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City still offering same-sex benefits despite Amendment Two

(This piece ran in the Pelican Press newspaper November 19, 2008.)

Despite the success of Amendment Two in the Nov. 4 election, the City of Sarasota is continuing to offer a domestic-partner plan that would provide health insurance benefits, similar to those offered to spouses, to the live-in partners of city employees.

The amendment states that “no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized” in the State of Florida, but that’s not stopping the City of Sarasota.

Given the ambiguity of the “substantial equivalent thereof” portion of the amendment, City Commissioner Ken Shelin acknowledges that potential problems could ensue.

“I suppose we won’t really know until somebody attempts to file a lawsuit to prevent some public entity from providing those benefits,” Shelin told the Pelican Press.

But, he said a week after the election, the city “is in the open season for signing up for health care benefits right now, and we’re going to move forward with it until somebody stops us.”

Shelin, who championed the domestic-partner benefit plan when it was up for vote before the city commissioners in September, says he does not think domestic partnerships qualify as “substantial equivalents” to marriages.

“I think they are something less than marriage,” he explained;

therefore, he doesn’t feel the city is violating any aspect of the new amendment. “I’m hoping [the amendment] doesn’t have any impact,” Shelin said. “The proponents have repeatedly said it wouldn’t … so I’m hoping they’re right.”

City Attorney Robert Fournier acknowledges that that the passing of Amendment Two may eventually affect the city’s ability to continue to offer health benefits to domestic partners.

“I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion or an absolute certainty,” he said, but referring to the language about substantial equivalents to marriage, he predicts, “That’s going to be the part that the courts are probably going to be called upon to interpret.”

In the meantime, Fournier says, the city will continue to offer health benefits to employees with qualifying domestic partnerships. However, he added, “We may take a second look” at the wording in the current Declaration of Domestic Partnership the city requires of unmarried employees seeking benefits.

According to Kurt Hoverter, the city’s Human Resources director, the benefit plan is available to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples who live together in a committed relationship but aren’t married. To be eligible for the benefit, Hoverter says the couple must provide a signed and notarized Declaration of Domestic Partnership, attesting to, among other things, that they:

• “have mutually agreed to be in a committed, serious, long-term relationship indefinitely with each other”;

• “are jointly responsible for each other’s basic food, shelter, common necessities of life and welfare”;

• “share our primary residence with each other”;

• “share and coordinate financial responsibilities”;

• “consider ourselves to be a member of the immediate family of each other.”

Hoverter says that though the city has had a number of employees inquire about the domestic partner benefits, few have actually signed up. “People were waiting to see what happened with Amendment Two,” Hoverter said, adding, “We still don’t know how this is going to play out.”

Posted on November 19th, 2008Comments RSS Feed

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