City benefits for live-in partners draw fire

Doug Caruso, Dispatch City Hall Reporter, Columbus Dispatch

December 17, 1998 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

A Columbus City Council decision to offer health benefits to the unmarried, live-in partners of city workers is being met with talk of a referendum from a potential mayoral candidate.

State Sen. Bruce E. Johnson, R-Columbus, said yesterday that he is gauging support for and investigating the legality of overturning the ordinance, which provides unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples the same health benefits as those given to the spouses of city workers.

Benefits for live-in companions are expected to cost an additional $550,000 next year.

Johnson said he disagrees with the ordinance, but is especially angered that the council and Mayor Greg Lashutka pushed it through Monday night with little warning and no public comment.

"No matter what you think of the merits, the process on an issue they knew could raise serious questions from the public was circumvented," he said. "And if this is the way the president of council is going to run this community as mayor, the people should be on notice."

Johnson, a former Lashutka chief of staff who is discussing a mayoral run with Republican officials, was taking a shot at City Council President Michael B. Coleman, the only announced Democratic candidate for mayor.

Leaders in both parties have been speaking with potential candidates since Dec. 1, when Lashutka announced he will not seek a third term next year.

Democratic City Councilman Matt Habash, who championed the health-insurance issue, accused Johnson of playing politics. It is an issue of providing health care, Habash said.

"This was a bipartisan effort and it took a lot of courage for Jennette (Bradley, Republican city councilwoman) and the mayor to stand up on this," he said. "It's the right thing to do for the employees of the city."

He said he understood that the issue would create controversy, but instructed City Council's legislative staff to treat it like other benefits issues, which usually do not rate public hearings or news releases.

Habash said people will have a chance to offer their views on the measure at the next City Council meeting on Jan. 11 -- two days before the ordinance takes effect.

By that time, a referendum movement could be in full swing. The city charter allows 30 days to submit a petition with signatures equal to 5 percent of the voters in the last general election.

That would be 6,760 signatures, said Ed Leonard, deputy director of the Franklin County Board of Elections.

The domestic partners legislation drew about 82 phone calls to City Council on Tuesday and yesterday, far above the response for most issues, said Barbara Seckler, the council's spokeswoman. Fifty of those callers supported the measure.

At the mayor's office, most callers opposed the measure, said Gary Parks, spokesman for Lashutka. Parks said the mayor is not reconsidering his decision to support the issue. The mayor signed the legislation Monday night.

The issue could play a role in determining who the Franklin County Republican Central Committee selects as its mayoral candidate.

Jeni Horn, part of a conservative Christian block of committee members, said Bradley's vote could hurt the councilwoman's chances of getting the Republican endorsement. She said she believes the measure will encourage homosexuality and couples living together out of wedlock, and will increase demand for social services.

But she said even more moderate Republicans should have problems with the way the measure was passed.

"This to me opens a whole entire can of worms that could have been discussed at the table if this had been done in the right type of manner," she said. "I think that the majority of the Republican Central Committee would be for open and fair government process."

Franklin County Republican Chairman Michael Colley said the party does not take stands on issues other than those that directly affect the electoral process.

Republican County Auditor Joe Testa, also a potential candidate for mayor, said he hopes the central committee does not focus on a single issue such as domestic partners.

"We shouldn't be applying litmus tests to our candidates," he said. "If we're talking about candidates for mayor of Columbus, there are so many issues and concerns and items that we could and should talk about that I would hope that either way we don't get hung up on one particular thing."

Testa said he had not read the domestic partner ordinance, but said he assumes it was handled responsibly.

County Commissioner Arlene Shoemaker, who is seeking the Republican endorsement for mayor, said she would have voted against benefits for domestic partners.

"We've already gotten some calls at the county asking us to do the same," she said. ". . . I don't believe it is fair to the people who are married, and I don't know how you police those kind of benefits."

Habash said yesterday that the legislation should help the city police its benefits. No one checks now whether employees are married, he said; the new system will require employees to sign a legally binding affidavit that says they are married or in a single, committed relationship, live under the same roof and are financially interdependent. If they lie, employees could be charged with fraud or perjury.

"This gives us an affidavit to use if we think there's something wrong," he said.