SANTA CLARA: Group May Challenge Domestic-Partner Benefits
The Santa Clara County Taxpayers' Association is asking the county board of supervisors "to stop offering employees domestic partner benefits, arguing that it amounts to an illegal gift of taxpayer money," the San Francisco Examiner reports. "Public officials can't make a gift of public funds to whomever they want," said Pat Shrum, the association's executive director. Shrum said her association "might file a lawsuit if board members" refuse to change the policy. Santa Clara County began offering "health care and bereavement leave" to domestic partners of county employees in July 1995. The Examiner notes that the taxpayer group's letter, sent to the county last month, amounts to "the first challenge of domestic partner benefits offered by a government agency in California." San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda and Marin counties all offer benefits to county employees' domestic partners.
Santa Clara County provides benefits to the domestic partners of 37 employees at a cost of $65,000 a year, according to county director of human resources Barbara Maguire. But Shrum contends that California law says "local governments could provide benefits only to employees, retirees and their spouses and dependents." In extending benefits to domestic partners, Shrum contends that the county "set up a special category of people ... that aren't legally bound to each other." But Ann Ravel, the acting county counsel, said the state law is irrelevant because Santa Clara is "a chartered county," and as such has "the right to bargain with unions, and agreeing to domestic partner benefits falls under labor negotiations." County supervisor Joe Simitian said, "These are benefits that have been collectively bargained," and he noted that "leading Silicon Valley companies like Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems offered domestic partner benefits to help attract top-quality employees."
It's All In The Timing
The Examiner notes that the taxpayer group's letter to the county board "was sent Feb. 24, right after they voted to rescind a controversial domestic partner registry for same-sex and heterosexual couples." The group had "led a referendum drive to put the question of the registry to voters." Barbara Jones, who heads the Billy DeFrank Lesbian and Gay Center of San Jose, "thinks the association's timing in submitting the letter was intentional." She said the association's challenge "amounts to yet another effort ... to 'strip lesbian and gay people of any rights that we have gained in the area of civil rights'" (Mitchell, 3/21).