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February 24, 2012

Cuyahoga council passes domestic partner benefits

Cleveland--After protracted hearings and being bounced back to committee, the Cuyahoga County Council passed an ordinance granting domestic partner benefits to county workers on Valentine’s Day, February 14.

All six of the Democratic councilors who sponsored the ordinance voted in favor. Three Republicans--Michael J. Gallagher, Jack Schron and Dave Greenspan--and east side Democrat Pernel Jones, Jr. voted against it. District 4 councilor Chuck Germana was absent.

The ordinance extends to gay and lesbian employees’ domestic partners the same benefits, including health coverage, now given to the spouses and children of married workers. Similar measures exist in Franklin and Lucas counties, and the cities of Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and Columbus. Cincinnati is in the process of enacting one.

The Cuyahoga measure was amended in committee to include only same-sex domestic partners. Council members said that heterosexual partners can get married to access the benefits, which gays and lesbians cannot do in Ohio.

The benefits will likely begin in April, and the county expects that just over fifty workers might sign up for them, at most. If all the expected employee partners sign up, it will add about $300,000 to the budget, much less than the existing cost of covering spouses.

At the top of the meeting, the anti-gay groups that have attended the measure’s committee meetings were conspicuously absent from the public comments. Four people spoke, all of whom are either LGBT or are staunch supporters of the community. They included Cleveland Stonewall Democrats president Rob Rivera, Rev. Bob Strommen and his wife Joyce, and Mary Ostendorf. At the end of the meeting, Kevin Schmotzer, a city of Cleveland employee, commended the council for passing the benefits, which were granted to city employees last year.

Rivera noted that granting benefits and other pro-LGBT measures do not run afoul of the state’s marriage ban amendment, which was limited by the Ohio Supreme Court to banning only marriage and civil union.

The ordinance was amended twice at the meeting. The first amendment, brought forward by councilor Dale Miller, changed wording on a partner’s children, altering it from “under 26” to “26 or under,” bringing the age more in line with state and federal regulations on health coverage for dependents.

Council vice president Sunny Simon, who introduced the ordinance last summer, changed the partnership documentation requirements to include a marriage license from another “jurisdiction” instead of another “state,” to include ones from countries like Canada, the Netherlands and Spain that allow same-sex marriage.

“I do want to say that, should this ordinance pass, I too believe that this ordinance will move us significantly, this whole county, into the 21st century,” Simon said before the vote, “to ensure that all of our citizens are treated equally, without discrimination, to say we’re a county of inclusiveness, of fairness, and competitiveness, and that we welcome everybody to live in Cuyahoga County and work here with open arms, whoever you are.”

Councilor Dale Miller noted that he had attended the opening of the Global Cleveland Welcome Center, which has a goal of increasing the region’s population by 100,000 people. He said he supports the legislation because it would help meet that goal and illustrate the openness of Cuyahoga County.

After the vote, Councilor Yvonne Conwell congratulated Simon on the success of her efforts.

“I would just like to commend Councilwoman Simon for her hard work and dedication with this legislation and I agree that this legislation does promote everything about the county,” she said.

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