published Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Chattanooga residents to vote on domestic partner benefits

  • photo
    Chris Anderson mingles with supporters in this file photo.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

  • photo
    Mark West, president of Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency, drops off 1634 signatures petitioning Chattanooga's same-sex partner benefit ordinance to Brenda Hixson at the Hamilton County Election Commission.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Without taking a vote, the City Council sent to a referendum vote in August the controversial ordinance that offers benefits to city employee's gay or straight partners.

Since more than 7,000 valid signatures were collected by the local conservative group Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency during a petition in opposition to the domestic partner benefit ordinance, the council had two options Tuesday night: repeal the ordinance or do nothing.

The Chattanooga council chose the latter, which starts the process to put the ordinance on the August ballot during the Hamilton County general election.

Since last August, the public has loudly debated on both sides Councilman Chris Anderson's proposal to extend benefits to city employees' domestic partners. After the City Council approved the ordinance with first a split 5-4 then 5-3 vote, the local conservative political action committee got to work campaigning for residents to repeal the ordinance with their signatures.

When the group led by Tea Party leader Mark West collected nearly double the amount of signatures needed under the City Charter to do just that, the ordinance was stopped until further action was taken.

City Attorney Wade Hinton laid out the council's only two options Tuesday night.

One local activist opposed to the bill didn't think the council made the right decision.

"I think they did not do what the people wanted," said Charlie Wysong, an activist who helped lead the campaign to repeal the ordinance. "But the people will decide this [ordinance] is something they don't want."

Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem, who was the tie-breaker vote in favor of the ordinance, said he believe those that signed the petition wanted the question to go before the public, and he left the decision to repeal the ordinance up to his fellow council members.

Anderson said he wasn't surprised by the council's decision. As far as a public vote, he said he isn't worried.

"I'm confident the people of Chattanooga can make the right decision," he said. "[One] they won't be ashamed of 10 years from now."

Both those for and against the ordinance have already said they will campaign to get the word out on the upcoming vote.

Those hoping to repeal the ordinance will try to educate the public about the ordinance and encourage residents to sign up to vote, Wysong said.

Anderson said he plans to make sure residents understand what the ordinance does and he wants to make sure no one thinks by adding this benefit the city is going to cut other employees' benefits.

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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