By Chad Nance
The Winston-Salem City Council’s Community Development/Housing/General Government Committee held a regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday afternoon. The majority of the business was routine such as processing demolition orders on crumbling properties and approving the name change and new charter for the Commission on Ending Homelessness*. They also held a serious policy discussion regarding their intention to pass legislation that would allow Winston-Salem city employees who are in a same-sex marriage or domestic partnership to be allowed to include their partners and children as dependents as it relates to retirement and health care benefits. No decisions were made, but the meeting offered a fascinating look into how local ordinances are crafted. In this era of government incompetence and stale mate, the adult and intelligent exchange over this proposed resolution feels like news in and of itself.
The committee is chaired by councilwoman Molly Leight with councilman Jeff MacIntosh as vice chair. They were joined by councilman Dan Besse and councilwoman Denise D. Adams along with City Manager Leigh Garrity and City Attorney Angela Carmon.
It was Angela Carmon who provided the initial brief for the committee, outlining the draft resolution that would extend benefits such as medical coverage, dental, vision, long-term care, family-medical leave, funeral leave, 401K, and pension plan benefits to the domestic partners of city employees are involved in a committed, long-term relationship. All of that verbiage to avoid an overt use of the word “marriage”. The resolution as currently drafted by the City Attorney’s office is modeled after similar local resolutions in North Carolina cities that have already extended benefits to all of their employees. Asheville, Greensboro, Charlotte, Chapel Hill, Durham, Hillsborough and 9 other North Carolina cities have already done so. According to the Campaign for Southern Equality there are an estimated 618 same-sex couple residing here in Winston-Salem. National statistics indicate that 5% of all public sector employees are LGBT. If those numbers stand up here in Winston-Salem it means that there are around 130 LGBT families could positively benefit from this policy change. Real people, real working families who pay their taxes, volunteer at churches, give no local non-profits, and make Winston-Salem the vibrant and dynamic place that it is. Human beings- our friends and neighbors.
Those who apply for benefits will have to establish several individual conditions including that they are in a same-sex relationship and not involved in any other domestic partnership. That both of the people are jointly responsible for economic support, that they are considered a “family”, and that they share basic living expenses.
“It is important for us as a community” MacIntosh stated while also expressing some reservations about how the resolution might read. Those concerns centered around the legal liability that the City could possibly be taking on. Could the State Government sue the City of Winston-Salem for violating Amendment One by recognizing same-sex marriages?
Councilwoman Adams also expressed a desire for caution while fully supporting the policy. She stated that she would like to see a side by side comparison of our local proposed legislation to other cities who have adopted similar policies. “We are a great state, but the urban cores don’t reflect the views of the State.” Councilwoman Adams stated that she wants to proceed with a process that is smart while also being “just and fair”.
The floor was opened for citizens who wished to comment. Brent Hodges-Morin, the vice president for Pride Winston-Salem spoke about requiring employees to jump through hoops and make an “affidavit” for their marriage, even if it is a legal marriage performed in another state. Mr. Hodges-Morin told the committee that he and his husband were married in New York, yet they choose to reside in Winston-Salem because this is their home. He asked that the resolution be written in such a way that a marriage certificate from another state could be considered valid proof of someone being a dependant just as it is for married straight couples.
Liz Vennum with the human rights advocacy organization, Campaign for Southern Equality endorsed a proposed resolution by councilman Dan Besse that would recognize out of state marriage licenses. She also praised the Winston-Salem City Council’s earlier passage of a non-discrimination policy that specifically protected the rights of LGBT citizens.
Chairwoman Leight asked, “Why no out of state license?”
City Attorney Carmon told the committee that by the current North Carolina Constitution’s Amendment One a city cannot enact a resolution that would recognize a same-sex marriage from another state. “Because we could get in trouble with the state because of their Amendment One?” Leight asked rhetorically.
“Yes” Ms. Carmon answered stating that the draft resolution her office had produced is focused on the dependence and not on the issue of same-sex marriage in a broader sense.
Ms. Carmon was asked if this would open the door to straight, unmarried couples receiving the same benefits. Ms. Carmon explained that as currently drafted it would not. Since it does not recognize same-sex marriage from other states that creates a condition where unmarried straight couples would have the option to settle out who is a dependent by getting married… currently in North Carolina that would not be an option for gay or lesbian employees.
“I think today we can do better.” stated Councilman Besse. He told his fellows on the committee that the resolution as written is a “Plan B” approach that continues discrimination because it does not recognize legally contracted couples. Further more Besse said that excluding unmarried straight couples would also be discrimination. “There comes a point where the fear of being sued interferes with our ability to extend fairness. I think that is what we have here.”
Councilman Besse pointed out that the legal and cultural landscape has shifted dramatically since the passage of Amendment One. Discriminatory legislation like Prop 8 in California and the Federal DOMA have taken a shackling in Federal courts continually over the last two years because they violate Equal Protection and Full Faith & Credit clauses in the US Constitution- which trumps the North Carolina Constitution.
Councilwoman D.D. Adams voiced her support for creating two drafts to look at. A citizen spoke up from the back of the room and was asked to approach the podium. She told the committee that her name is Mary Jamis. She and her wife are small business owners here in Winston-Salem, operating Mcreative on Trade St. Jamis told the committee that she and her wife had gone out of state in order to get legally married. In 2014 they filed their North Carolina State taxes as a married couple. The State of North Carolina allowed her to pay her taxes and sent her refund without comment or any mention of Amendment One.
City Attorney Carmon address the committee again. “I agree with the legal scholars that Amendment One will fail.” she stated. “I think is inevitable that it will fail.”
“What would a challenge cost us?” Vice Chair MacIntosh asked.
“At least six digits.” Ms. Carmon answered. “They’d really have to single us out in a battlefront where they are already losing.”
“There is a point where the fear of being sued interferes with our ability to do the right thing.” Councilman Besse re-iterated.
Before the meeting was adjourned it was decided that more research will be done on how other cities have proceeded and a side by side look at both approaches mentioned. All in all a thoughtful process free of political posturing, histrionics, or rhetoric about a real bread and butter issue effecting citizens… that, in and of itself, it stunning.
* The reporter is an appointed member of this Commission.
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