200 demonstrators turn out to demand partner benefits for Ocean County, N.J. public servant
A crowd estimated at roughly 200 turned out in unseasonably chilly temperatures on the eve of Thanksgiving to protest the refusal of the Board of Freeholders in Ocean County, New Jersey to grant a request from Lieutenant Laurel Hester, a 24-year veteran police officer with the county prosecutor’s office who is dying of cancer, that her domestic partner, Stacie Andree, be given the same benefits accorded spouses.
The rally was held outside the county administration building in Toms River.
Hester, 49, and Andree, 30, have joint assets, including their home in Point Pleasant and bank accounts, and registered as domestic partners under the New Jersey law in October 2004, just months after it took effect. That law gives state employees domestic partner benefits and offers county and municipal governments a local option to do the same.
In June, a Policemen’s Benefit Association local wrote to the freeholders, at Hester’s request, to ask that the county exercise its local option to enable the policewoman to give Andree the pension benefits that would be payable to her spouse in the event of her death. Hester appeared before the freeholders in October to plead her case, emphasizing that the number of employees involved, compared to all those employed by Ocean County, was miniscule.
In a closed-door meeting on November 9, the freeholders voted not to act on Hester’s request, but did not notify her. Alan W. Avery, the county administrator, has declined comment on the board’s inaction, calling it a “personnel matter.” In comments to the Asbury Park Press, however, Joseph H. Vicari said that it was a matter of cost, and that if the state wanted county and municipal employees to have such benefits, it should fund them. Freeholder John P. Kelly echoed the cost argument but added that such benefits would threaten “the sanctity of marriage.”
Those statements, coming from a board of freeholders who are all Republicans, have enraged gay activists and many others in New Jersey. Fourteen civil rights groups, led by Garden State Equality, the state’s LGBT lobby, called for the November 23 demonstration. At the protest, Steven Goldstein, chairman of the group, called the inaction by the freeholders, “the most anti-gay, anti-lesbian, anti-bisexual, anti-transgender instance of discriminatory hatred ever committed by a county government in the state of New Jersey.”
“It will not stand,” Goldstein vowed, noting that 85 percent of New Jersey residents support the domestic partner law and that by a two-to-one margin oppose a voter state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. He also lauded Hester for “a legacy that will be remembered forever,” telling her she would be the recipient of Garden State’s Citizen of Courage Award for 2005.
George J. Farrugia, the president of the Gay Officers Action League of New York City, which represents law enforcement professionals in New York and New Jersey, also appeared and pledged “the commitment” of LGBT police professionals nationwide in standing with Hester.
Congressman Frank Pallone, a Democrat who serves coastal communities in northern New Jersey, speaking to the crowd, recalled that his father was a policeman, and then noting that private sector employers such as UPS and the Ford Motor Company have extended their gay and lesbian workers domestic partner benefits, said, “Why isn’t the public sector stepping forward and setting an example?” Pallone, however, went on to praise Mercer County for its decision the same week to offer the benefits that Ocean County is denying Hester.
Garden State Equality and other allies of Hester plan to step up their pressure on the Ocean County freeholders by turning out a second crowd of protesters for the next board meeting scheduled for Wednesday, December 7 at 4 p.m. The freeholders will meet at the county building, 101 Hooper Avenue in Toms River.
For more details on Garden State Equality and its plans, visit its Web site at GardenStateEquality.org or call Goldstein at 917-449-8918.
Though Hester was able to join the demonstration last week, her health challenges made her unavailable for comment as Gay City News was going to press.