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January 27, 2012

Cuyahoga panel seeks to define ‘domestic partner’

Cleveland--Benefits for the domestic partners of Cuyahoga County employees inched forward along a winding road to passage January 13, as a council committee sent the measure to the Human Resource Commission for further work.

The domestic partner benefits had made it to the full council for a vote on December 6 but it was sent back to committee, in part so the council could get a full definition of “domestic partner” from the human resources commission. The move took some councilors by surprise, and a bemused Edward FitzGerald, the county executive, noted that the definition is readily available and it is not a new issue.

Six of the 11 county council members are sponsors of the measure, which would extend to domestic partners the same health benefits now given to employees’ spouses.

Franklin and Lucas counties--home to Columbus and Toledo--already offer the benefits to their workers, as do the cities of Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and Columbus. Other local employers who have them are Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University, Fairview Hospital, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, KeyCorp and University Hospitals of Cleveland.

While the Human Resource Commission has no specific timeline in which to return the legislation, it is expected to be back on the table by the end of March.

If the commission approves the measure, it will go to the full council for a vote; if they require more information, it will return to the committee.

At the January 13 meeting of the Human Resources, Appointments and Equity Committee, Councilor Julian Rogers of District 10, who has emerged as one of the strongest supporters of the measure, moved to amend the ordinance to allow marriage certificates or civil unions from other states as documentation to receive benefits. Committee chair Yvonne Conwell of District 7 seconded the motion, and they and District 5 Councilor Mike Gallagher, the final member of the committee, unanimously approved the amendment.

Conwell then moved to refer the measure to the Human Resource Commission for review, and Rogers seconded. Again, Gallagher assented.

Three people spoke before the committee--Joseph Jacoby, Rev. Allen Harris and Rev. Craig Hoffman. Harris is the minister of Franklin Circle Christian Church, and his partner, Hoffman, works for the United Church of Christ.

In the December meeting, Rogers expressed his disapproval at the delay in a vote. “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,” he said, echoing the sentiments of many in the room following comments by a few county residents using talking points provided by Citizens for Community Values, an anti-gay organization in suburban Cincinnati.

“I really want to move forward on this legislation. I’m fine on moving it to the Human Resource 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,” Rogers concluded at the earlier meeting.

The change to the benefits was introduced last summer by District 11 Councilor Sunny Simon, and has been approved by county law director Majeed Makhlouf, who has said that it is not affected by the state’s 2004 marriage ban constitutional amendment.

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