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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Supervisors Hold Firm on Gay Partners' Benefits Vote

County: Opponents say decision sends the wrong message to children and is an inappropriate use of public money. Board calls coverage fair and just.

October 04, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite pleas to rescind a vote granting benefits for the gay and unmarried partners of county employees, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday refused to back down from a decision that one supervisor called "fair and just."

More than two dozen speakers, many of them gay rights opponents from church groups, and one well-known Orange County preacher, lambasted the board for its vote two weeks ago.

Opponents said an insurance package that covers the homosexual and live-in partners of county employees sends a wrong message to children and is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.

They were countered by representatives from local gay and lesbian advocacy groups who supported the board's vote.

Four of the five supervisors refused to reverse their earlier approval, saying expanded health benefits are fair and necessary to attract talented employees in a tight labor market. Some of the supervisors made it clear from the start they would not be changing their minds.

"I don't want to mislead you folks and make you think your passion will make a difference," Supervisor Susan Lacey of Ventura said to the crowd toward the beginning of a nearly three-hour long comment session. "If it was fair and just then, it's still fair and just."

Three other supervisors agreed.

"We should not deny health care to people," said Oxnard's Supervisor John Flynn. "It's a human rights issue."

Supervisor Judy Mikels, based in Simi Valley, said that gay and unmarried workers deserve the same kind of coverage that other county employees enjoy.

"This is not charity," she said.

Supervisor Frank Schillo dissented, couching the issue in economic terms. He said that county staff had not done adequate research on the financial impact and argued that to extend the benefits could be a strain on taxpayer dollars.

According to a county report, and one by an independent consultant, the financial effects will be negligible, in part because few people will choose to enroll. Unlike married couples, domestic partners must pay taxes on their health insurance.

At one point, Pastor Dan Nelson of the First Baptist Church of Camarillo asked all of those affiliated with a church to stand. About three-quarters of the people in the room rose.

"What is at stake is families and children," Nelson said. "We feel disappointed. We feel betrayed. We feel hurt."

Some of the speakers, including the Rev. Wiley Drake--an Orange County activist who attempted to organize a Disneyland boycott because of the company's perceived support for gays--likened the board's vote to a sign of a degenerating culture.

The board is condoning sin and is allowing the "homosexual movement" to promote itself, Drake said.

"We must maintain a biblical world view, and I challenge, that if you vote this thing in, you are in deep political trouble," Drake said.

Some of those who came before the board said they wanted to show that some Christians are on their side.

"I have been a Christian all my life," said Nanette Benbrook of Ojai, whose son also spoke in support of the board's decision. "There are Christian churches in this county who will back you. I promise."

Critics charged that the board tried to pass the item with little public notice two weeks ago by placing it on a portion of the agenda that is reserved for noncontroversial items that are usually approved without discussion.

Schillo asked his colleagues Tuesday to reconsider the vote so the public would be able to comment. The Thousand Oaks supervisor said he was unaware two weeks ago that he was approving an expansion of benefits.

The four other supervisors said they knew what they were voting on, but chose to revisit the issue to allow public discussion.

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