Lawsuit against Springfield committee puts civil union benefits vote in jeopardy

     

Downtown Springfield, Ill. Photo: Springfield.il.us

A recent vote to grant insurance benefits to Springfield city workers in civil unions   may be in jeopardy due to a lawsuit filed shortly after the city’s Joint Labor/Management Insurance Committee’s unanimous vote Tuesday.

Bruce Rushton, a reporter for the Illinois Times, filed a lawsuit charging that the Committee violated the Open Meetings Act and that the decision of the Committee to grant benefits be declared void, according to information provided by The Civil Rights Agenda.

The lawsuit, Bruce Rushton v. Joint Labor Management Health Committee and City of Springfield, alleges that the city did not announce the meeting to the public, did not post an agenda for the meeting, and because he was denied entrance to the building during the meeting, the committee violated the law.

“The Defendant’s violation of the Open Meetings Act prejudiced Plaintiff in his newsgathering and publishing, as well as prejudiced the citizens of the city by depriving them of the opportunity to observe or be informed about the deliberation and decision-making of the Committee,” reads the lawsuit, filed in Sangamon County Court.

In addition, the suit calls for the committee to plan a public meeting to debate and discuss the decisions made to grant partners in civil unions insurance benefits.

In a late night statement, TCRA confirmed that the committee’s meeting in question may have violated the Open Meetings Act and that the organization would continue to closely monitor the developing situation.

“This will not deter nor derail our efforts to ensure that couples in a civil union are recognized as spouses by the City of Springfield, and granted the benefits as required by State law,” stated Anthony Martinez, executive director of TCRA. “However, we must recognize that failure to meet the criteria of the Open Meetings Act is also a civil rights violation. This definitely complicates matters, but the issues addressed in this lawsuit, if found valid, will only ensure the citizens of Springfield will be afforded a government aligned with the ideals of civil liberties for all.”

At the Jan. 10 Springfield city council meeting, some of the city’s alderman raised concerns over the private committee’s private nature and lack of transparency, including Ald. Gail Simpson (Ward 2). Ald. Frank Edwards responded, saying that the committee required confidentiality because it oversees collective bargaining and labor agreements and should be kept private under federal law, according to TCRA.

Chicago Phoenix reported the committee’s vote to reverse their original decision, thus allowing city workers who are joined in a civil union to obtain insurance benefits from the city.

In December, the committee voted to deny the benefits, citing an actuary’s cost projection of nearly $750,000, which would increase the city’s insurance costs by over 3 percent. The committee was presented new numbers during a closed door meeting Jan. 10 totaling $66,000, a number based on estimated costs for six couples.

Martinez predicts that the court will likely hold a hearing for the lawsuit next week due to the urgency of providing benefits to same-sex couples. Following a hearing, the court can decide if the case is valid and if the committee’s decisions should be invalidated. A judge could also put a hold on the benefits until the case goes through trial.

“I’m assuming the next action will happen next week,” Martinez told Chicago Phoenix. ”Fiscal year starts in March in Springfield. The clock is ticking. If the  judge doesn’t invalidate the decision, then the city can still initiate the benefits.”

Chicago Phoenix will continue to update this story as details become available.