergy members and a candidate for county executive in last year’s election.

David Ream, one of the founders of the Plexus LGBT chamber of commerce and a prominent businessman, shot down opponents’ fiscal arguments.

“If the county hired more married workers, this would not be an issue,” he told committee members, noting that the benefits for married couples would cost the same amount, but would not be protested. He also pointed to the trend among major corporations toward offering partner benefits.

Rev. Craig Hoffman of the United Church of Christ pointed out that his denomination offers domestic partner benefits.

Robin Richmond, who teaches at Cuyahoga Community College, shot down Durica’s argument about the county paying $10,000 for HIV treatment by pointing out that his wife’s cancer treatment cost their insurer hundreds of thousands of dollars, “so it makes no sense to pick out the cost of certain diseases.”

Former county executive candidate Ken Lanci said that he provides domestic partner benefits at his companies, Consolidated Graphics Group and Consolidated Technologies Group, which between them have 150 employees. He said that opposition to equal benefits is “discrimination, plain and simple.”

Attorney Leslye Huff and Elizabeth Sebian, whose letter to the committee was read by Steve Bennett, came at the issue from different directions of the same argument: offering domestic partner benefits attracts and retains talented employees.

“It is a fact that our young people are leaving the area, especially Cuyahoga County,” Huff said. “They are leaving partly because it is not progressive enough . . . We have a chance to send a message to former residents of Cuyahoga County: Come back!”

Sebian’s letter noted that she had a job offer in Cleveland, and what decided the issue for her was when she read in the company’s human resources materials that they offered domestic partner benefits. She knew then that it was a company for whom she wished to work.

After the public comments were over, law director Majeed Makhlouf spoke to the committee on a question given to him at a prior meeting, how the benefits interact with Ohio’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Makhlouf said that the ordinance should not be deemed as giving domestic partners spousal benefits, but rather that benefits are given to domestic partners, and one form of domestic partnership is marriage.

Brian DeWitt contributed to this story.

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