Benefits and Equity Ordinance passes first reading at City - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Benefits and Equity Ordinance passes first reading at City Council

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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (WRCB-DT) - It was as close as they come, but by a one vote margin, the city of Chattanooga moved to follow Collegedale and Knoxville in extending benefits to same-sex spouses and in this case, domestic partners.

Council Chairman Yusef Hakeem broke the 4-4 tie providing a decidedly low-key end to a hotly-contested, weeks-long debate approving the "Benefits and Equity Ordinance" meaning Chattanooga is one vote away from extending benefits to domestic partners of city employees.

"This is just the best day," said Chattanooga Police Lt. Corliss Cooper. "This is the best day!"

Lt. Cooper is a 26 year veteran city employee. She spoke passionately about her family before the council last week. "You know, you dream of stuff like this happening," she said after the vote, "but for it to actually come to fruition, it's unbelievable."

And, just after the results were in, Cooper's first call was to her partner, "If it passes, she can go the pharmacy," she explained. "She can go to the wellness center. I mean, things that other people have gotten for years, now we're able to have it. So, it's beautiful."

Some of those voting against still had fiscal concerns.

"We have employees, currently," said 5th District Councilman Russell Gilbert, "School Patrol ladies wake up every morning to go out and work for the city that don't have benefits. We have part-time individuals that work for our city periodically and don't have benefits. But, we're gonna extend this a little bit further and not knowing the cost?"

"If taking benefits from city employees and retirees is necessary in order to save money," added District 3 Councilman Ken Smith, "I cannot consciously or fiscally support spending that money to extend benefits to a newly defined group of non-employees."

Councilman Chip Henderson of District 1 said, "I think the real question we have to ask ourselves tonight is, 'Do Chattanoogans really want their tax dollars diverted away from the issues that they have said were important to them by rewarding expanded benefits to those employees who are not even married?'"

District 4's Larry Grohn still viewed the proposal as an attack on the Tennessee Constitution. "If the state of Tennessee recognized same-sex marriages, then those same-sex partners could have already applied for benefits," he said. "And, those heterosexual partners who were unmarried, if they wanted benefits, all they would have to do is go by the defined marriage of the state of Tennessee and apply for those benefits. So, this ordinance comes down to that: a means of operating as a back door effort to circumvent the Constitution of the state of Tennessee and to approve same-sex marriage, period."

Councilwoman Carol Berz of District 6 rejected that argument saying, "Tennessee's definition of marriage, at this point, is between a man and a woman. This law that we're talking about passing now acts not in derogation of that, directly, with a black-letter law. We don't touch Tennessee's definition of marriage."

Saying he had heard from many members of his community, from all walks of life, Councilman Jerry Mitchell said, "I've got a pretty good idea, surveying what District 2 wants, and I'm here to tell ya that I'm gonna vote for this because District 2 favors this."

After speaking about his faith and religious point of view, Councilman Freeman Cooper of District 8 said, "I'm voting for equality and I'm basing it on the principles which I spelled out to you previously."

Chairman Yusef Hakeem also addressed the issue as being one of equal rights. "Many of our police, and maybe in other departments, we have people who put their lives on the line," he said. "But, are we treating them as full citizens? Are we providing them human rights?"

Councilman Chris Anderson of District 7, who help draw up the ordinance, addressed some of the religious arguments heard over the past week and hinted at less than civil treatment, saying, "Treating everyone equally does not tread on the religious liberty of others. Religious liberty is being expressed quite freely in email, calls, posters, and shoutings."

But, on this night, civil debate lead to approval and to another vote next week.

We caught up with Veronica Roesch and her partner in the lobby of the council chamber after the vote. "I'm very happy about it," she said. "I work in the ER and I just feel like people don't care about who you live with; your home life. They care about whether you do your job right."

"I'm not a city employee so, directly, it's not gonna affect me," Roesch added. "But, just knowing that that's the way our area is heading makes me happy."

"I can't stop grinning," said Lt. Cooper. "I'm still grinning!"

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke released the following statement after the vote: "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."

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