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Howdy, Pardner

[whitespace] Jim Spahr Family values: Jim Spahr, president of the North Bay chapter of PFLAG, fought for domestic partner benefits approved by Petaluma city officials.

Michael Amsler

In a landmark move, Petaluma has approved domestic partner benefits. Is the county next?

By Janet Wells

DEPUTY COUNTY Counsel Sheryl Bratton figures she loses about $10,000 a year because the county won't cover health and retirement benefits for her partner of two years. Bratton is a member of a committee working to persuade the county Board of Supervisors to join a dozen Northern California cities and counties that offer domestic partner benefits. The supervisors dodged the issue almost four years ago, but it is coming around again. On Jan. 26 the board is scheduled to vote on forming a subcommittee to study the fiscal impact of offering benefits to the unmarried county employees who are in long-term partnerships.

A vote on offering benefits could come as early as March.

"If you're married, the county will contribute a certain amount for payroll benefits for your spouse," Bratton says. "So my neighbor in my office, who has the same qualifications as I do, makes more money."

Bratton would be celebrating instead of lobbying if she worked for the city of Petaluma, which last week became the first city in Sonoma County to approve domestic partner benefits.

"The best thing we could do for our employees to equal the playing field is to provide protection to people they are committed to, whether they are married or not," Petaluma City Councilwoman Jane Hamilton says.

Petaluma resident Jim Spahr, president of the North Bay chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, brought the domestic partners issue to the city last year. "I'm doing this because it's the right thing to do. There is major discrimination of lesbian, bi, gay, and transgender folks," says Spahr, a married insurance agent.

"My ex-wife is Janie Spahr, a lesbian evangelist. I knew Janie when she thought she was a straight woman. I knew her and loved her until she came to accept the fact that she wasn't a straight woman," Spahr continues.

"I have two beautiful sons by Jane. I have a stepdaughter who gave me two gorgeous grandkids. They're my family. There's no difference between family A and family B."

Petaluma's domestic partners resolution offers dental and vision coverage to partners of city employees who are in long-term relationships and sharing living expenses and financial responsibility. The resolution likely will benefit fewer than six of Petaluma's 275 municipal employees, costing the city about $1,000 per domestic partner annually. Medical and retirement benefits for city employees are contracted for through the state, which does not cover domestic partner benefits. Medical and retirement benefits to domestic partners would add about $10,000 per person to the city's annual $3.6 million employee benefits price tag.

Absorbing the additional cost of covering medical and retirement benefits would be fine with the council, Hamilton says. "Most of us felt like that was appropriate. We are offering the best kind of protection plan, so we stay competitive as an employer."

Councilman Matt McGuire, who lives with his partner, could benefit personally from the resolution. "If I so chose, we could register. But we're planning on getting married this year, and she already has full medical benefits at her job," he says. "My interest in it has always been that gay, lesbian, transgender, and hetero non-married people are discriminated against in terms of benefits."

PETALUMA'S resolution passed with a unanimous 7-0 vote, but the issue was not without opposition. "Providing legal recognition to partnerships that are other than a legal marriage between a man and a women essentially undermines marriage and the traditional family, and that's harmful to society," says Kurtis Kearl, bishop at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Petaluma, who spoke at the council's public hearing.

Petaluma Christian Church Pastor Wayne Bigelow agrees: 'I want to do everything we can to build up marriage rather than undermine it. One of the illnesses plaguing America is lack of commitment. Marriage says, 'I make a commitment to you.' Being a domestic partner could mean commitment, but often it's just an escape clause," Bigelow says. Both Kearl and Bigelow are more concerned about the registration portion of the resolution than about the actual benefits to domestic partners.

"It says our philosophy in Petaluma is that living together is equivalent to marriage, and that just isn't so," Bigelow says. "The U.S. Justice Department in 1992 said that female partners in domestic partnerships are 62 times more likely to be assaulted than in a marriage. That's just one of the downsides."

Vocal opponents are "afraid that marriage as an institution is in trouble," Hamilton says. "With a 50 percent divorce rate, obviously it is. But it's not in trouble because of this. I feel we need to support the essence of family, not the narrow model of family."

While approving domestic partnership benefits, Petaluma still lags behind several large, local private employers, including AFC, SOLA Optical USA, Kaiser, and Hewlett Packard. Spahr says he intends to take the issue to the Petaluma School Board next, while Santa Rosa attorney Caren Callahan is fronting domestic partnership at the county level.

THE COUNTY has 4,080 employees eligible for benefits, and a domestic partnership resolution would likely affect 40 to 80 people. Callahan says there are enough votes to support a board subcommittee study of the issue, but it won't be unanimous. "I think the family unit is something that's important, and I consider the family unit to be a man and a woman," says Supervisor Paul Kelley, who has opposed county domestic partner benefits in the past. "I don't feel any necessity, at least on a local level, to make any changes."

Domestic partnership registration, which is available in Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto, Sacramento, Davis, San Francisco, and Marin County, is not likely to find a welcoming political climate in Sonoma County. "I have problems with the registry," says Supervisor Mike Cale, who otherwise supports domestic partner benefits. "The fundamental issue in the way that it's written is anyone who's 18 or over can come in and benefit. I can't condone two 18-year-olds to set up house just by signing a paper. In three months you get tired of each other and you sign another piece of paper.

"That's not how a relationship develops."

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From the January 14-20, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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