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Council Votes to Restore Partner Benefits

Published On: Jul 15 2012 06:46:13 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 14 2011 08:40:18 AM CDT

El Paso City Council voted late Tuesday afternoon in favor of restoring the health insurance of everyone affected by a voter-approved referendum designed to rescind the benefits. The 4 to 4 tie vote was broken by Mayor Cook's vote

The City Council, in the Fall of 2009, extended health coverage for domestic partners of city employees. When local religious group, El Paso for Traditional Family Values (EPFTFV), found out about the city's decision, they petitioned to bring the issue to the voters last November. Voters passed EPFTFV's ordinance which asked them to endorse 'traditional family values' by extending health benefits only to city employees, their legal spouses and dependent children.

Because of the vague language of the ordinance, about a hundred unintended people were slated to lose their health insurance, too. They are elected officials, including city representatives and municipal judges; retirees who receive health insurance through another employer; and city contractors. Some of those unintended targets, including municipal judges and retirees filed a federal suit against the city in an effort to repeal the ordinace. Federal Judge Frank Montalvo, this spring, ruled that the ordinance was not unconstitutional and thus could be enforced.

Members of EPFTFV argue that the city can simply apply the ordinance only to domestic partners. However, Montalvo's ruling also warns against excluding domestic partners. "The judge said that restoring the benefits to everyon except domestic partners would be unconstitutional," said City Rep. Beto O'Rourke. That's why city officials say they only have two choices - restore the benefits to all affected, including the domestic partners and unintended people or implement the ordinance to everyone. A now divided city council grappled with a heavy decision -- to allow more than a hundred unintended people to lose their health insurance or to rescind a voter-approved ordinance and possibly face a recall petition.

City Representatives Eddie Holguin, Jr., Carl Robinson, Emma Acosta and Ann Morgan Lilly opposed the restoration; while Rachel Quintana, Beto O'Rourke, Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega voting for the restoration. Mayor John Cook broke the tie by voting in favor of the restoration.

"As a Catholic I believe it is not our place to judge one another but to show compassion to everyone regardless of our differences, however i also believe that once the people have spoken, we as a council and i individually do not and should not have the authority to trample on the peoples whishes simply because we do not agree with them", said Holguin before the vote.

City Rep. Ann Morgan Lilly also voted against the benefits and sided with the voters, but said she 'violently opposed' what the ordinance was meant to do.

The discussion unnerved several people. It was a tense meeting.

"My rights and the right of the people in El Paso have been violated", said Zulema Lazarin, who is against the benefits and wanted council to uphold the voter-approved ordinance.

Others praised council for taking a stand on an issue that is unpopular with some. "The council's responsibility is to look within themselves to use their own moral judgement and to consider the humanity of every person they make a decision about and to vote their conscience", said one man.

Tom Brown, a local preacher and a leader of EPFTFV, disagrees with the city on the interpretation of Montalvo's ruling. He believes the city is assuming it would be discriminatory to exclude domestic partners, since a judge has not ruled on that specifically. Barney Field, another author of the ordinance told the city council that the religious group did not mean to affect anyone other than domestic partners, and used the definition of 'employee' that was in the city's own health benefits plan, to word the ordinance. In that definition, elected officials are counted as employees. But Judge Frank Montalvo ruled that definition cannot be used to apply the ordinance.

"I would rather have a messy, imperfect democracy, than no democracy at all," said Brown, referring to the unintended consequences of the ordinance.

Aside from the recall threat, Tom Brown, in a written statement, said his group may sue the city for rescinding their ordinance.

That's not it. He believes that because some of the council members will receive the restored health insurance, their vote was a conflict of interest. He plans to file a complaint with the FBI, the Texas Ethics Commission and the District Attorney. Brown quoted a city provision that forbids city council from raising their salary by not more than five percent - and only three months prior to an election. He argues that the health benefits are part of their salary, are higher than five percent, and thus the city representatives are breaking the rules.

It remains unclear if that is accurate.

Attached is the recall ordinance: Link:El Paso Recall Ordinance

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