Kenosha adopts domestic partner benefits

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Ald. Chris Schwartz -Photo: Susan Leiting

The Kenosha Common Council voted 15-0 – with one abstention – to adopt a resolution extending employee health-care benefits to the same-sex partners of city workers.

With that lopsided vote on Dec. 17, Wisconsin’s fourth largest city became the fifth this year to support fairness for its workers. Ald. Chris Schwartz, who spearheaded the resolution, said the benefits should become available during the first quarter of 2013. In order to apply for the benefits, city workers need only show proof of registration under the state’s partner registry law.

The resolution was the first major initiative introduced by Schwartz, who was elected in April to represent Kenosha’s 2nd Aldermanic District. Schwartz is perhaps best known in the city as co-owner of the popular Franks Diner, which is virtually a regional institution. She’s a past president of the Kenosha Downtown Business District.

“As I got my feet wet and got to know the process of becoming the alderperson, I decided this was something I wanted to get done,” Schwartz said. “I was pretty shocked that it went through as seamlessly as possible. I hope that tells us that this is a progressive city that truly believes in equality.”

Rather than “reinvent the wheel,” she said, Schwartz looked at how Racine, Milwaukee County and Dane County had structured their resolutions and emulated them as much as possible.

Despite being new to the process, she presented the resolution with such finesse that not a single witness appeared at the Dec. 17 council meeting to testify against it. Nine out of the common council’s 17 members signed on as co-sponsors.

The only alderperson who failed to support the measure was 8th District Ald. Kevin Mathewson, who abstained from voting rather than cast the sole “no” vote.

Tenth District Ald. Anthony Kennedy, who described himself as Schwartz’s “co-pilot,” said “she approached me some time ago saying, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and I said, ‘It’s about time.’”

Schwartz and Kennedy lined up support from unions representing city workers. At the Dec. 17 council meeting, union officials testified that offering domestic partnership benefits would benefit the city’s ability to attract and retain good personnel.

“All of them (union leaders) saw this as another issue toward helping our productivity,” Kennedy said. “Someone who’s not worrying about their home lives at work is going to do their job better.”

“We spend a lot of money recruiting people to come to our city and work on behalf of our constituents,” Kennedy added. “As municipal leaders, we have a responsibility to provide taxpayers with the best services possible. (Partner benefits) are another tool we have in the tool box to attract high-quality candidates.”

Kennedy’s interest in the resolution was personal in addition to professional: “My mother is gay, and the gay community is probably my first community of refuge and the place where I feel the most comfortable, because some very, very special people in my life happen to be part of the LGBT community,” he explained.

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