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Thursday, May 24, 2012 11:19 pm

City proposal could spur action on civil union benefits

Aldermen would have final say

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Sangamon County Associate Judge Brian Otwell
Mark Cullen, Springfield corporation counsel
The City of Springfield is one step closer to an agreement on health benefits for civil union partners of city employees and retirees.

A committee composed of representatives from the city and labor unions previously decided to allow civil union partners of city employees and retirees to get city health insurance, but a judge’s ruling that the committee violated the Open Meetings Act nullified the group’s decision. On May 18, Sangamon County Associate Judge Brian Otwell terminated an earlier injunction that prevented the committee from meeting until the violation was corrected.

Now, a new proposal by the city could allow the committee to meet once more and decide again whether to extend benefits to civil union partners.

Under the proposed arrangement which still requires union approval, the city’s Joint Labor/Management Health Care Committee would continue to meet in private, but its decisions would require approval by the city council. Illinois Times reporter Bruce Rushton filed a lawsuit against the city after a closed-door meeting on Jan. 10 in which the committee decided to extend benefits to the civil union partners of city employees and retirees.

Rushton’s lawsuit claimed the committee was obligated to meet in public under the Illinois Open Meetings Act in part because it makes public policy decisions that implicate the spending of taxpayers’ money. The city and several unions with representation on the committee asserted the committee’s meetings fell under a different law that allows labor negotiations to remain private.

Otwell sided with Rushton in a preliminary ruling on Feb. 15. The ruling said labor negotiations could still remain private under the Open Meetings Act, but the committee’s decision about benefits for civil union partners did not fall under collective bargaining rules.

The city previously asked Otwell to require Rushton to pay an unspecified bond in the case that would cover the city’s legal expenses if civil rights groups sued the city over the lack of health benefits for civil union partners. Otwell made no ruling on the bond issue.

The new proposal appears to keep much of the current committee’s structure in place and adds the requirement that any changes to existing agreements between the city and unions must get the approval of the city council. The proposal requires signatures from representatives of about 15 unions representing city employees before it takes effect. Some unions have signed on already, while others are still examining the proposal’s language.

The change could pave the way for a new decision by the committee on whether the city should extend health benefits to civil union partners of city employees and retirees because the committee has not met since the lawsuit was filed. The committee’s recommendation would then go to the city council. It also creates the possibility of a new battle among city council members who often clash over budget matters.

Mark Cullen, the city’s head attorney, said the estimated annual cost for the city of extending benefits to civil union partners is in the range of $60,000 to $70,000 – much lower than an earlier estimate that put the cost at more than $700,000.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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