The City Council on Tuesday night voted 5-4 in favor of a controversial domestic partners ordinance. The second and final reading will be next Tuesday night.
In favor were council members Chris Anderson, Carol Berz, Moses Freeman, Yusuf Hakeem and Jerry Mitchell.
Opposed were council members Larry Grohn, Ken Smith, Russell Gilbert and Chip Henderson.
Mayor Andy Berke said afterward, “In the 21st century economy, we must ensure we attract talented employees and remain competitive with local, regional, and national employers. That means hiring employees based on merit and offering a benefits package that retains and recruits the very best employees possible. City Council showed leadership tonight and I am encouraged by those who voted for the equal and fair treatment of all city employees.”
Councilman Grohn said the ordinance was "so contentious that the voters should have an opportunity to have a say on it at the ballot box." But the vote proceeded.
There was also a motion by Councilman Grohn to "divide the question" by voting separately on the domestic partner section and the anti-harassment and non-discrimination section. The vote was a similar 5-4.
The ordinance, which follows similar action by Collegedale and Knoxville, allows benefits to the partners of same-sex city employees as well as partners of unmarried opposite-sex partners in a "non-platonic" relationship.
The council voted on a separate ordinance proposed by Councilman Grohn that he said would avert a problem of an employee who considers himself or herself a member of the opposite sex coming to work cross dressed. He said it would also deal with the problem of, for example, a man who considers himself a female, using the women's restroom.
Vice Chairman Henderson said he believes the new legislation may lead to uni-sex bathrooms that are locked during each use.
City Attorney Wade Hinton said city staff members can develop policies to deal with particular situations that arise from the ordinance.
On the qualification that relationships must be sexual in order to be partnerships, Vice Chairman Henderson said, "There may be some husbands and wives out there who do not qualify."
He noted the possibility of sisters living together in a loving relationship, but said they could not qualify because it is "non-platonic."
The domestic partners ordinance sets out terms for defining domestic partners, including having lived together for at least the past 365 days.
Three forms of proof must be submitted to the city in applying for the benefits.
On the cost, city officials said, "Based on initial research, companies and other municipalities that have adopted a similar benefits program have experienced a financial impact of not more than one percent of their total budget."
Todd Dockery, human resources director, reiterated that the new health benefits cost to the city should not exceed $170,000. He said in cities like Indianapolis and Louisville, few have signed up for the coverage.
He affirmed that it applies to children of the partner. On that point, Councilman Gilbert said some men have 10-12 children with different women.
Councilman Freeman referred to Councilman Grohn, saying he had made some assertions that were not accurate.
Councilman Anderson said the "Tea Party and the Family Action Council" had "dropped off" some literature with council members on the eve of the vote.
Councilman Mitchell, noting the tense and somewhat acrimonious tone, said, "Everyone should just take a breath."
Councilman Anderson said, "I am enormously proud of this ordinance. It makes this city a more competitive employer."
Councilwoman Berz thanked fellow council members "for doing the right thing though it might not be the right thing for them." She said there was a fraudulent robo call during the campaign coming out of Knoxville that started out, "Hi, this is Carol." She said, "This was wrong, fraudulent and not blessed by anybody." She said others threatened her with, "We know where you live and we'll see that you don't get re-elected."
Councilman Freeman said he was "just shocked by what I heard coming from both sides." He said he made up his mind based on the gospel of love in the Bible, "judge not that ye not be judged" and based on the Constitution. He said, "The question is simple. Shall we treat all our brothers and sisters the same?"
Councilman Gilbert said he believes that male and female marriage is sacred to God. He said, "It seems we have gotten away from marriage" and there "is more chaos" today. He said, speaking for residents of District 5, "I don't believe that we can afford this." He said, "I feel like we are going down the wrong road and we are going to be paying for it in the future."
Councilman Grohn said choices by members of the gay, lesbian and trans-sexual community are not necessarily based on birth, "but their own sexual devices." He said it is such a divisive issue that it should be decided by the voters. He said, "This ordinance is all about sex. It is a back door effort to circumvent the state of Tennessee and approve same-sex marriage."
Councilman Henderson said it is an issue of both morality and economics. He said while campaigning he did not hear any call for giving benefits to those involved in same-sex relationships. He said the ordinance "siphons taxpayer dollars" from other needed issues.
Councilman Mitchell said many throughout the district, including his two opponents, have spoken out to him on the issue and "I've got a strong pulse of what District 2 wants." He said District 2 favors the ordinance.
Councilman Smith said he believes the ordinance will be more heavily used by opposite sex beneficiaries. He said it is hard to say what the actual costs of passing the ordinance will be. He said the council was being asked to favor non-employees over current and prior employees.
Chairman Hakeem, just prior to the vote with the tally at 4-4, said, "It appears that all that can be said has been said." He said despite the vote, "Tomorrow the sun is going to shine."