Panel created in response to Rainbow Lounge raid signs off on proposal from HR Commission
FORT WORTH — The Fort Worth City Manager’s Diversity Task Force has endorsed the Human Rights Commission’s earlier recommendation that the city offer domestic partnership benefits to city employees.
The task force was created this summer after the June 28 raid on the Rainbow Lounge conducted by Fort Worth police officers and agents with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Jon Nelson, a task force member and spokesman for Fairness Fort Worth — also formed in the wake of the Rainbow Lounge raid — said task force members are not sure what’s necessary to adopt a DP benefits policy.
"We don’t know if it can be done administratively or if it needs a vote of the City Council," Nelson said.
Nelson made the motion to back the recommendation at the task force’s Aug. 27 meeting, and it passed unanimously. He said because of the consensus on the issue, they decided to make the recommendation now rather than wait until when they issue the task force’s final report.
The benefits policy would be patterned after the policies in place in Austin and El Paso, rather than the Dallas’ policy. Fort Worth would offer benefits to gay or straight partners, while Dallas covers only same-sex partners or heterosexual employees who are married.
Offering partner benefits, Nelson said, "makes economic sense," especially when it comes to attracting new business. For instance, companies that have LGBT board members might be more willing to relocate to a city that offers partner benefits.
He also suggested that having the policy in place could give the city more clout in urging new businesses to offer similar benefits.
Nelson cited the recent interaction between Dallas city officials and officials with Omni Hotels in which city officials used Dallas’ partner benefits policy as leverage in urging the Omni chain, which will be operating Dallas’ convention center hotel, to offer similar benefits to its employees.
"Fort Worth and Omni just finished a convention center hotel," Nelson said. "It’s hard to go to Omni when the city doesn’t have those benefits."
Representatives from the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau are part of the task force, and Nelson said the Fort Worth agency would add LGBT information to its Web site, just as Dallas has.
City Manager Dale Fisseler has asked the city attorney for advice on the legal basis on which Texas cities may offer partnership benefits. He also will refer the issue to the city’s two benefits committees that will make recommendations regarding healthcare and retirement.
Jason Lamers, a spokesman for the mayor and City Council, said, "I don’t think it’s going to be a problem."
Lamers said he spoke to someone in the city attorney’s office who said that among the things they would look into are "proof issues." Without a local domestic partnership registry, city employees will have to provide proof of eligibility for benefits another way.
Since Texas law prevents the state from recognizing any same-sex relationships, Fort Worth might not be able to accept a marriage license issued in another state, but may be forced to accept something less binding, like a joint bank account or a utility bill, according to Lamers.
The City Council is set to approve the budget for the fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, on Sept. 15. Any changes in benefits would not occur until the 2010-11 fiscal year, Lamers said.
The task force also voted to endorse a Human Relations Commission proposal to add gender identity and gender expression to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance. Fort Worth was one of the first cities in Texas to add sexual orientation to laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation.
The task force is composed of 14 community leaders and 12 city employees.
The group was charged with three goals: providing city employees with appropriate customer service training for LGBT citizens; increasing community awareness around the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance and inclusiveness policies; and improving communication between the city and LGBT citizens.
The task force’s work must be complete by the end of November.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 4, 2009.