published Friday, November 15th, 2013

Same-sex fight goes on in Chattanooga: Group starts petition as final vote looms

Poll
Should the City Council approve same-sex benefits?

A proposal to expand city benefits to employees’ domestic partners has already won preliminary approval from the Chattanooga City Council, but opponents aren’t giving up.

They are waging a fight on multiple fronts, and their latest plan is to take the vote from the City Council and give it to the public.

The benefits proposal put forth by Councilman Chris Anderson would allow city employees living with partners of more than a year to include them on their insurance. The measure, which has been hotly debated for eight weeks, passed its first test on Tuesday by a 5-4 City Council vote.

Barring a change of heart among someone on the council, final approval next week appears likely.

But a petition drive being put together by the conservative group Citizens for Government Accountability & Transparency could lead to reconsideration of the measure even if final approval is forthcoming.

If the group receives the required number of signatures the council must consider whether to repeal the ordinance, said City Attorney Wade Hinton. If the measure is not repealed, the city’s chief financial officer is required to notify the local election commission to put the question to a referendum vote in the next election.

Mark West, president of the citizens group as well as the Chattanooga Tea Party, estimates it will take about 4,500 signatures to go forward. He said the benefit expansion ordinance is too controversial and contentious for the City Council to decide and the public has a right to vote on the issue.

“There’s no neutral ground on this,” West said. “Something of this magnitude is being decided by one vote.”

Anderson declined to comment on the petition because he said he hasn’t seen a copy. But in the past he has dismissed the idea of a referendum vote, saying that public officials are elected to make tough votes.

Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor, said the conservative group’s strategy has been in the playbook for years and has been used successfully on gay rights issues in the past.

“It’s not a new strategy; we saw it used in California,” said Oppenheimer. “But my sense is that it hasn’t been as successful recently because the public attitude is shifting.”

Anderson also was personally challenged this week when two complaints were filed with the city attorney’s office claiming he shouldn’t be allowed to vote on his ordinance.

Fellow Councilman Larry Grohn filed one complaint, arguing that Anderson has a conflict of interest because he is gay and has a personal interest in the ordinance.

Assistant City Attorney Valerie Malueg found that Anderson does not meet the requirements to receive the benefits and does not have a personal interest that would require him to recuse himself from voting.

Anderson said Grohn’s complaint was just a strategy to try to keep the ordinance from passing.

“It was just another strategic attempt to prevent this body from voting in its entirety because they knew they were fighting a losing fight,” Anderson said.

The second complaint, filed by local activist Charlie Wysong, makes a similar claim, alleging multiple city ethics codes violations by Anderson. But Wysong also filed a complaint against the city attorney, claiming that because Hinton worked with Anderson to draft the legislation, he also violated the city’s ethic codes.

The city attorney’s Office will have to hire outside counsel to review Wysong’s complaint because of a potential conflict of interest, said Mayor Andy Berke’s spokeswoman Lacie Stone. The city could have to pay up to $10,000 in attorney fees, she said.

West said the group’s petition is being reviewed by the local and state election offices before the group will start to collect signatures.

Hinton said the City Charter requires the signatures to be collected within two weeks of the second reading of the ordinance, which means the clock would start ticking after Tuesday night’s vote.

Citizens for Government Accountability & Transparency and several area churches hosted a public forum on the same-sex benefits proposal Thursday night.

Five council members accepted the invitation to attend, West said. Anderson said he declined to go, and the mayor’s office said Berke, who supports the ordinance, didn’t attend because of a prior commitment.

Come Thursday night, though, only two council members – Grohn and Councilman Ken Smith – showed up.

It was a fact pointed out by audience members during a Q&A session after the moderated portion of the forum.

Most of the 100 or so attendees would be in favor of a public referendum anyway.

They said Thursday’s turnout is further proof that some City Council members are not interested in hearing residents out, much less reflect their opinions in a vote.

“Five members will vote for [the bill], and it will pass,” Grohn predicted.

Staff writer Alex Green contributed to this report.

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

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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