Benefit Equality Vote Friday or Monday; Simple Choice for Gow and Edie

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It appears the Lakeland City Commission will hold a vote of sorts on whether to allow same sex employees to include their committed partners on the city’s health insurance policy and other basic benefits enjoyed by other employees.

The circumstances are a little odd, so let me explain briefly:

As The Ledger reported a few weeks ago, city staff performed a thorough review of other cities that have some form of benefit equality, including Orlando, Tampa, and Gainesville.

Karen Lukhaub, director of risk management and purchasing for the city, said she’s received comments from employees from five cities that offer the benefits. They say the cost is minimal.

City commissioners voted 4-2 recently to move forward by providing the information about same-sex partners in a yearly actuary study.

What Lukhaub’s excellent work revealed is that benefit equality is not a fiscal or administrative headache. It is, in fact, a virtual fiscal and administrative non-event. This is not about money or staff time. It’s only about doing the right thing.

The direction from that last meeting was to build benefit equality into the city’s annual actuary study for its regular health insurance plan. That would save about $7,000, which is the cost of doing a benefit equality actuary study by itself. Unfortunately, the actuary deadlines for the coming benefit year did not allow for building benefit equality into the regular study. That means we’re back to the $7,000 one-time actuary study if benefit equality is to take effect in the next benefit year.

City Manager Doug Thomas told me yesterday that staff wants direction from the commissioners before giving the go-ahead on the study. And he’s going to raise the issue at Friday’s agenda study.

I personally feel pretty strongly that the commission should hold this vote in the commission chambers during its regular meeting on Monday. The agenda study conference room is small, and members of the public — pro and con — have little opportunity to address the commissioners before they give informal “thumbs up/thumbs down vote.” I don’t like that, but I’m not in charge.

At this point, it seems the City Commission has three options:

1) Vote to move ahead with actuary study and benefit equality.

2) Vote to wait until next year’s study and save the $7,000 by including benefit equality in the overall actuary study.

3) Kill the whole thing.

I obviously prefer the first. And if you do, too, now is the time to let your commissioners know.

I trust they won’t vote behind closed doors, but now is the time to let them know you care about this issue. Before the agenda study on Friday at 8:30 a.m. you should certainly take the time to contact as many commissioners as possible.

Here’s where all the contact information dwells: http://www.lakelandgov.net/CityGovernment/CityCommissioners.aspx Or click to email links below…

Keith Merritt, Don Selvage, and Justin Troller have each shown support for benefit equality. I encourage you to thank them for their common sense, decency, and backbone.

And then you should focus closely on the question marks that remain: Mayor Gow Fields and Commissioner Edie Yates. Both agreed to move ahead with studying this issue when I first raised it back in February. Edie voted for the actuary study in the more recent vote. Gow did’t attend the meeting.

At one point in the meeting a few weeks ago, Edie said she wasn’t sure if there was any demand for benefit equality from city employees. I should have publicized that long ago, and I’m sorry that I didn’t. But if you’re a city employee who can benefit from this, let Edie know directly. It’s time to step up.

Again, here’s her e-mail address: edith.yates@lakelandgov.net. Copy Karen Lukhaub.

Remind Gow and Edie that at this point, city staff has made it clear that with the exception of the one-time study, this is a non-event from a fiscal and administration point-of-view. It’s only a question now of right and wrong, of strengthening and investing ever so slightly in your workforce.

I had hoped that we’d make it through this entire process without any political immaturity. I, for instance, have not criticized Phillip Walker or Howard Wiggs for opposing benefit equality. Phillip and I even had a pleasant lunch to discuss it.

But Jack Myers had other ideas. His nasty mailer is full of sneering references to “they” and “liberals” and “San Francisco values”. And it’s also full of begging for $23 for “stamps”. It is the essence of divisiveness. He’s looking to build and finance a campaign by vilifying gay city employees and the people who respect or love them. It’s disgusting.

And Gow and Edie, this gives you an uncomfortable but clear choice. Are you going to side with wasteful Jack Myers, who took $50,000 per year from Marshall Goodman in nebulous taxpayer-funded “consulting”, who is one of the men most responsible for driving USF out of Lakeland, who never cared about benefit equality until he had a campaign to finance? Are you going to reward his divisive cynicism?

Or are you going to side with what’s right? And you both know what’s right.

Not so long ago, conniving politicians like Jack Myers would have used the insults and the “theys” and the lies against blacks and women. Some of them still do. That doesn’t mean Edie or Gow are somehow obligated to vote the right way because of who they are. They should vote the right way because it’s right. But it is useful to remember what it’s like to be used and scapegoated by dishonorable men.

Years from now, commissioners, when you’re thinking about your career and sharing memories, let this be a proud one, when you took a tiny political risk and made your government and city a better place.

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