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December 16, 2011

Council delays partner benefit vote till March

Cleveland--Cuyahoga County Council did not vote on proposed domestic partner benefits on December 6 as scheduled. Instead, they put the ordinance on hold until the Human Relations Commission can give them a definition of “domestic partner” and cost estimates.

The measure, introduced in August, was due for its third and final reading and vote that evening. It passed the Justice Affairs and Human Resources, Appointments and Equity committees on November 18. Councilors now expect to take up the measure again in March.

After a dozen members of the public commented both for and against the measure, District 10 councilor Julian Rogers revealed that it would not get a vote that night.

“I just want to first apologize to everyone that came out today expecting that there would be a vote on this issue,” said Rogers, a Democrat who represents Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland and the northeast part of Cleveland. “I just heard for the first time that this was going to be deferred back to the human resources commission, but you know, if that’s the process we’re going to follow, that’s fine and I’m good with that, but I really want to express my disappointment with not having the vote today.”

He continued, “We currently discriminate against gay and lesbian . . . employees in our county government, and our government shouldn’t be in the practice of discrimination, period. And, you know, some of the things that I heard today, particularly the idea that discrimination saves our society, is just complete nonsense.”

“I really want to move forward on this legislation. I’m fine on moving it to the human resources commission for their description and definition of what a domestic partnership is, but I think that, for the weeks and months that we’ve been discussing this issue, I just wanted to express my disappointment for not voting on this today and apologize again for all those on both sides of this issue that came out expecting a vote today,” he concluded.

Dave Greenspan, the Republican councilor for District 1 (western suburbs), said that Ohio’s 2004 constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage also prohibits this ordinance. He made the same claim in the November 18 committee meeting.

Sunny Simon, Democrat of District 11 (from Euclid south to Beachwood), the bill’s main sponsor, pointed out that County Law Director Majeed Makhlouf has already given his opinion that the amendment does not affect the benefits.

District 6 Councilor Jack Schron, a Republican representing the outer eastern and southern suburbs, pointed out that single employees were being discriminated against because they do not have spousal benefits.

Democrat Chuck Germana of District 4 (Parma, Brooklyn) and Republican Michael Gallagher of District 5 (outer southwest suburbs) said that Schron’s point needed consideration--which would delay the partner measure further.

This put the measure’s apparent opposition at four members, with six of the eleven having signed on as sponsors.

Germana then asked County Executive Edward FitzGerald whether the council could simply ask the Human Resources Commission or the Human Resources Department for the information, without having to send them the legislation and having to repeat the entire process of committee meetings and three readings before the full council.

FitzGerald, who was not the most progressive member of Lakewood City Council in his early years there, said yes, they could just do that.

“I’d also just like to say, since you asked, I’ve heard these debates for a long time, and as some of my friends from Lakewood know, we deliberated about this in Lakewood almost 12 years ago,” FitzGerald said. “These are not new questions. The definitions of what is a domestic partner, maybe that was plowing new ground 12 years ago. It isn’t any more. These have been adopted all over the country. This really is not that innovative. The whole question about fraud and how to prevent fraud, none of those dire predictions have come to pass in any of the jurisdictions or companies that adopted these things through the years. It’s pretty straightforward.”

He acknowledged that the question of cost was valid, and that it would not be detrimental to have an estimate of the cost of the added benefits.

Council then decided to hold the measure until a March meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting, members of the public addressed the council.

Anti-gay speakers Doris Durica, Ilona Frank and Hanna Gereby, who have also spoken at committee meetings on the ordinance, were joined by newcomer Col Lee Upshur, who took a far more direct tack: She quoted an early Southern Baptist Convention leader and urged council members to remember that, apparently, God was responsible for their elections. At the end of public comments, Juri Ammari, pastor of a small congregation in Ohio City, gave a brief sermon, complete with self-flagellation.

Outnumbering them, however, were the progressive voices of Cuyahoga County, including Rev. Bob and Joyce Strommen. Mrs. Strommen apologized to the council members for having to hear her talk about the issue again, but went on to speak about her children, gay, lesbian and straight, and how they were all gifts. Rev. Strommen echoed his wife’s sentiments.

Before them, though, Rev. Wayne Brass, a MetroHealth chaplain, spoke to the councilors. He mentioned that his wife, who is covered under his health benefits, has multiple sclerosis, so the insurance is essential. He also said that his church, Archwood United Church of Christ, offers their pastor insurance benefits for her partner. “I would ask you to consider equity and justice as one of the driving motivations,” he urged.

Geoff Petranek, a county employee, spoke in favor of the benefits. He pointed out that he and his partner already have separate insurance policies, so he would not directly benefit. However, he said, everyone should benefit equally.

“There is a benefit to employees to have a partner, to have a spouse, on your hospitalization, and that is the rule across the board. Everybody gets it, or nobody gets it,” he said. He then countered the financial arguments against the benefits by pointing out that if no gay people worked for the county, but solely married people, they would cost the same, and a county employee’s spouse could incur the same costs for health care.

Cleveland Stonewall Democrats president Rob Rivera pointed out that, for his students, this is a non-issue, and that in the future, they will look back at 2011 and express their incredulity at the matter even being the subject of debate. He also noted that he not only did not leave Ohio after the marriage ban amendment passed in 2004, but returned to Cuyahoga County after finishing law school in Franklin County.

“It is the right thing to do,” he said, before turning to economics. “This is economic stimulus. This is attracting the best and brightest to Cuyahoga County.”

Sharon Groh-Wargo, a 30-year veteran of MetroHealth as well as the president of PFLAG Cleveland, noted that her daughter, who lives outside the county, is a lesbian in a long-term relationship.

“All of our citizens deserve access to health care, and I know that better than most, having worked at MetroHealth,” she noted.

Attorney Leslye Huff wrapped up the pro-gay side of the commentary from the citizenry.

“Here we have a situation where we have useful members of the society already, people who are working for you, working for us, working on our behalf every day, and are treated in ways that are disparate, treated in ways that are unfair, as they are sitting beside their coworkers and they know that they have children at home that can’t get the health care they deserve, have a partner at home who has been loyal to them as my partner has been to me for over 30 years, and yet they are not receiving the same kind of response from their own county government that the person in the next cubicle is getting,” she said.

“Well, when it comes down to is, the only reason is, some people think their god is bigger than your god or my god or someone else’s god or no one’s god, and that simply isn’t the role of our civil society government,” she continued. “The role of our government is to take care of and to protect its own interest and the interest of all its people, regardless of their religious choice or sexual orientation or gender identity.”

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