Petaluma approves partner benefits

Jan. 5, 1999 By TOBIAS YOUNG Press Democrat Staff Writer

PETALUMA -- The City Council on Monday unanimously approved domestic partner benefits to city employees and also acted to create a City Hall registry for unwed partners to register their union.

The vote by the seven-member council followed a request for the benefits and registry by advocates of domestic partner benefits and a last-minute show of opposition by local religious leaders.

The action will make Petaluma the first city in Sonoma County to provide such benefits.

"I think this is a step in the right direction to eliminate discrimination in this community,'' Councilman Matt Maguire said.

"This is a chance to level the playing field and create a more fair society.''

Bishop Kurtis Kearl of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Pastor Wayne Bigelow of the Petaluma Christian Church joined three other Petaluma residents in objecting to the benefits and registry on moral grounds.

They said marriage should be restricted to a union between man and woman or it would morally bankrupt society and hurt the preservation of the traditional family.

"We should try to emphasize marriage rather than try to destroy it,'' Bigelow said.

The city was asked last year for the benefits by regional President Jim Spahr of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

In a 7-0 vote, the City Council on Monday agreed to provide dental, vision, leave benefits, life insurance, long-term disability and life insurance to domestic partners.

Medical and retirement benefits for city employees, provided by the state, are not currently allowed to domestic partners. But if state law is changed by Gov. Gray Davis, those benefits would automatically be included.

The City Council directed staff to bring back a resolution creating the registry for any city resident or any person who works in public or private employment in the city.

The benefits and the registry will be open to same-sex or unmarried heterosexual couples.

The benefits are expected to increase the city's cost of benefits by less than 2 percent, Personnel Director Mike Acorn said.

Petaluma's benefits follows the action of private companies and several Bay Area governments, including the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley and the counties of Marin, San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara.

Petaluma Health Care District and the Old Adobe Union School District also offer such benefits to employees.

City Personnel Director Michael Acorn said about 25 percent of major corporations offer such benefits, including Sola Optical, Kaiser, Hewlett Packard, and Arterial Vascular Engineering in Sonoma County.
"We're not breaking new ground here,'' Acorn said.

The limited benefits to the partners of city employees would cost up to $6,200. If the state allows health and retirement benefits to be added, costs could reach $68,000 a year for the six to nine of Petaluma's 270 employees who would be eligible. The $68,000 is approximately 2 percent of the $3.6 million the city currently spends on employee benefits.

Under the Petaluma law, domestic partners would cover unmarried heterosexual couples, as well as gay and lesbian couples, because of 1997 legal action.

State Labor Commissioner Jose Millan ruled in that action that an Oakland policy was discriminatory. He ordered the city to extend its program to heterosexual couples in addition to same-sex couples who register as domestic partners with the city.

Domestic partners in Petaluma will be defined as unrelated people of at least 18 years of age who live together and have agreed to joint responsibility for living expenses and are not married nor a part of another domestic partnership.

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