Officials quietly committed to domestic partnership benefits

by Jordan Green

Greensboro City Council members might struggle over deep-seated differences concerning the truth and reconciliation process and corporate incentives, but when it comes to domestic partnership benefits -‘ a hot-button issue with both social and economic dimensions – elected officials uphold the famed Greensboro “progressive” consensus by singing from the same sheet of music.

Sound business practices and a desire to demonstrate acceptance of gays and lesbians are two reasons council members say they support the policy. Despite strident objection from some observers, Greensboro is set to join Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County as it quietly adds unmarried same-sex couples and their partners to its health plan.

City Manager Mitchell Johnson declined to offer a timetable for making domestic partnership benefits available, but in an Aug. 23 interview with YES! Weekly said the policy change could take effect as early as January, when the city traditionally signs up new members for its healthcare plan. Echoing reports by officials in Durham and Chapel Hill, Johnson said the cost of expanding coverage would likely be minimal because a relatively small group of new subscribers would be expected to qualify.

“It’s I guess a significant policy issue, but it’s not a significant financial issue,” he said. “The people who are concerned about it for religious reasons – that’s not something I’m able to get into. The city wants to be in a progressive position and we want to compete with other progressive companies. From a recruitment position, that’s what we need to do. It’s a business decision when you boil it down.”

Johnson said the city is committed to offering the benefits, but the city’s legal and human resources departments still need to iron out some details before a final plan can be drawn up.

“The Human Relations Commission has been pushing this for years,” Johnson said. “Frankly, I have gotten some pretty clear language from the School of Government [at UNC-Chapel Hill] that says the manager has the legal right to do it. I looked at a staff presentation and made the decision to move ahead with this.”

The city manager said employees who wanted to participate would need to demonstrate long-term commitment by such means as presenting bank records or demonstrating joint ownership of a house. He foresees the benefits being extended “under fairly strict criteria” to partners engaged in “truly a long-term relationship.” While some city council members have said they envision the policy including non-married heterosexual couples and biological family members such as siblings or parents, Johnson said he expects the program to expand by only a modest degree – to include “certain domestic partners that don’t have the benefits of marriage.”

City council members acknowledge the city’s move to offer domestic partnership benefits is not universally popular. They said they were satisfied with a brief presentation by Johnson and saw no need to put the matter to a vote.

That was exactly what Joseph Guarino, a physician who practices in Reidsville and a columnist at the News & Record, requested in an Aug. 18 post on his web-log.

“A change of this nature is likely to arouse some degree of discussion and heartfelt opposition,” he wrote. “And it is an intensely political change, grounded squarely in the fertile fields of interest group politics and liberal orthodoxy.”

Sandra Anderson Groat, who became mayor pro tem after winning the largest share of votes in her first-time run for city council in November 2005, said she was happy to go on record and discuss the matter, but saw no reason for a vote.

“I think it is the kind, caring, accepting thing to do, and most all big companies and big corporations do this,” she said. “All the e-mails I’ve gotten – about ten – the people are strongly against this.”

Groat said she has strong support in Greensboro’s gay community. She recently attended an auction hosted by the Guilford Green Foundation, an organization that raises money for gay and lesbian organizations. Mayor Keith Holliday addressed the group, Groat said, adding that she believes it was the first time elected officials had ever attended the event.

At least tacit support has come from District 3 Councilman Tom Phillips, a self-identified conservative who works as a realtor for Merrill Lynch.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. “Our corporation has the same policy. I try to use common sense. I’m a fiscal conservative.”

He said he has received some backlash for his position, mostly from people outside of Greensboro.

District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small said she favors an expansive domestic partnership benefits policy.

“I’m in favor of domestic partnership benefits, but not just for gay couples,” she said. “There are other situations where you might have a family member who is not a child. What about the elderly mother living with her daughter? The mother perhaps doesn’t have her own insurance or it’s not sufficient. A lot of times you have siblings living together.”

At least four out of five remaining council members appear to also support domestic partnership benefits.

At-large Councilwoman Florence Gatten came out in support of domestic partnership benefits in her 2005 election campaign. Mayor Holliday has gone on record confirming that the city plans to offer the benefits, but how he personally feels about the move remains unclear. Phillips said he thought the mayor was a supporter, along with at-large Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson and District 4 Councilman Mike Barber. None of them could be reached for comment. Nor could District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells, whose views on the subject are unclear.

The lone note of caution was sounded by District 5 Councilwoman Sandy Carmany.

“I don’t oppose it per se,” she said. “I had some concerns about what kind of legal exposure we would have. The attorney general declined to issue a ruling after a couple years of inquiries. I don’t know yet if it’s legal. Whether you win or lose, litigation is expensive.”

Chapel Hill and Carrboro have been sued because of their domestic partnership benefits, and an Orange County superior court judge upheld the policies, ruling against a plaintiff who argued that the towns did not have the authority to provide benefits to the children of domestic partners.

“Ten years ago this was considered unthinkable,” said Johnson, the Greensboro city manager. “Ten years from now every city in the country will be offering domestic partnership benefits.”

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