The Metro Council approved domestic partner benefits Tuesday night, opening the door for same-sex partners of Metro employees to use their health insurance and other benefits and making Nashville the fourth city in Tennessee to do so.
The bill, which applies to all domestic partners, same-sex or not, who meet certain criteria, passed as expected with only a few vocal objections, by a vote of 27 to 7 with two members abstaining.
The bill was introduced by Councilman Peter Westerholm, who linked it to Nashville's place in the "history of expanding freedoms, liberties, and civil rights."
“While the outcome of tonight’s proceedings may not be as monumental as those that have come before, nor will they be as far-reaching as those that are likely to come soon, nevertheless, we have before us the opportunity to lend our citiy's voice once again to the steadily expanding arc of justice,” Westerholm said.
Westerholm's prepared statement, which included references to civil rights movements for African-Americans and women, was followed by Councilman Phil Claiborne's insistence that the council get its head out of the clouds.
“I commend the sponsor for calling us to lofty ideals and to pace-setting achievements, but I would like to ask you to come back to ground with me and consider the economic consequences of what is being proposed here,” Claiborne said.
Citing the more-than $70 million taken from the city's reserve fund to cover the new budget, and the increased debt service in the coming fiscal year, Claiborne repeated the argument he made earlier this month, saying the city ought to "get some hard data" to determine whether it could afford domestic partner benefits. Mayor Karl Dean's administration has said the plan will cost between $500,000 and $1 million, but Claiborne suggested it could be much higher and that the administration was using the more conservative estimates.
“If this is a good deal now, it’ll be a good deal at a point in the future,” he said. And with that he moved to defer the bill.
Councilman Lonnell Matthews quickly moved to table that motion, which drew a response from Claiborne that turned some heads in the chamber.
“I can’t say that I’m surprised by the response, I am surprised from the quarter it came from but nevertheless, I expected this,” Claiborne said.
Matthews, who is not typically among the most outspoken members during council meetings, came back with a measured, but forceful response.
“I’m not sure when doing the right thing became a lofty thing," Matthews said. "Quite frankly, I’m glad we’re having this discussion tonight but I’m disappointed that Nashville wasn’t the first city in Tennessee to consider doing this or that has done it. I think that Nashville has been a leader in this state. I think that we are a welcoming city, I think we’re a city for all people, and I think that we don’t need to defer this tonight. We need to do the right thing tonight. Same work, same benefits. I don’t think you can really put a cost on doing the right thing. I don’t think we should put a cost on something that is non-discriminatory. So I think that we should take this up tonight, and we should this vote this up or down, and I hope that we vote it up. I support this. Yes it came from this corner of the room, because this is something that is the right thing to do.”
The tabling motion passed 26-10.
Councilman Bill Pridemore said voting for domestic partner benefits would "compromise" his values and those of his constituents who had expressed opposition. At the behest of At-Large Councilman Ronnie Steine, Finance Director Rich Riebeling explained the cost estimates for the plan, noting that it would have "negligible, if any" impact on the city's pension system because employees can already designate anyone as the beneficiary of their pension.
After the meeting, Pith asked Claiborne what he meant when he said he was surprised by the "quarter" from which the tabling motion came. The comment brought about a visible reaction from some in the room, given that Matthews sits in a corner of the chamber with several other black council members.
“I was expecting somebody else to do the same thing that he did," Claiborne said. "I was expecting somebody to table, but the person I was expecting to table didn’t do it. There was no implication or whatever.”
Asked whether, as some members had previously suggested, his objections were actually philosophical objections to homosexuality cloaked in financial concerns, he said "I don’t care whether you’re for gays or against gays" and noted that the plan could also apply to heterosexuals.
The notion that the council shouldn't "put a cost on doing the right thing" as Matthews said didn't persuade him.
“First of all we have a fiduciary responsibility to spend the taxpayers’ dollars properly," he said. "So the right thing to do is what we are voted in here to do and that is to spend the taxpayers’ dollars properly. We’re not here to set moral standards. That not our primary purpose. That’s not what the charter calls us to do.”
In a statement released just after the council's vote, Mayor Dean said it reaffirmed "that we, as a city, respect individual dignity and are a truly inclusive city."