The Buncombe County Diversity and Inclusion Committee will present its recommendation to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners March 19. The committee wants the county to offer the same health and leave benefits to domestic partners as are currently offered to the families of county employees who are married.
According to the committee's report, the recommendation aims to help ensure "a work environment that is free of discrimination and harassment for all people under all circumstances." The report maintains that the policy change will help the county attract and retain the best employees.
The report recommends defining a domestic partnership "as a committed relationship between two individuals of the same or opposite sex who are legally competent and at least eighteen (18) years of age, who live together in a long term relationship of indefinite duration, who are not legally married to each other or to anyone else, or in the case of same sex couples, are legally prohibited from marrying each other in the State of North Carolina or have an out of state marriage not recognized by the State of North Carolina, and are jointly responsible for each other’s common welfare and financial obligations."
The report further defines domestic partners as couples who share the same primary residence for at least 12 consecutive months.
Last summer, Buncombe County commissioners sharply disagreed over revising the county's personnel ordinance to specifically ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Three members of the five member board stood opposed and kept it from passing: Commissioners Carol Peterson, K. Ray Bailey, and Bill Stanley. But none of those members now serve on the board; Bailey and Stanley didn't run for reelection; Peterson lost her race to represent District 2. Despite legal expertise to the contrary, they expressed fears that the move wouldn't comply with Amendment One, which defines marriage in North Carolina as between one man and one woman.
At the time, some critics also worried that the move would pave the way for same-sex domestic partner benefits, which they said would be too costly to the county. The Diversity and Inclusion Committee doesn't mention any cost estimates in its report.
Board chair David Gantt and vice chair Holly Jones are the only incumbents on the board, and each supported the personnel protections last year.
The Diversity and Inclusion Committee's new recommendations don't include adding language to the personnel ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but it does suggest the passage of a "Respectful Workplace Policy" to help maintain "a safe, supportive, and inclusive work environment that is free of offensive remarks, material, or behavior." The policy would include a grievance process for employees to address any problems and ongoing inclusion and diversity training for all staff.
The city of Asheville has offered domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples since early 2011. Mission Health System, the area's largest employer, has offered domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples since early 2012.
Charged with determining if the county's "policies and practices supported and promoted a work environment that was free from discrimination and harassment and equitable for all employees," the Diversity and Inclusion Committee is made up of the following county staffers: Angela Pittman, Health and Human Services; David Thompson, IT; Joseph Owen, IT; Diane Price, Finance; Gigi Francis, Library; Ronnie Reece, EMS; Joshua O’Conner, Permits and Inspection; Deyanira Toruno Ramos, Health and Human Services; Roxann Sizemore, Health and Human Services; Curt Euler, Assistant County Attorney; and Lisa Eby, Health and Human Services.