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.”