A recent vote by Ventura County supervisors granting health insurance to gay and other unmarried couples drew sharp criticism Wednesday from a Baptist minister and one county supervisor who said he didn't know what he was voting on.
Pastor Dan Nelson of Camarillo's First Baptist Church voiced outrage that the supervisors did not alert the public about their vote on the issue during the board's Sept. 19 meeting. The item was on the panel's consent calendar, which means it did not come up for public comment.
"I don't think they wanted the controversy," said Nelson, who hopes to rally his fellow clerics to halt the board's action. "It's like a covert action."
Supervisor Frank Schillo said he did not thoroughly read all the documents accompanying the board's agenda packet. If he had seen the item, Schillo said, he would have brought it up for public discussion.
"We were never told anything about this," he said. "I was under the impression I was voting on an extension of the existing policy. I didn't try to hide this from anyone, they hid it from us."
The board unanimously approved an item for a "flexible benefits program," but extending health care benefits to domestic partners was not mentioned on the agenda.
"I don't know what we can do about it now," Schillo said. "I could ask for a reconsideration."
Board Chairwoman Kathy Long said the issue had been discussed by supervisors before and was not a surprise.
"Domestic partnerships have been on the agenda since I got here in 1996," she said. "Nothing was being hidden. . . . I am not afraid of public review. I felt it was a nonissue. It's the right thing to do."
Supervisor John Flynn agreed.
"I knew about it," Flynn said. "Maybe there should have been more publicity, it's a controversial subject. I vote for what is the right thing to do. It's not my business to judge relationships."
Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford was on vacation at the time of the vote.
"It's the kind of thing I would have made sure they were aware of because of the political consequences," Hufford said. But he noted that many major companies provide benefits to domestic partners.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay and lesbian interest group, the number of employers offering domestic partner health benefits increased 25% since last year. That includes 102 of the Fortune 500 companies, according to the group.
Ventura County Human Resources Director Barbara Journet said the issue has been brewing for months. She said letters have been sent to supervisors' offices informing them of the activities of the Labor-Management Health Care Committee. That panel is made up of police officers, firefighters, sheriff's deputies and probation officers.
"We did not present this in any different way than we did in the past," Journet said. "This issue has come up in union negotiations for years. We were not trying to sneak anything past anyone."
She said a consultant determined that the additional benefits would cost the county nothing because there weren't enough people who would qualify as domestic partners to increase rates. It is still unclear how many Ventura County employees qualify for insurance under the new policy.
Bruce Bradley, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Ventura County, said he is pleased with the board's action.
"It's wonderful," he said, "a great step in the right direction."
Under the new county policy, domestic partners will be asked to fill out a form saying they care for each other, are financially dependent upon one another and have lived together for at least six months. The form must then be notarized and returned.
Last March, California voters passed Proposition 22, which forbids gay and lesbian marriage, although the state allows unmarried partners to share resources and benefits.
"I read all the supervisor agendas and it looked like some innocuous thing," said Camarillo Councilman Mike Morgan, who is running against Long for supervisor. "It didn't alert anyone to the controversial nature of this thing."
Morgan said he has "zero against gays and lesbians," but worried that others might try to scam the county by pretending they were domestic partners just for the benefits.
Barry Hammitt, who heads the county's 4,500-member Service Employees International Union, said it's feasible someone could commit fraud but they risk criminal charges.
"Morally it's the right thing to do for the county to say these people are part of our family," said Hammitt. He said the new benefits make the county a more attractive place to work and helps retain employees.
Journet said Santa Barbara County had less than 5% of its employees sign up for domestic partner benefits, and she doesn't expect Ventura County to be any higher.
That still doesn't sit well with Pastor Nelson.
"It discriminates against people who believe in traditional moral values. It normalizes that behavior by rewarding it with benefits," he said. "It's chipping away at Proposition 22. I'm so disappointed in the way the county slipped this by."