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Charlotte Observer: Benefits Changes Could Be Halted In Charlotte

Curt Walton Some Charlotte City Council members said they are prepared next month to approve offering same-sex benefits for employees, despite questions whether it would be legal in the wake of Tuesday's passage of Amendment One. On Wednesday, Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton recommended the city offer for the first time benefits to same-sex partners. Walton said the city was pursuing the change so the city would be competitive with the private sector in attracting and retaining employees. But during Wednesday's budget meeting, Democrat Michael Barnes asked whether the city should move forward, given the questions about what will be legal under Amendment One. During the debate before Tuesday's vote, critics of the amendment said it would prohibit same-sex benefits and other domestic partnership benefits currently offered by public employers. Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said the city was going to discuss the issue with Mecklenburg County, which already offers same-sex benefits. In addition, the city will likely discuss the issue with other N.C. municipalities and possibly seek an opinion from the N.C. Attorney General. Hagemann said he thought some of the pre-election analysis about the impact of the amendment might have had "a political tinge to them." On Thursday, Hagemann said it's unlikely the issue would be settled before City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget June 11. He is preparing a memo for council members discussing the pros and cons of moving forward, but declined to say what the risks would be. Hagemann did say he anticipates there will be a lawsuit over governments offering same-sex benefits, and the issue would likely be settled by the State Supreme Court. Democrats currently have a 9-2 majority on City Council, and some believe there is a majority in favor of offering same-sex benefits. Democratic Mayor Anthony Foxx also said he supports offering benefits. But it's unclear if there are six votes who are in favor of moving forward by early June. Two Democratic council members - John Autry and LaWana Mayfield - said they will vote yes regardless of the legal risks. Mayfield said she is willing for the city to be a "test case" in order for it to offer the most competitive benefits possible. She is the council's first openly gay member, and was elected in November. Autry agreed. He said the city must approve the same-sex benefits to be competitive. "Look, universities are doing it, Duke Energy, Wells Fargo and Bank of America are doing it because they realize it's the best way to recruit and retain." Democrat Patsy Kinsey is also an adamant supporter of offering same-sex benefits, though she couldn't be reached Thursday about the legal complications of a June 11 vote. Republicans Andy Dulin and Warren Cooksey said they will ask for the same-sex benefits package to be removed from the overall budget vote and have a separate vote taken. Both said they would vote against it. "I'm a no vote, and have been for the last seven years," Dulin said. Said Cooksey: "We have benefits that extend to families to support families. I view family benefits as supporting family unit as established in state law and tradition." Democrat James Mitchell said the issue is a "tough one." "I'm still having an engagement with the community," Mitchell said. "I'm getting input on the issue." He said he's worried about a June 11 vote. If approved and upheld, the same-sex benefits would go into effect in January. Walton said the full-year cost to the city would be $150,000. If the city approves the benefits and loses in court, it's possible the city could be responsible for the plaintiff's attorneys fees. Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, a Democrat, said he's concerned about a vote that he said "could put taxpayers at risk." He also said city staff needs to make a detailed "business case" for the extended benefits, and is said he's concerned whether it would be discriminatory to not offer the benefits to non-married, opposite-sex partners. Mecklenburg Commissioner Bill James began pushing on Wednesday for the county to remove same-sex benefits. In an email Wednesday to County Attorney Marvin Bethune and County Manager Harry Jones, James wrote: "Since Amendment One has passed, when will we [county commissioners] get a memo or something that outlines what changes we need to make to our health plan to be in compliance? I recall when the Democrats on the Commission forced the issue and added these benefits for homosexuals that a number of legal experts said it was illegal then. Now that Amendment One has passed it obviously is illegal to offer this benefit as there is now only one 'domestic legal union' recognized in the state" Jones said the county's legal team and HR staff are looking into the issue. Voters approved Amendment One on Tuesday by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent, according to unofficial results. Seven of the state's 100 counties voted against the amendment, including Mecklenburg. Copyright 2012 The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.