LIVEBLOG: Aurora adds benefits for same-sex employees

(Photo/Danny Hammontree, Flickr)

(Photo/Danny Hammontree, Flickr)

UPDATE: The Aurora City Council voted Monday night to offer insurance benefits to same-sex partners of city employees after agreeing to add coverage for opposite-sex domestic partners to the proposal. The benefits expansion — at an estimated cost to the city of $100,000 annually — passed on a 7-3 vote with opponents voicing concern about the cost to the city, which is facing multi-million dollar shortfalls this year and next.


They’re at it again. Since the Aurora City Council put off discussing a proposal to add same-sex benefits coverage for municipal employees a month ago — because two council members were gone that night — the state Senate has given initial approval to adding coverage for domestic partners of state employees. Tonight, we’ll be live blogging the Aurora debate, starting at 7:30 p.m. when the meeting convenes. The same-sex benefits proposal is about half-way down the agenda, so expect the fireworks closer to 8 p.m.

Questions going into tonight’s debate:

• Councilman Bob FitzGerald has repeatedly raised objections to the proposal, claiming he’s unsure whether it conflicts with Amendment 43, a statewide ballot measure approved by voters in 2006 that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Proponents of the benefits expansion counter that it’s got nothing to do with marriage. After the state Senate moved ahead earlier today on a similar proposal, will that lay to rest FitzGerald’s constitutional qualms? Or will the argument shift to one heard at the state Senate today, when opponents said adding coverage for domestic partners contravenes the will of voters, who shot down a ballot measure to establish domestic partnerships in 2006?

• Watch how forcefully Councilman Ryan Frazier, a young Republican serving his second term on the City Council, argues the question. The conservative African-American is weighing a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010 and has already garnered strong support from some quarters — winning a straw poll at a conservative blog earlier this month and earning accolades from GOP state chairman Dick Wadhams, who counted himself a “big fan” of Frazier. A potential stone in Frazier’s road to being embraced by the statewide GOP rank-and-file: He’s a strong supporter of the same-sex benefits measure, having proposed a similar change a few years back. “It’s a matter of equitable access,” Frazier told The Denver Post last month. “This is not a question of whether a certain lifestyle is right or wrong. It’s a question of whether loving couples, no matter their orientation, should have equal access to coverage.”

And before we jump into the debate, how about a look at the proposal? It’s a change to the glossary of the Aurora Personnel Policies & Procedures Manual, adding the term “Domestic Partner” and revising the term “Immediate Family.” Elsewhere in the manual, it spells out the benefits available to “immediate family” members, including the ability to share health care coverage. Here are the proposed glossary entries, with the proposed additions bolded:

Domestic Partner: Same sex partners living together in a committed relationship similar to that of marriage.

Immediate Family: Employee’s mother, father, step-mother/father, mother/father in-law, sisters, brothers, step-sisters/brothers, sisters/brothers in-law, spouse, domestic partner (Nothing in this provision shall create or extinguish any rights that a domestic partner may possess with respect to pension benefits), child(ren), stepchild(ren), grandchild(ren), sons/daughters in-law, foster child(ren), grandparents, grandparents in-law, or paternal surrogate or other relatives living at the employee’s residence.

7:30 p.m. – All 10 members of the Aurora City Council — plus the mayor, who only casts votes to break ties — are present tonight for a big agenda.

The same-sex benefits question is up for discussion early. Mayor Ed Tauer is setting the rules for debate — everyone on City Council gets “three or four minutes or less — less is OK,” to state their case.

Councilman Larry Beer moves to adopt the resolution, seconded by Councilman Steve Hogan.

7:40 p.m. – Councilman Bob FitzGerald has a question for staff — Human Resources Director Kin Schuman — and wants to know whether the term “sexual orientation” applies to both hetero- and homosexual residents. The answer is yes.

7:43 p.m. – A resident says the “conundrum won’t go away” if this is adopted. Special interests, civil rights, matter of fairness — please defeat this resolution and be fair to the citizens of Aurora, rather than bestowing special rights. Aurora cannot afford this, please vote accordingly, he says.

7:44 p.m. – Tiffany Winters, an Aurora resident, addresses the City Council. When she learned about this proposal, she was pleased. But she had a hard time understanding reasons stated for opposition. Some say abuse of the system might occur, she says, but then she has to ask, “Who are they hiring?” Winters says her company provides similar benefits and doesn’t know of anyone who abuses the system. If cost is an issue, why isn’t the city controlling costs by suspending benefits for some of the family members. She says the city should offer the benefits for “our talented, hard working employees.”

7:47 p.m. – An Aurora resident and city employee — a detective on the Aurora Police Department — says any given day she could be in harm’s way, injured and killed on the job. She wants to know her partner could take care of her if the worst happens. When she moved here from the East Coast, she chose this police department because of the city’s progressive reputation. No one asks her about her sexuality on the street.

FitzGerald says she is a forthcoming and honest person and is glad she’s on the force. Since the term “sexual orientation” applies to homo- and heterosexual employees, wouldn’t it be true a committed heterosexual couple should get the same coverage as homosexual committed couples? The APD detective agrees, everyone should be included.

7:50 p.m. – Tauer wants to ask Schuman a follow-up. Would an unmarried heterosexual and unmarried same-sex couple have the same rights, or would the city be singling out homosexual couples? Schuman says the proposal is for same-sex couples only because opposite-sex couples have the option of marriage and could obtain benefits that way.

Tauer says what about common-law marriage? Schuman says it’s just another way of getting married — the law treats it the same. HR requires a divorce decree, even for common law marriage.

Tauer says it strikes him as odd that there’s no difference between marriage and common-law marriage.

City Attorney Charlie Richardson says the common-law marriage is designed for the benefit of the children of that union — going back hundreds of years, the concept developed in rural America to try to accommodate couples that produced children. The law attempted to keep from punishing children whose parents hadn’t gone through a formal marriage.

Tauer states the situation: Two sets of rules. How would this work if this form were exactly replicated for heterosexual couples? FitzGerald says he knows there are couples who live together who aren’t married, both heterosexual and homosexual. What would be cost for adding opposite-sex couples to this coverage?

Schuman says three of the 10 cities they surveyed include opposite-sex couples the way FitzGerald describes. Difficult to get a firm grasp on cost. With same-sex partners, 1 percent declare partnerships. With opposite-sex partners thrown in, it’s 2 percent. Roughly, “there could be a doubling of the cost,” but it’s hard to predict.

Councilwoman Renie Peterson asks Richardson if a heterosexual couple decides to end their relationship, do they have to get a divorce? Richardson says no.

Richardson wants to “demystify” common-law marriage. It’s a couple you’ve always known as Mr. and Mrs. Smith but you never ask if they got a marriage license.

7:57 p.m. – FitzGerald would like to make a motion to amend the proposal to add opposite-sex couples, substituting “household group” for “same-sex domestic partners.”

Councilwoman Molly Markert seconds the motion.

8:00 p.m. – Discussion on the amendment first. Markert wants to know if immediate family would be considered for benefits. Are there insurance companies that will accept the city’s definition? Schuman says yes.

FitzGerald says he believes marriage is between a man and a woman, like the state constitution says. So if you’re not married, the term “sexual orientation” is owned by. To be clear: Two unmarried adults of same or opposite sex should be able to form a union for insurance purposes, because the city ought to encourage the preservation of health and assets for employees.

Councilman Brad Pierce tries to clarify — FitzGerald’s proposal aims at making a “level playing field”? FitzGerald says yes, but also to account for the cost.

Councilman Bob Broom wants to know, “Will this include illegals?” and also wants to know if random friends could get the coverage if they get cancer.

Schuman says the current proposal would require an affidavit.

Richardson says the city would have no idea what the immigration or citizenship status is of someone sharing benefits, “as is true with a number of attributes.”

Councilman Steve Hogan asks, “Isn’t that true today?” It’s possible there are “illegal aliens” covered by the city’s current policies. It’s “theoretically” possible a spouse or a child could have a different immigration status than the employee, the city attorney says.

FitzGerald says the requirements to qualify would be the same as the original proposal — sworn affidavit and a one-year grace period after dissolution.

8:10 p.m. – The mayor says FitzGerald’s proposal is intended to narrow the definition so an employee can’t just bring in a friend who needs coverage. Richardson says the city’s legal and HR departments could come up with rules to implement this, rather than having to start the process all over.

8:11 p.m. – Beer says “It’s better to trust our employees.” He says city employees “deserve our trust.”

8:12 p.m. – Councilwoman Sue Sandstrom wants to clarify — original proposal estimated at $50,000, so doubling that would take this cost to $100,000? That’s correct, Schuman says.

8:12 p.m. – FitzGerald says he’s seeking “equity for unmarried couples, and make sure everyone understands these people are not married. I think it is fairer.”

8:13 p.m. – Beer, a supporter of the original proposal, wants to make sure FitzGerald’s amendment wouldn’t narrow the scope of recipients. Richardson says no, in both proposals there is a six-month requirement for a committed relationship. Pierce wants to know if there’s a penalty for falsifying an affidavit. Richardson asks assistant city attorney Stacy Evans to discuss the details.

Evans says anyone who falsifies insurance applications can be disciplined for that and the city can recover the costs paid by the city. Schuman says employees have had to pay the difference when they’ve had dependents listed who shouldn’t have been listed as dependents.

8:16 p.m. – Tauer calls for a vote on the amendment. It passes 8-2 with Sandstrum and Broom voting against it.

8:17 p.m. – Sandstrum raises a question about current policy. Children are insured whether they’re natural or adopted children of hetero- or homosexual employees? Schuman says that’s right.

8:18 p.m. – Tauer wonders if a portion of the opposite-sex couples who might avail themselves of the benefits extension could already be covered by common-law marriage provisions? Might be, Schuman says.

8:19 p.m. – Beer begins the discussion. In every service industry, “your assets walk out the door every evening.” City Council has to act as a board of directors of a large organization with 3,000 employees — as in this case. This isn’t about sexual orientation or the definition of marriage, but to expand benefits so the city can succeed at delivering services to residents. “Through the hard work, dedication and commitment of city employees.” It’s up to the city to make sure they do everything they can to make sure potential employees pick Aurora.

8:22 p.m. – Councilwoman Deborah Wallace wants everyone to understand plenty of cities have this coverage on their policies. City doesn’t want to lose employees once they’ve been trained. This proposal will allow the city to retain employees, but says every employee has a right to benefits “for themselves and anyone they feel is their partner.”

8:23 p.m. – Hogan says “it’s the right thing to do at the right time.”

8:24 p.m. – Pierce says he’ll be supporting it because employees “are our greatest assets.” FitzGerald’s amendment makes it easier to support.

FitzGerald says he’ll support it but wants an analysis next year what it has cost. “If it’s too costly next year, we may have to overturn it.” He says his concern was philosophical — wants to treat unmarried people both homosexual and heterosexual “the same.”

8:25 p.m. – Councilman Renie Peterson wants to know if an adult child — for instance, a 35-year-old adult child — living at home, would that person be eligible for coverage? Schuman says current medical plans won’t allow covering a child over age of 25.

Peterson goes on — She “can’t support this at all.” Recently, the city has decided to close swimming pools, close libraries — this isn’t a time to add services we’ll be cutting next year. Not fair to add services only to take away jobs and benefits next year.

8:27 p.m. – Tauer calls for a vote. Approved 7-3 with Peterson, Broom and Sandstrum voting no. That means Broom, Wallace, Frazier, Pierce, Hogan, Markert and FitzGerald voted in favor.

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Ernest Luning

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