published Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Same-sex benefits clear first vote in Chattanooga City Council

HOW THEY VOTED

• Chris Anderson, District 7 -- Yes. "I'm enormously proud of this ordinance ... it treats all of our employees and their families as equal to one another."

• Carol Berz, District 6 -- Yes. "This is an ordinance that has to do with expanding benefits and harassment matters the rest of it is emotion."

• Moses Freeman, District 8 -- Yes. "Our question is simple: 'Shall we treat all of our brothers and sisters and employees the same?'"

• Russell Gilbert, District 5 -- No. "I believe in male-female marriage and it is sacred to God."

• Larry Grohn, District 4 -- No. "It's a means to operate a back-door effort to circumvent the constitution of the state of Tennessee and to approve same-sex marriage period."

• Yusuf Hakeem, District 9 -- Yes. "We have people that put their lives on the line but are we treating them as full citizens?"

• Chip Henderson, District 1 -- No. "The issue of rewarding benefits to couples who are not married is both a moral and fiscal issue."

• Jerry Mitchell, District 2 -- Yes. "I'm going to vote for this because District 2 favors this."

• Ken Smith, District 3 -- No. " The council is being asked to create a newly defined group of non-employees who are being proposed as qualified to receive taxpayer funded benefits."

Poll
Did the City Council get it right?

After two months of public debate among residents across the Scenic City, members of the City Council spoke their mind en route to taking the first step toward making Chattanooga the third city in Tennessee to offer benefits to employees in same-sex and other domestic partnerships.

The controversial ordinance, which would expand benefits to the domestic partners of city employees, passed first reading Tuesday night by a 5-4 vote. Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem was the tie breaker. The ordinance will go for a final vote next Tuesday, and Anderson said he expects the vote to be the same for the bill to become law.

Following the vote, Chattanooga police Lt. Corliss Cooper scooted out of the City Council chambers to call her partner and tell her the news. She was surrounded by other supporters cheering and hugging one another.

"Baby, it passed," Cooper said to her partner, whom she plans to marry Monday in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, many who opposed the ordinance stormed out the door.

Opponents on the council cited their personal beliefs, argued that the bill bypasses the state constitution or that the bill was too costly to the city and would be used more by heterosexual unmarried couples than gay couples.

"The state of health insurance in our country today is more unstable now then ever and nobody knows for sure if our current insurance will be affected and how," Councilman Ken Smith said, receiving applause from the audience.

Councilman Chris Anderson announced in late August that he would introduce the ordinance, which will expand city employees' medical, dental, vision and voluntary life insurance benefits to their domestic partners who apply and to update the city's nondiscrimination clause on sexual orientation.

Since that announcement, dozens of residents, from pastors to advocacy group leaders to tea party members to gay and lesbians and even a local former state representative, have attended City Council meetings to argue their side.

On Tuesday it was the City Council's turn to take up the controversy for the first time.

"Many who would benefit from the passage of this ordinance are police officers, firefighters; some have decades of service to our city," Anderson said before voting for his bill. "Treating everyone equally doesn't threaten the religious liberty of others."

While the council's 6 p.m. meeting was structured and each member told a packed crowd where their convictions lay, Hakeem had to turn to his gavel at the earlier agenda session when colleagues' tempers flared during a discussion about what the bill could ultimately cost the city.

Councilman Larry Grohn was one of the first members to question Human Resources Director Todd Dockery on the cost of adding domestic partners to the city's plan. Dockery has estimated the city will pay an extra 1 percent into the city's $20 million annual plan, or about $168,000 a year. But Dockery told the council that the cost is based on studying other cities and the cost for Chattanooga is unknown.

But when Grohn asked whether the city should consider adding a pool of people who have a higher risk of sexually transmitted disease, Councilman Moses Freeman jumped in to chide Grohn.

When Chairman Yusuf Hakeem tried to cut him off, Freeman insisted: "Let me finish. To give a general indictment of people by any type of category is something we ought not to tolerate."

When Freeman asked to see the numbers that Grohn said were from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing where gay people are at higher risk, Grohn responded: "I could go up in five minutes and get that data for you."

Then Councilman Russell Gilbert chimed in, asking if the estimated 1 percent increase to the city's health plan is an accurate estimate, because of illegitimate children that couples or their partners might have.

"One male could have one to 12 babies from different ladies," he said.

Meanwhile, Anderson took to social media to criticize their comments.

"Councilman Grohn, noted expert on homosexuality, now asserting that LGBT employees are living high risk lifestyle," Anderson tweeted.

"Councilman Gilbert is concerned about the cost of covering illegitimate children, which he's never voiced before today," Anderson tweeted again.

But when Councilman Chip Henderson tried to question Dockery on why the measure is called an equity bill if it doesn't address other issues like extended health benefits for children past a certain age, Anderson interrupted.

  • photo
    Councilman Chris Anderson hugs Lt. Corliss Cooper at the City Council Building on Tuesday. During the first reading Councilman Anderson voted in support of the ordinance for domestic partner benefits, which the council passed 5-4.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
    enlarge photo

"Are we questioning an administrator on the thought behind the bill? He didn't write the bill," Anderson shot back.

When the men tried to shout over each other, Hakeem interrupted with his gavel: "Gentlemen, please."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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