After about 90 minutes of public comment and deliberation on Feb. 9, Asheville City Council voted 4-2 to support a motion by Council member Gordon Smith supporting benefits for city employees in same-sex domestic relationships. While the vote does not implement benefits such as health insurance and bereavement leave already afforded to straight married couples, it does mean city staff will conduct a financial impact study and other research and make a recommendation for Council vote in March.
According to Smith’s request, that vote could put domestic partnership benefits in place starting in 2011. Extending such benefits, Smith said, would help recruit and retain good employees for the city and increase gay and lesbian tourism. Click here for documents from Smith’s presentation.
About 25 people spoke during the public comment period, most in favor of the move, including several city employees.
Asheville Police Department officer Kathleen Beane said she wants equal benefits in order to be able to provide for her partner and their daughter. “It really does make me feel of less value that I can’t provide the same protection to my family that other people can,” she told Council.
Episcopal Reverend Hamilton Fuller noted that, while there are religious and personal opinions surrounding the issue, the discussion should not be based in faith. “That is not for this venue and not why I am here to speak,” Fuller said. “This is a liberty and civil rights and justice issue.”
“The last thing the government needs to be involved with is telling people how to live and who to love,” said restaurateur Dwight Butner.
Religion did factor into the comments of Rev. Keith Ogden of Hill Street Baptist Church, who denounced the idea.
“I have to give a theological position because I have a calling in my life. I didn’t choose it. The homosexual lifestyle … that’s a lifestyle choice.” Ogden said. The acceptance of gays and lesbians, he said, is akin to “selling your soul to the devil. Asheville is on its way to Hades in a hand-basket.”
Council member Cecil Bothwell countered that, while there are some churches that denounce homosexuality, there are others that welcome gays and lesbians into their churches.
“There’s no one religious position,” he said. As for the complaint that taxpayers are forced to foot the bill, Bothwell said, “There is a homosexual population here and they are being forced to pay benefits for straight people in this town.”
Council member Esther Manheimer said Asheville should be a city that seeks to bring in the economic impact of the gay and lesbian community. “The gay community votes with its dollars,” Manheimer said. “And they are an economic force to be reckoned with.”
But Council member Jan Davis and Mayor Terry Bellamy both aired concerns with the process of how the issue came to Council and unknowns about the results of the move.
“I’m asked to support something that I don’t have the background of how we are going to pay for it,” Davis said.
Bellamy said the issue was bigger than the group that addressed it in Council chambers, and that there should be some acceptance of differing opinions. Bellamy also suggested that health care should not be a political decision before going on to say she wouldn’t back the idea then or later. “I’m not going to support it now and I’m not going to support it when it comes back with [more] information,” she said.
The measure passed in a 4-2 vote with Bothwell, Manheimer, Smith and Vice Mayor Brownie Newman voting “yes,” Davis and Bellamy voting “no” and Council member Bill Russell absent. City staff will come back to Council with its research and a recommendation on March 9, the same day Council conducts a special work session addressing the city’s health care costs.
— Brian Postelle, staff writer