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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 11:51 am

City approves benefits for civil-union partners

But secrecy remains

After a delay caused by a court setback, the Springfield City Council has extended health benefits to civil-union partners of municipal employees.

But the council’s action might still be illegal under the state Open Meetings Act, according to an attorney who successfully sued the city last year on the grounds that city officials have broken the law by setting public policy behind closed doors.

The council’s vote this week to extend benefits came after approval by a committee composed of union and city officials that meets in secret. The city says that the Joint Labor/Management Health Committee is not subject to the state Open Meetings Act.

In a ruling and injunction issued last February by Sangamon County Circuit Court Associate Judge Brian Otwell, a similar committee with the same name, by virtue of its role in setting public policy, was deemed a public body subject to the state Open Meetings Act. As such, the judge ruled the committee had to post notices of meetings as well as agendas, keep minutes and allow anyone to watch as public policy was crafted and public dollars committed. The judge nullified the committee’s vote to extend health benefits to civil-union employees and barred the city council from taking any action based on that secret vote.

The committee could reconvene in public and vote again, which would satisfy both civil-union partners and advocates of open government, the judge noted in his ruling. Instead, the city changed the membership of the committee, removing aldermen, retirees and anyone who is not either a city official or union representative. According to corporation counsel Mark Cullen, those changes exempt the committee from the Open Meetings Act on the grounds that it is engaged in collective bargaining, not setting public policy.

Not so, says Don Craven, the attorney who handled the lawsuit against the city.

“What’s next is, unfortunately, it appears we’ll have to go back and ask Judge Otwell to determine that this committee, like the previous committee, is subject to the Open Meetings Act,” Craven said.

The new committee constitutes an advisory body to the city council, Craven said, and so must meet in public, give advance notice of meetings, post agendas and keep minutes.

Under the ordinance approved this week, the city is extending the same benefits to retirees and non-represented employees as the union-management committee decided, which bolsters the argument that the committee is an advisory body to the council, not a group engaged in collective bargaining that can meet in private, Craven said.

“It’s clear that the city is going to use this committee to set health-care policy for the entire city of Springfield and retirees and all kinds of people who are not subject to the collective-bargaining process,” Craven said. “That’s precisely the position we were in before Judge Otwell the last time.”

Extending the union-management committee’s decisions on health care to non-union workers and retirees is in the best interest of the city, city officials wrote in the ordinance approved by the council this week. In a Jan. 3 interview, Cullen said that giving the same benefits to all employees was a matter of efficiency and convenience.

The saga began more than a year ago when the old version of the committee decided not to extend health benefits to civil-union partners, which city officials feared could result in lawsuits given a new state law that established civil unions. After its decision became public, the committee reversed itself behind closed doors, prompting the open-meetings lawsuit that led to the injunction against the city.

Cullen said that all changes to health insurance, even ones mandated by state or federal law, are subject to approval by the committee. For instance, the committee had to approve the extension of benefits to dependent children up to the age of 26, as required by a recent change in federal law, he said.

What would have happened if the union-management committee rejected something mandated by law?

“We would be in a true trick bag,” Cullen said. “In my experience with collective bargaining, they (unions) rarely like to have automatic changes take effect.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

Editor’s note: Illinois Times staff writer Bruce Rushton is plaintiff in the lawsuit that forced the city to revisit the process it used to approve health insurance for civil-union partners.
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