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Published: Wednesday, 5/2/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Toledo City Council lashes out on partner benefits

Tempers flare on both sides

BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Council President Joe McNamara backs the benefits on civil-rights grounds. Council President Joe McNamara backs the benefits on civil-rights grounds.
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A proposal to extend health care and other benefits to domestic partners of city employees ignited the passions of Toledo city councilmen on Tuesday, who lashed out at the Bell administration and then at each other, before postponing further discussion until the end of the month.

Councilman Rob Ludeman is critical of the timing of the plan in the wake of contract talks. Councilman Rob Ludeman is critical of the timing of the plan in the wake of contract talks.
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Opponents of the proposal, which would make benefits available to unmarried heterosexual or same-sex partners, cited recent labor negotiations and financial concerns as reasons for their lack of support.

Councilman Rob Ludeman chided the Bell administration for proposing increased spending on employee benefits when it only recently completed labor negotiations in which officials insisted that employees take cuts.

"I find it sad and ironic that within 30 days of the finalization of the last bargaining unit [negotiation], there now appears some funds," Mr. Ludeman said. "I feel that's a bit of a slight in the face of those who bargained in good faith."

Mr. Ludeman also criticized the administration for what he said was a lack of clarity on what the cost of the legislation would be.

Mr. Ludeman pointed to a statement by city spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei last week in which she estimated the expense of providing benefits to domestic partners would fall between $52,000 and $500,000.

"That's a heck of a way to run the finances of the city," Mr. Ludeman said, adding that if the city wants to spend more general fund money, it should use it for pothole repairs.

Ellen Grachek, acting human resources director for Toledo, replied that the city doesn't know what the cost of the legislation would be but is estimating it based on the experiences of other jurisdictions with the same policy.

She added that extending benefits to domestic partners is intended as a positive offering to employees at a time when the city cannot afford 3 or 4 percent wage increases, which she said are more expensive.

"The administration is coming from a place of intending to benefit the employees," she said.

Councilman D. Michael Collins, meanwhile, questioned why the administration had brought the proposal to council in the first place. Mayor Mike Bell could have ordered the changes directly under city law, he said.

The councilman then proposed holding a referendum on the issue in November so residents can decide whether to support the legislation.

"Let's put this before the voters and let the voters decide," he said.

These arguments drew the ire of council President Joe McNamara, a strong supporter of the proposed law.

He accused his colleagues of erecting a "smokescreen" to hide their real objections to the proposal.

"There are employees in the city of Toledo who are actually being discriminated against because they choose to live with someone of the same gender. This is about promoting civil rights and ending discrimination," Mr. McNamara said.

"That is truly the heart of what this issue is and I think we need to accept that," he said.

Councilman Steven Steel echoed the president's sentiments, evoking the need to protect the rights of minorities in a democracy.

The timing is always right to accomplish such a goal, he said.

"It's a civil rights issue of the 21st century," he said. "I don't see this as any more simple or complicated than that."

But councilman Tom Waniewski objected to Mr. McNamara's "smokescreen" interpretation.

Mr. Waniewski then countered that the state does not recognize same-sex marriage, and therefore Toledo would be going against the wishes of Ohio voters by recognizing same-sex couples in a local law.

"Please don't confuse democracy with what our current laws are and what our obligations are to all taxpayers," he said.

Mr. Collins also fumed at the council president's accusation.

Asking questions about the proposal is not discriminatory, he said.

"To be defining this council as a discriminatory body of people is very unfortunate and very uncalled for," Mr. Collins said.

"Each of us have different backgrounds. Each of us have different philosophies. Nobody on this council is discriminating against anyone for asking or answering fundamental questions."

Council will hold a hearing on the legislation at 4 p.m. May 30.

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.



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