Out TX officials praise Supreme Court rulings, look ahead

Parker.Annise

Annise Parker

Local and state officials and agencies applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings Wednesday in striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and allowing a pathway for marriage equality to return to California.

In two 5-4 decisions, Section 3 of DOMA was ruled unconstitutional and the federal government will have to recognize legally married same-sex couples. But Section 2 that addresses states recognizing same-sex marriages, was not up for consideration and the high court dismissed the Proposition 8 case on standing. So while many officials in Texas were pleased with the DOMA ruling, their attention turned to how to create marriage equality in Texas.

“The desire to legally affirm and protect loving relationships and families is fundamental and one that the American people increasingly understand and support,” lesbian Houston Mayor Annise Parker said in a statement. “The Court’s decision strikes down an inequality that has prevented legally married same-sex couples from enjoying the same rights as other married couples. Today we take a huge step forward, but this fight is not over. It is my hope that the decision leads to greater acceptance and tolerance — and ultimately to full equality.”

Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who’s openly gay, said he was glad the ruling found that gay couples deserve the same federal protections.

“It is the concept of equal protection that ensures all Americans regardless of background may enjoy the freedom and dignity afforded to them by the constitution and not just a privileged few who happen to be members of a particular racial or ethnic group, religious denomination, gender or sexual orientation,” Fitzsimmons said.

—  Dallasvoice

Gay District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons champions new county courthouse

Gary Fitzsimmons

Gary Fitzsimmons

Dallas County’s openly gay District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons is hoping the Commissioners Court starts looking into a plan to replace the Frank Crowley Courts Building.

Fitzsimmons points to several flaws in design and layout of the building, as well as faulty hardware and cracking floors in a Dallas Morning News story.

But the estimated cost for a new building is $665 million, a price tag commissioners aren’t sure how they want to pay to replace the 24-year-old structure. Especially since more than $9 million is expected to be spent on repairs and renovations through 2016.

Fitzsimmons doesn’t expect the court to come up with a plan immediately, but he wants them to start thinking about how to solve the problems the building has had, including access points after a woman snuck into a jury room to address juror earlier this year and caused a mistrial.

“Travis County spent five to seven years studying a new Justice Center to meet the needs of the courts and voters approved $340 million in bonds to fund it,” Fitzsimmons wrote on Facebook above a link to The DMN story. “Travis enjoys a AAA S&P rating so this is not pie-in-sky. This is Dallas — we think big here and live large and I believe we should settle for nothing less than the finest court facilities and system in the state.”

Fitzsimmons, who was first elected in the Democratic sweep of 2006, is up for re-election in 2014.

—  Dallasvoice

Dallas County weighs health-insurance vouchers for unmarried partners

Garcia.Elba

Commissioner Elba Garcia

A long-discussed proposal for Dallas County to offer health benefits to the partners of gay employees is finally taking shape.

The Dallas County Commissioners Court will be briefed on the domestic partner benefits plan Tuesday, according to an agenda posted online today.

The plan, detailed below, will provide benefits to both opposite- and same-sex domestic partners who do not have insurance provided to them through other means.

Commissioner Elba Garcia told Instant Tea that heterosexual domestic partners were added to prevent any perceived discrimination.

Garcia said the plan would offer subsidies to employees whose partners buy private insurance, and they would be refunded by the county the same amount the county pays for an employee’s insurance.

She said this was the only way to provide benefits outside of the county’s healthcare provider because the Public Employee Benefits Cooperative would not allow Dallas County to offer the benefits through the co-op.

Those who enroll will have to sign a domestic partner affidavit for Human Resources, as well as provide two forms of proof that they have lived together for six months, such as a lease agreement or joint bank accounts, Garcia said. She said partners must be at least 18 and not be married.

The projected cost is under $100,000, Garcia said.

Garcia said members of the court could suggest changes on Tuesday or it could be approved for a vote at the next meeting. Garcia, along with Commissioner John Wiley Price and County Judge Clay Jenkins, who make up the court’s Democratic majority, have said they support offering domestic partner benefits.

Gay Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons wrote a letter to the commissioners that will also appear on the briefing agenda for Tuesday’s meeting. The letter, below, states that “the provision of these benefits is a simple and clear issue of fairness that will make the county’s commitment to non-discrimination a reality for many of our employees.”

Fitzsimmons told Instant Tea that the plan isn’t ideal but what the best option to offer the benefits outside of the PEBC.

“Until such time that as the situation changes with the PEBC, this is an appropriate accommodation,” he said.

See the detailed plans below.

—  Dallasvoice

Dallas County Clerk John Warren says he won’t issue any same-sex marriage licenses tomorrow

Dallas County Clerk John Warren, right, greeted Blake Wilkinson of Queer LiberAction when same-sex couples requested marriage licenses in 2009. (John Wright/Dallas Voice)

In Friday’s Voice we mentioned that same-sex couples will be requesting marriage licenses at the Dallas County Clerk’s Office on Tuesday in a Valentine’s Day demonstration organized by GetEQUAL TX and other groups. But don’t expect County Clerk John Warren to issue the licenses. Warren told Instant Tea today that issuing one to a same-sex couple would likely result in a petition to have him removed from the office he’s held since 2006.

“When I took my oath, I raised my hand to uphold the law,” Warren said. “Regardless of what John Warren’s feelings are, that’s what I have to do, because that’s what my position requires.

“If the law changes that I can issue same-sex marriage licenses, I will issue same-sex marriage licenses,” Warren added. “More than any other cause, my main cause is my 13-year-old son and providing for him and my wife — and my dog.”

Asked about his personal position on the issue, Warren said his religious beliefs dictate that he opposes same-sex marriage. Warren is a deacon in his Baptist church, which he said teaches what the Bible teaches, which is “to love everybody.”

“I don’t see an issue with civil unions,” Warren said, adding that he also strongly supported the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Warren is close friends with fellow Democrat and openly gay District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons. The pair has worked closely on a digital courts initiative among other projects, and they refer to themselves as “running mates” during election season.

“I love Gary like a brother,” Warren said.

Asked whether he would support Fitzsimmons’ right to get married, Warren said he was unaware that Fitzsimmons has any desire to do so but would be open to discussing the issue with him. Warren added that he may or may not greet the protesters on Tuesday — as he has in previous years — because Commissioners Court will be in session.

Read GetEQUAL TX’s full press release about Tuesday’s demonstration — which begins at 10 a.m. and is one of many across the state and nation — after the jump.

—  John Wright

With National Stonewall Democrats ‘struggling,’ Dallas chapter marks its 15th anniversary

Stonewall Democrats of Dallas will celebrate its 15th anniversary tonight, during the group’s regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. at Ojeda’s on Maple Avenue.

“October marks the 15th anniversary when founders Bill Fry, Christy Kinsler, Gary Fitzsimmons & Michael Milliken gathered in a living room and created our organization,” the group wrote in an email Monday. “I don’t know if they realized where we would be today, but I sure am glad they did it! A warm hearted thank you to our founders, and especially to each and every one of you who has made SDD grow and develop into what we are today!”

Featured speakers at tonight’s meeting will be Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippens-Poole, who’ll talk about the new voter ID law, and County Democratic Party Executive Director Steve Tillery, who’ll talk about constitutional amendments on the November ballot. And yes, there will be cake!

Meanwhile, National Stonewall Democrats Michael Mitchell announced his resignation Monday after two years in the position. Mitchell, almost laid off earlier this year due to budget problems, told Metro Weekly the national group is “struggling” to raise money due to the bad economy and the fact that the mainstream Democratic Party has become so pro-LGBT. National Stonewall currently has only six of 15 board positions filled (including Erin Moore of Dallas), but the group’s leaders insist there’s still a place for the organization — largely because of the 70 local chapters like Stonewall Democrats of Dallas. From interim executive director Jerame Davis: “It doesn’t matter how good the DNC is on LGBT issues, if, for instance, the Democratic Party in Mississippi is horrible and they elect a Democrat to Congress that doesn’t care about the LGBT community. The work is never-ending, regardless of how things might look in Washington or however many successes we might have on a national level, there’s still a lot of work to be done in the various states.”

 

—  John Wright

Gary Fitzsimmons on DP benefits: ‘I don’t believe our community should expect anything less’

District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons

In today’s print edition we have a story about Parkland hospital’s decision to begin offering domestic partner benefits — and Dallas County’s decision not to. In the story we quoted openly gay Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who criticized the Commissioners Court for failing to adequately study the cost of DP benefits before opting not to offer them due to the budget shortfall. Below is the full text of an email Fitzsimmons sent me about the issue:

It is certainly gratifying that the Parkland Board of Managers has included DP benefits to cover LGBT employees. They join the most progressive public and private institutions in Dallas County in providing such benefits.

I asked former County Judge Jim Foster, a gay man, to direct Dallas County HR and the Budget Office to begin studying this issue and analyzing costs for such an initiative back in 2007.  I was hoping that this information would be available to the new members of the court who took office in January 2011.  Unfortunately, Mr. Foster failed to do so.

I visited with the new members of the court in January of this year and made the same request. It is therefore disappointing to me to find out that the court has not yet directed county staff to study this issue in a systematic way.  The figures provided by the Dallas County public liaison were prepared “off-the-cuff” in response to an inquiry from the Dallas Voice.  This is totally unacceptable.

This issued, because it does involve the potential expenditure of funds, should be studied and analyzed. County staff should prepare a report based on a review of the financial impact encumbered by other jurisdictions and private corporations that provide DP benefits.

I understand that there might not be a majority vote at this moment among members of the court; however, we will never get one as long as the court is not provided sufficient information to make an informed decision.

Amending the Dallas County civil service statute to include protection for LGBT employees is great and admirable. But of course it is largely symbolic and it has little potential financial impact. Supporting an initiative that would have a financial impact in order to bring equality to the Dallas County workplace is where the rubber meets the road. I don’t believe our community should expect anything less.

—  John Wright

Parkland adds DP benefits; Dallas County won’t

County Judge Clay Jenkins, left, and District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons

Fitzsimmons slams commissioners for failing to study issue

JOHN WRIGHT | Online Editor
wright@dallasvoice.com

The domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees at Parkland hospital will soon have access to health benefits, after the facility’s Board of Managers voted this week to approve a proposal first put forward nearly four years ago.

The Board of Managers voted 6-0, with one member abstaining, to offer DP benefits to gays and lesbians who are among the Parkland Health & Hospital System’s 9,400 employees.

The addition of DP benefits at Parkland, which takes effect Jan. 1, is expected to cost $696,635 in fiscal year 2012. But Dr. Lauren McDonald, who chairs the Board of Managers, said offering the benefits will make the hospital more competitive for workers and improve the quality of care it provides to patients.

“I think if anything it eventually enriches us as opposed to costing us money,” McDonald said after the vote, adding that DP benefits have been “a long time coming.”

In September 2007, McDonald pulled a proposal to add DP benefits from the Board of Managers’ agenda at the last minute, citing opposition from “ultra-right wing, homophobic” board members.

Parkland is Dallas County’s public hospital, and the Board of Managers is appointed by the Commissioners Court, which was then controlled by Republicans.

“We opted at the time not to even bring it up,” McDonald told Dallas Voice in 2008. “If you have a vote that’s negative, you send a message.”

After Democrats took control of the Commissioners Court at the start of this year, several new members were appointed to the seven-person Board of Managers. The new members include Dr. Roberto de la Cruz, who is openly gay and made the motion to approve DP benefits on Tuesday.

“It’s a big day,” de la Cruz said after the vote, adding that he trained as an intern at Parkland in the 1990s. “It’s a personal day for me because I come from here.”

The Board of Managers member who abstained from Tuesday’s vote was Jerry Bryant. “I don’t want to discuss it,” Bryant said when asked the reason for his abstention. Bryant was appointed to the Board of Managers by Republican Commissioner Mike Cantrell earlier this year.

Although Parkland is adding DP benefits in 2012, the Commissioners Court has no plans to do so for Dallas County’s roughly 7,000 employees, County Judge Clay Jenkins confirmed this week.

Jenkins, a Democrat who chairs the Commissioners Court and supports offering DP benefits, said he was “very pleased” with the Parkland vote and had lobbied for the change among appointees to the Board of Managers.

“I think that’s the right thing to do for a variety of reasons,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got to recruit and keep the very best staff, and this is an important component of successfully doing that.”

But Jenkins noted that the county is facing a $35 million budget shortfall this year and already plans to cut $5.6 million in employee health care costs — under a proposal that’s set to be voted on by the Commissioners Court next Tuesday, Aug. 30.

Jenkins said he hopes to look at adding DP benefits next year, when the county’s budget shortfall is expected to be smaller. He added that the Parkland board’s vote will “put the county in a better position to favorably consider doing this.”

“I will use the empirical data that arises from that decision in crafting a plan for the county,” Jenkins said.

District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who’s openly gay, said a plan for the county to offer DP benefits should already have been crafted.

Fitzsimmons said he met with the newly elected members of the Commissioners Court —Jenkins and Dr. Elba Garcia — in January and asked them to initiate a study of the cost of offering DP benefits.

But when Dallas Voice inquired about the status of the DP benefits initiative earlier this month, it became clear that no such study had been conducted. Instead, a county spokeswoman provided the newspaper with “off the-cuff” figures, Fitzsimmons said.

The Commissioners Court voted in April to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s employment nondiscrimination policy. But Fitzsimmons called that move “largely symbolic” and said it has little potential financial impact.

“It’s not enough to expect our elected officials to support equality in the workplace when it doesn’t cost them,” Fitzsimmons said. “They need to support equality in the workplace when it does cost them.”

—  John Wright

DA says commissioners don’t have to operate ‘in a fish bowl’ — even if what they say sounds fishy

County Judge Clay Jenkins says he was not aware that sexual orientation didn’t include transgender people.

A while back we filed a request, under the Texas Public Information Act, seeking any and all records related to the Dallas County Commissioners Court’s decision to add sexual orientation — but not gender identity/expression — to the county’s nondiscrimination policy.

County Judge Clay Jenkins and Commissioner Dr. Elba Garcia, who spearheaded the amendment, have said they thought sexual orientation included gender identity/expression, based on advice they received from the county’s Human Resources department. But frankly we’re a little skeptical of this claim. Since Jenkins and Garcia told us this, one critical fact has emerged: They are one vote short of the majority needed to add gender identity/expression to the policy, which leads us to wonder whether that’s why it was left out in the first place.

After all, gay District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons has said he shared his department’s nondiscrimination policy, which includes transgender employees, with Jenkins prior to the court’s vote to add sexual orientation but not gender identity/expression to the countywide policy. And during Jenkins’ campaign last year, he told us how as a civil rights attorney in private practice, he once represented a transgender person who won a lawsuit against a popular restaurant chain. As the plaintiff’s attorney in that case, wouldn’t Jenkins have become familiar with the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity/expression? And as for Garcia, she was on the Dallas City Council in 2002 when the council passed a nondiscrimination ordinance that includes “gender identity” — albeit under the definition of sexual orientation.

To be sure, this can be a confusing distinction, especially to those who aren’t members of the LGBT community, and even to many who are. So if Jenkins and Garcia truly thought sexual orientation included gender identity/expression, it would be forgivable. What would be less forgivable, in that case, is their failure to consult with stakeholders, and namely people in the LGBT community, prior to voting on the sexual orientation-only amendment.

In light of all this, we filed our records request, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting answers anytime soon, if ever. In a letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office dated today, Assistant Dallas County District Attorney Michele Tapia maintains that the county shouldn’t be required to release the records we requested. Tapia argues that the county can legally withhold the records because they “constitute inter- or intra-agency communications that consist of advice, recommendations, and opinions reflecting the policymaking processes of a governmental body” that “would not be available by law to a party in litigation with the agency.” To download a copy of Tapia’s letter, click here.

“The disclosure of these documents would chill and discourage candid discussion on improvements from staff at all levels. Further, disclosure would serve to dampen open discussion and actions to improve processes and necessary corrective actions or improvement measures,” Tapia writes. “It would be impossible to have any frank discussion of legal or policy matters in writing if all such writings were to be subjected to public scrutiny. … It has been argued, and with merit, that the efficiency of a government agency would be greatly hampered if, with respect to legal and policy matters, all government agencies were forced to operate in a fish bowl.”

Abbott’s office now has 45 days to render a decision on the county’s request about whether it can withhold the records. Of course, in the meantime, this whole thing would probably just go away if the Commissioners Court simply went back and added “gender identity/expression” to the policy.

—  John Wright

Fitzsimmons says commissioners should consult with DA’s office about nondiscrimination policy

Gary Fitzsimmons

Late yesterday we spoke to openly gay District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons about the Commissioners Court’s approval of an amendment to Dallas County’s employment nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation but not gender identity/expression. Fitzsimmons said he was never asked to review the proposed amendment and was not aware that the Commissioners Court would be voting on it Tuesday. (Coincidentally, Fitzsimmons added transgender employees to the nondiscrimination policy for his department three years ago after Dallas Voice pointed out that it was missing. Fitzsimmons had added sexual orientation but not gender identity/expression to the policy after taking office in 2007.)

In response to a request under Texas open records law, Fitzsimmons provided an e-mail exchange between himself and County Judge Clay Jenkins from Tuesday afternoon. Jenkins had forwarded to Fitzsimmons an e-mail he received from Stonewall Democrats President Omar Narvaez, in which Narvaez warned of backlash from the LGBT community because transgender employees aren’t covered by the amendment.

Fitzsimmons responded to Jenkins by providing a copy of the nondiscrimination policy for his department, and by suggesting that the county judge ask the District Attorney’s Office to review the issue. We’ve posted the e-mail exchange between Fitzsimmons and Jenkins after the jump.

And again, our question is, why in hell didn’t this discussion take place three months ago?

—  John Wright

Contact Clay Jenkins and Elba Garcia and ask them to add transgender protections

Above is a screen grab of the transgender-less amendment to Dallas County’s employment nondiscrimination policy that was approved by the  Commissioners Court earlier today. The sexual orientation-only amendment can also be found on page 113 of the Commissioners Court Briefing Agenda for today. As we reported earlier, County Judge Clay Jenkins and Commissioner Dr. Elba Garcia, who spearheaded the amendment, said they thought sexual orientation included gender identity/expression, and apparently they didn’t consult with anyone from the LGBT community about the amendment. This includes lesbian Sheriff Lupe Valdez and gay District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who both have nondiscrimination policies for their county departments that protect transgender employees. Moreover, no one from the LGBT community contacted Jenkins or Garcia in the last three months to ensure that this amendment was drafted properly and on track for approval. We all share the blame for this, including this newspaper. Now, the Commissioners Court will have to be asked to go back and amend the policy again, which will take months and possibly draw opposition from the religious right — with its bogus claims about restroom abuse. This is extremely unfortunate, but that’s the row the LGBT community must now hoe. An entire segment of the community has been left out of this policy — a segment that is in fact more likely than gays, lesbians or bisexuals to suffer employment discrimination. After the jump is a letter from Resource Center Dallas sent to both Jenkins and Garcia responding to the new policy. If you’d like to contact Jenkins and Garcia to thank them for adding sexual orientation to the policy and ask them to also add gender identity/expression, here is their info:

Clay Jenkins
411 Elm Street, 2nd Floor • Dallas, Texas 75202 • 214.653.7949
clay.jenkins@dallascounty.org

Dr. Elba Garcia
411 Elm Street, 2nd Floor • Dallas, Texas 75202 • 214.653-6670
elba.garciadds@dallascounty.org

—  John Wright