The new executive of Lehigh County last week nixed a plan put in place by his predecessor that established domestic-partner benefits for legally married same-sex couples employed by the county.
Former executive Matt Croslis issued a directive at the end of the year that extended benefits to married same-sex spouses, a rule that was in place for just weeks until new executive Tom Muller repealed that order.
Muller told PGN this week that he supports the intent of the measure but said the county was under threat of legal action by county commissioners for Croslis’ action, which he said was outside the authority of his office. Muller said he will include a partner-benefits proposal in the county budget this summer.
The Lehigh County Commissioners appointed Croslis to the position in June to finish the term of late executive Bill Hansell and, in November, Muller, a Democrat, defeated a Republican candidate for election to the post.
Croslis first raised the issue of partner benefits in his budget proposal this past fall. The commissioners rejected that provision in a 5-4 vote in October, but Croslis vetoed that action. However, one commissioner, who was facing re-election during the original vote, switched sides and helped to override Croslis’ veto.
But, on Dec. 18, Croslis issued an executive order to instate the benefits.
Croslis said he felt compelled to do so after seeing a discrepancy between the county’s personnel policy and the benefits policy.
“We have a personnel policy from 2008 that says we don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation, along with things like race,” Croslis said. “The new executive is saying I overstepped my boundaries and that the commissioners determine policy. I wasn’t determining policy, I was eliminating language from a contract we have to make it consistent with our policy.”
Muller noted that the 2008 personnel policy was put in place without a vote by the county commissioners.
Croslis said he believes the commissioners’ opposition to his initial proposal was financial in nature.
“They voted not to spend the money. It wasn’t, ‘Should we or shouldn’t we discriminate or protect this class of people?’” Croslis said. “It was, ‘We have a budget deficit and we shouldn’t be spending money.’ But when we have this policy that says we shouldn’t discriminate, we have to follow that.”
Since Croslis was serving in an interim capacity, he said he initially resisted making the change without the commissioners’ buy-in.
“All along I said I believed I could do this through administrative action. But I was an interim executive, filling out a term, and I didn’t want anyone to think I was doing anything behind the scenes or pushing an agenda,” he said. “But once the veto went through, I looked into it more and saw this personnel policy.”
Muller assumed office Jan. 6, and the commissioners addressed Croslis’ order at its Jan. 8 meeting.
The following day, Muller repealed the directive.
“Under our charter, Matt was not empowered to do what he did. I was faced with the relatively simple decision that unfortunately has consequences,” Muller said. “That decision was do I face legal action, which I was advised by my solicitor that we would lose. The commissioners were going to take us to court to fight what Matt did and to have it withdrawn. There was no question it was coming. And the solicitor and two other attorneys all said this is a losing cause. This was not something Matt could do. And he didn’t believe that.”
During the window where the benefits were available, four employees did apply for benefits for their same-sex spouses, Croslis said.
Currently, Philadelphia, Allentown, Easton, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and State College offer benefits to same-sex partners of employees, although those programs extend to nonmarried same-sex domestic partners, and Lehigh County’s program was limited to couples legally married in jurisdictions that sanction same-sex marriage.
Muller said the political makeup of the board of commissioners — seven Republicans and two Democrats — is a challenge for pro-LGBT legislation.
But, he committed to reinstating the proposal in the August budget, if the state doesn’t move first.
“I am not against offering those benefits. My intention is, if the state doesn’t take action that gets our commissioners to change their point of view between now and August, I will put this back into the 2015 budget and try to fight it through,” he said. “I find [the commissioners’] position ridiculous, especially where we are today, with big cities and big employers extending these benefits. Our policy is wrong. And I will be pushing to get it changed and going through this battle again.”
Croslis contended that denying same-sex spouses the benefits could open the county to litigation, which he said especially holds true now.
“I don’t know what these four couples are going to do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they go talk to a lawyer,” he said. “If we have a policy that says we don’t discriminate, how do you reconcile that with our health-care contract that discriminates? I just don’t see it. People say I overstepped my boundaries, but I thought I was fixing a discrepancy.”