Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts (D)
Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts (D)

CHARLOTTE — In a move community advocates have been waiting on for years, members of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners voted Jan. 29 to begin official study of offering domestic partner benefits to county employees.

Meeting at a private retreat in Charlotte, commissioners voted 6-3 along party lines to instruct the County Human Resources Department to begin studying the issue. Moving forward, officials will research the cost of the benefits, write a draft policy and check its legality.

“This is primarily an issue of fairness,” Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts told Q-Notes. “I have been thinking about putting this on the agenda for a while. This seemed to be the right time, at our planning retreat we do once per year.”

Four days prior to the retreat, Republican Commissioner Bill James voiced opposition to the plan. In an email to constituents and the media, James called the issue “icky” and asserted such benefits could break state co-habitation and crimes against nature statutes.

“One of those issues [to be discussed at the retreat] is to instruct the County Manager to ‘develop a plan around the goal’ of providing insurance benefits to homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals and trannies,” James wrote in the email.

James’ use of the anti-transgender slur was in addition to his insistence that any proposed policy might allow bisexuals to insure two partners and polygamists to insure theirs.

“It was a predictable outcome,” James told Q-Notes via email, after the Commission’s vote on the matter. “White [Democrats] talking about fairness and tolerance and the GOP talking about the law and the 250 arrests for crimes against nature.”

Commissioner Bill James (R)
Commissioner Bill James (R)

Roberts said she has no concerns over the legality of any proposed policy. “Most people realize that there are some laws on the books that are unenforceable, that need to be discussed,” she said regarding the state’s crime against nature statute. She cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas (2003).

The Mecklenburg Gay and Lesbian Political Action Committee (MeckPAC) praised the Commission on its decision to go ahead with benefits planning.

“Mecklenburg Gay & Lesbian Political Action Committee (MeckPAC) expresses deep gratitude, on behalf of the entire Charlotte/Mecklenburg LGBT community and its many allies, to the County Commissioners who voted in favor of basic workplace fairness,” the statement from chair Phil Hargett read. “County employees who happen to be gay or lesbian work just as hard as all other county employees and, therefore, deserve to receive the same benefits for their hard work. MeckPAC will continue serving as a source of accurate information on workplace equality to aid the county as it moves forward with this important matter.”

Neither the City of Charlotte nor Mecklenburg County currently offer domestic partner benefits; however, the County anti-discrimination policies include sexual orientation. It was added to the policy by the County Commission in May 2005.

On Jan. 20, Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton spoke to the Charlotte Business Guild. The topic of discussion quickly turned to the City of Charlotte’s stance on domestic partner benefits and a non-discrimination policy inclusive of sexual orientation and gender-identity, which the city has yet to pass.

Walton said local officials’ hands were tied because of the city attorney’s interpretation of the North Carolina Constitution.

“Cities and counties have such few powers in North Carolina,” Walton said. “To me [the state is the] safest place to start. The legal restraints the city attorney has placed around these issues — really what the State of North Carolina has placed around these issues — are what I have to operate around.”

Marc Kaplan, a community member who attended the Guild meeting, said the city’s stance didn’t make any sense. “I think it is all a cop out,” he said. “I think that if the politicians cared to do it, they could do it.”

Six other local governments in North Carolina offer domestic partner benefits. They are Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Durham County, Greensboro and Orange County. When the City of Greensboro added policies insuring same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partners, State Attorney General Roy Cooper’s input was sought. Cooper’s office refrained from offering any substantial legal guidance and left the City of Greensboro to decide the issue on its own.

Despite Republican commissioners’ concerns regarding possible violations of state statutes, no local municipality in North Carolina has yet to face legal repercussions from the state because of their domestic partner benefits plans.

“This is about committed financial and support relationships,” Roberts said. “It isn’t about sex. It is about families. This extends the definition of family.”

Roberts said that human resources official will “need to do their homework” and look at how other communities have accomplished the feat.

“They’ll come back to us with their proposal,” she said, expecting resolution within the year, although it could “take several months.”

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.