Except for the irrepressible Bill James, the county commissioners' discussion Thursday about whether to study offering benefits to employees' domestic partners was a model of civil discourse.
Three of the nine Mecklenburg commissioners – all Republicans – opposed having county staff look into the proposal. The other six – all Democrats – supported it. That was the right decision.
Yes, some questions must be answered, such as whether the change would cost the county money. That deserves a close look at a time of extreme budget difficulty.
Further, commissioners must be comfortable the move would be legal. Thursday, all three Republicans said they think it wouldn't be, with James citing the state's anti-sodomy law. Six other local governments in the state already offer partner benefits for same-sex couples: Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham and Greensboro and Orange and Durham counties. Some extend the benefit to unmarried heterosexual couples.
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The legal question isn't clear. The City of Greensboro asked the N.C. Attorney General's Office whether such a policy would be legal, and the office said there was nothing in state law or court rulings that specifically condoned or forbade it.
Because the discussion took place at the commissioners' annual retreat and not a regular meeting, commissioners didn't debate. Instead, each gave his or her position on whether to study the proposal. That helped keep things civil and relatively tame – at least until James got going.
It was James who – when commissioners in 2005 voted to add “sexual orientation” to the county's nondiscrimination policy – said that went against God. It was James who, in a mass e-mail Monday, invoked “polygamist, multiple bisexual partners or pre/post-op Tranies” and called the issue “icky.”
Thursday, he asked commissioners' chair Jennifer Roberts – who had said the issue isn't about sex – whether she has sex with her “domestic partner” (she's married). Then James (also married) noted that he does have sex with his. Commissioner James, there are some things we really would rather not hear you discuss.
Republican Neil Cooksey had perhaps the strongest point against studying it: It will cause controversy and be a distraction during a budget crisis that will require commissioners' full attention.
That said, partner benefits are increasingly common among employers and governments. In a time when too many Americans lack health insurance, they can be an important help. Studying them is appropriate. And not at all “icky.”