Smyrna eyes same-sex couple benefits
by Sarah Westwood
July 30, 2014 04:00 AM | 4697 views | 23 23 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
SMYRNA — A policy that would allow the same-sex partners of city employees to receive the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts is under consideration by Smyrna officials.

Council members discussed the proposal at a work session Monday before agreeing to review the policy further, with some expressing support for the idea and others raising concerns.

Asked after the meeting, council members Wade Lnenicka, Andrea Blustein and Teri Anulewicz said they would likely vote in favor of the policy if a vote was held today. Councilman Charles Welch said he would likely vote against it. Council members Rob Fennel and Susan Wilkinson remain undecided as to how they would vote. Mayor Pro-Tem Melleny Pritchett and Mayor Max Bacon did not return calls by press time.

Kay Bolick, the city’s human resources director, said the new policy would extend all the benefits available to the legally-recognized spouses of city employees today, such as health insurance coverage and bereavement, to “spousal equivalents” who are in a domestic partnership with city employees.

A draft of the policy defines a spousal equivalent as a partner who is “of the same sex of the employee and is at least 18 years of age.”

The policy draft further stipulates the domestic partners must be “jointly responsible for each others’ basic living expenses,” must live at the same address and must plan to stay together indefinitely.

Bolick said the city began discussing the changes last year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.

Eric Taylor, the city administrator, said the policy must still undergo a legal review before the mayor and council can agree to put it to a formal vote.

Welch worried the domestic partner policy could leave the city government “open for fraud.”

“I will have a difficult time supporting it,” he said.

Welch described a hypothetical situation in which two platonic roommates — one of whom works for the city and the other of whom receives a “financially devastating” medical diagnosis — “swear they’re life partners” in order to extend the employee’s life insurance policy to the sick friend.

He expressed concern the provision would allow such individuals to “take advantage of the situation and sign up for our insurance.”

In Monday evening’s meeting, Welch also said he takes “moral issue” with same-sex partnerships and told the council he does not support them.

Fennel cited the conditions spousal equivalents may be required to meet in order to meet the city’s eligibility for benefits, including providing proof of a shared land deed or lease or documentation of joint bank accounts.

He asked the council during the meeting to consider whether those stipulations placed “an undue burden on homosexual couples that’s not on heterosexual couples,” pointing out that many married couples keep separate finances and are not required to report their accounts to their employers.

After the meeting, Fennel would not take a position on the issue.

“I’m not prepared to discuss how I would vote until I see what the legislation develops into,” he said. “I’m just going to wait until we discuss it as a group rather than discuss it in public yet.”

Wilkinson also declined to say how she would vote.

“I haven’t really read it,” she said of the policy. “I’m open to reading about it and to see what’s involved. We’ll see how things go.”

Wilkinson said she thinks the city government is “trying to be progressive” by moving the proposal forward.

Taylor said Lnenicka first brought up the idea last year around the city’s “open enrollment” period, which falls in November and allows employees to sign up for next year’s health insurance benefits.

The council decided the policy needed more work than could be accomplished before open enrollment and pushed the discussion back a year, Taylor said.

Lnenicka said he believes extending benefits to domestic partners is “the right thing to do.”

“I think the country is changing its views on that subject. I think it’s wrong to deny equal rights and protection to anybody,” he said. “I don’t think it means we’re endorsing gay marriage or gay civil unions, but it says we’re going to treat our gay employees just like our heterosexual employees.”

Lnenicka said one reason he’s proposing the change is because he’s comfortable with who he is and believes others should have the same rights he does.

“I’m comfortable. I’m a heterosexual guy, but I’m comfortable in who I am in saying that we should treat everybody the same in terms of the city benefits and privileges and rights.”

As an army ranger with “nothing to hide or to prove,” Lnenicka said he is “not afraid” to confront the issue.

“We’re not trying to redefine marriage; we’re just trying to say what benefits are available for our employees.”

Blustein said same-sex unions are “the reality of the times.”

“Some of the domestic partners have been together longer than some of the marriages,” she said.

Anulewicz, who did not attend Monday’s meeting, said she “whole-heartedly” supports the proposed policy.

“We have, for example, members of our public safety department who put their lives on the line every day to protect the citizens of Smyrna,” she said. “It is difficult for me to explain why we can’t offer protections to their lifelong partners.”

Council members gave differing accounts of how close they are to casting their votes on whether to extend benefits.

“We’re not close to even discussing it for a decision yet,” Fennel said.

Welch said he didn’t think the policy could be implemented this year because the city has already set its budget for the coming fiscal year.

But others indicated the policy is on its way to passage.

“I think that probably, it’s moving towards getting passed,” Blustein said.

She said the more council members discuss domestic partner benefits, “the easier the conversation becomes for some.”

“I really don’t know why it hasn’t been adopted,” she said.

Lnenicka expressed confidence that the council could reach a decision “one way or the other” by November.

Jeffrey Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights advocacy group, said about a dozen of Georgia’s almost 700 municipalities have adopted similar domestic partner benefit policies.

He said measures have passed through city and county governments more easily in the past decade because of changes in the private sector.

“Partner benefits are just so standard as a best business practice in this county,” he said. “I think more and more employers in these municipalities have to understand that if they want to attract and retain the best employees possible, they have to be competitive.”

Graham said 62 percent of Fortune 500 companies extend benefits to same-sex partners.

Athens-Clarke County is among the few counties to approve domestic partner legislation.

Jeff Montgomery, spokesman for Athens-Clarke, said commissioners narrowly passed the legislation by a 6-4 vote in December of 2006.

Montgomery noted Athens-Clarke’s policy allows both same and opposite sex couples to fall under the domestic partnership rules.

Smyrna’s proposal limits the definition of what is considered a domestic partnership to same-sex couples, excluding men and women who are in long-term, unmarried relationships.

Bolick, Smyrna’s human resources director, said she modeled the draft she presented Monday after the city of Decatur’s policy, which has been in effect since 2001.

Decatur spokeswoman Casie Yoder said the city’s policy simply added “spousal equivalent” language to “key parts” of the existing benefits document.

Bolick retained many of Decatur’s stipulations, such as one requiring partners to get married within a year of the effective date of any law recognizing same-sex marriage in the event the state of Georgia overturns its ban.

Cobb County spokesman Robert Quigley said the county government does not offer benefits to same-sex partners and said the county is not aware of any Cobb cities that do.

Neither Republican Bob Weatherford nor Democrat Derrick Crump, who are both vying to replace retiring Commissioner Helen Goreham on the Board of Commissioners, would say whether they would support or oppose extending benefits to the same-sex partners of county employees.

“That’s something I would have to discuss with HR,” Weatherford said. “We’ve never had that come up in Acworth. And I’d have to look at all different angles of it. I would consider it, but I’m undecided.”

Crump also avoided taking a stance.

“I cannot say I would or wouldn’t support policies to extend benefits to spouses of city employees of same-sex domestic partners. I can say that I’m open to discussions about it,” Crump said.

Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews said he didn’t know whether his city has a domestic partner policy in place and said he doesn’t know what the council would do if someone proposed creating one.

Brad Hulsey, city manager for Powder Springs, said the city hasn’t “taken any steps to discuss it.”

“We’re not required by law to provide those type (of) benefits,” Hulsey said.

Austell Mayor Joe Jerkins said the issue has never come up in his city.

“That’s something I’ve never thought of,” Jerkins said. “I think marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman, that’s the way I feel about it.”

Comments
(23)
Comments-icon Post a Comment
Left WIng Spin
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July 31, 2014
The very same people screaming for equality and calling people names like homophobic are the very same people who practice christophobia against Christians, like destroying a Christian business that does not support their chosen lifestyle. Hypocrisy, pure and simple.

They claim they were born that way. A murderer says the same thing, he was born that way. How convenient to blame bad choices on being born that way. The only valid claim to being born that way is race, a black person had no choice being born that way.

Get a grip on reality!

Lazily Anonymous
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August 03, 2014
Everyone's entitled to their opinion as are people free to raise a fuss over and boycott businesses they deem offensive.

Also do some research and reading before making generalizations about murderers. There are numerous studies that have been done that show links between genes and violence and psychopathic tendencies. Also some that are finding links that indicate a genetic link to sexual attraction.

Please tell us again when you chose to be heterosexual??
Jasonb84
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July 31, 2014
Unfortunately Georgia is one of the most homophobic states in the USA. So same-sex couples should not expect to be treated with respect anytime soon in Georgia.
Oh...okay
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July 31, 2014
Yawn
Doesn't make sense
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July 30, 2014
If you give gay couples benefits based on the fact they live together, you need to give heterosexual couples benefits, if they live together. People change their living partner often in today's world. Of course, you think you are staying together but it changes. Benefits are for married couples, not for people living together. Until you live in a state where they accept gay marriage, you shouldn't have benefits.
RL Bays
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July 30, 2014
Equality will prevail.
Common law
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July 30, 2014
Some companies recognize common law marriage and will allow for partners to be added on to insurance policies and health plans.

MAY-RETTA SURVIVOR
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July 30, 2014
It's not merely a matter of WHO you love, but if you are simply CAPABLE of love. Sadly, here in this forum, a lot are not...
Nunya2
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July 30, 2014
These comments sum up why Cobb County will ALWAYS be a backwater of bigotry and hatred.
Vorant1
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July 30, 2014
Disgusting.
Simple Fact
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July 30, 2014
Even a third grader can explain the difference between discrimination and someone who voluntarily chooses to live a particular lifestyle.
You're Simply Wrong
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July 30, 2014
This is 1,000% true:

I know two deaf guys: Gay. I know a guy missing an arm: Gay. I know a guy missing half his leg: Gay. I know a guy who relies on a walker (not sure of his condition): Gay. I know a quadriplegic: Gay.

So, on top of the physical challenges these guys already face, you're suggesting they've ALSO chosen sexual orientations that make their lives even MORE difficult? That't not even a LITTLE logical.

No one chooses to be gay. But people DO choose to ignore this fact when gay people -- who, I'd say are the experts at "being gay" -- TELL them they didn't choose their sexual orientation.
Nunya2
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July 30, 2014
So when did you decide to be straight? You must have made the choice right? And if being gay is a choice, then gay people must be the most dedicated people on the planet. They remain gay even as people like you disparage them. attack them and deny them equal rights.
anonymous
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July 30, 2014
Religion is clearly a choice, so shouldn't be protected.
anonymous
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July 30, 2014
There are many, many ways same sex non married couples abuse the American system. There are millions of households all across America where both the father and the mother live in the same household, non married, and the mother only reports her income and gets all kinds of government benefits, huge tax refunds, etc. for their offspring. This has nothing to do with class. Upper class abuse the system, as well as lower class. Baby Daddy's income doesn't get reported as contributing to the family although all living under the roof. Just gotta have a cousin's, etc. address to say Baby Daddy lives at. Abuse abounds with all. Government abuse knows no color, no income bracket, and no gender.
Leftist Spin Doctors
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July 31, 2014
@anonymous

The militant gay movement IS a religion, so it already IS protected. Actually, more than protected, it is an in-your-face movement, which falsely preaches tolerance. Yeah, tolerance, as long as you agree with them.
Byron Hawkins
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July 30, 2014
This is a great opportunity for Smyrna to get out ahead of the issue and at least appear progressive. The perception of Cobb being the County of Bias and Bigotry must change. The Supreme Court is going to have to rule on the same sex marriage issue within the next two years and I suspect, given last year's rulings, that they will come down on the side of equal rights for all Americans.
anonymous
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July 30, 2014
...equal unless you are Christian!!!
anonymous
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July 30, 2014
So gay couples would get treated like married couples ---whether they are in committed/marriage-like relationship or not...when it comes to doling out benefits to the "pother".

But, straight couples must get married in order to enjoy those benefits.

The assumption that all gay couples are in a "committed", marriage-like relationship is sheer fooey.

I know...that bit of truth is probably a bunch of hate speech. Forgive me.

Ooohhh how hard it is to be a gay foke dees days.
anonymous
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July 30, 2014
They will offer "domestic partner" benefits. That means if you are the same sex and partners AND it also means if you are the opposite sex and partners. Therefore, people of the opposite sex that live together and are not officially married can get benefits.
Lazily Anonymous
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July 30, 2014
Anonymous I can tell your lack of skill in reading comprehension by your abominable spelling and grammar above that you did not fully understand the hoops that Gay couples will have to jump through to obtain benefits if they even become available. Gay couples would have to prove cohabitation along with co-incomes that help to support both members of the relationship. Married couples with a single income household do not face this problem. If the state of Georgia still recognized common law marriages then the straight "unmarried" couple could obtain benefits without the hoops. Now they can just as easily go to the county court house and get married and would have no further validation requirements nor would anyone accuse them of getting married simply to provide benefits to their opposite sex friends. Since Gay marriage is still illegal in Georgia and no marriages performed in states that do allow Gay marriage are recognized in Georgia a "married" Gay would still have to prove their relationship was valid and they're not trying to commit fraud as one of the councilmen are concerned about. It's another form of discrimination while appearing progressive.
Agreed 100%
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July 30, 2014
I totally agreed. They will all be stating they are in a committed relationship, so it is discrimination toward heterosexual couples who are committed without being married.
anonymous
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July 30, 2014
No, straight couples do not have to get married to get the new benefits proposed. Many straight couples live together in a committed relationship, but they also cannot put one or the other on their benefits package without marriage as it is currently defined. That would be discrimination -- discrimination that committed same sex couples would get benefits, but opposite not-married committed straight couples would not get the same benefits. Both will get benefits -- non-married and straight couples (unless Smyrna wants to get slammed down right from the start). Many major corporations offer domestic partnership benefits. Mine does. I don't agree with it, but I am not going to quit my job over it.
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