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Bisbee A Pioneer

For Arizona Civil Unions

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City Councilman Moves Forward With An Idea From A Constituent That Has Drawn Attention From Other Municipalities, Including Tempe, Jerome, Star Valley And Guadalupe

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By Jonathon Shacat and Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

May 21, 2013 — In an act supporters consider to be recognition of a person’s civil rights, the city of Bisbee will likely pass the first legal establishment of a civil union in the state of Arizona tonight, setting a precedent likely to be copied by other municipalities.

The Bisbee City Council first created headlines April 2 when it approved an ordinance that "would allow for a form of union, regardless of the sexual orientation of the couple," by a 5-2 vote. The measure was supposed to go into effect 30 days later, on May 2.

The ordinance was adopted despite a letter from Attorney General Tom Horne warning that passing it would be unconstitutional, and would require the Attorney General’s office to initiate an action in the courts to enjoin, or stop it. Civil unions are not legal in the state.

"My understanding is that the Attorney General was concerned and was thinking that we wanted to supersede state law, but we never wanted to do that," said Bisbee Mayor Adriana Badal. "So we explained at a meeting with our city attorney and two other attorneys who represented us pro bono that that was not our intent, so he backed down."

She said the City Council plans to amend the ordinance during a meeting on Tuesday, May 21, to make sure the language is more clear concerning the intent to provide certain rights in Bisbee city limits. If the amendments pass on final reading on June 4, then the ordinance would become effective 30 days later.

Badal said the ordinance lets same-sex couples, as well as opposite-sex couples, get a certificate of civil union, for use to get a family pass for the city pool, get interred in the city owned cemetery, or get certain land use rights.

The idea for the civil union ordinance was proposed by Bisbee City Councilman Gene Conners, after one of his constituents suggested it to him. He thought such an ordinance would help boost the revenue stream, if more people come to Bisbee and spend money.

But more importantly, he said, he liked the idea because "it's a civil rights thing." The timing was perfect, with the subject matter already in the air from Proposition 8 and DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act) being argued before the Supreme Court in March.

After talking to the mayor, Conners met with the city attorney, who drafted the ordinance. Conners wanted it to be an ordinance instead of a resolution, so it would be the law. The City Council voted to approve it on initial reading during a meeting on March 19, and then on final reading at the April 2 meeting.

Numerous people from the Bisbee community spoke against the civil union ordinance during the April 2 City Council meeting. But, the ordinance also has lots of supporters. Some people want to get a civil union certificate, even though they don't live in the city, simply because it means something to them on a personal level.

"To my knowledge, there were three couples who had gone to City Hall and said I want a certificate as soon as you are ready to go. But, three or four weeks ago, there were as many as 12 couples, and I think there were five or six not even from Bisbee," said Badal.

Mayor Badal said multiple municipalities around the state, including Tempe, Guadalupe, Jerome, and Star Valley, have contacted Bisbee to get more information on its civil union ordinance and they expressed interest in adopting a similar ordinance.

The Tempe City Council has plans to discuss a civil unions ordinance, but the council is holding off official discussions on the topic while it awaits feedback from the city attorney, said councilman Kolby Granville.

The city attorney’s office will provide the council with its opinion regarding the legality of Bisbee ordinance and the legal issues that could arise if Tempe decides to enact a similar ordinance. The council will also use the attorney’s opinion to determine what specific benefits a city ordinance could provide same-sex couples.

“We don’t want to spend time discussing something that the court is just going to strike down anyway,” said Granville.

If the ordinance does come up for discussion, it is likely to create a charged debate, much like the one surrounding the Bisbee legislation.

“At a basic level, it is not a gay issue,” said Granville said. “It is an equality issue.”

The council expects to discuss the issue at a meeting sometime in May.

“If we drag our feet too long, the state is going to change anyway,” Granville said. “Regardless, I feel that history is on our side.”

Jonathan Shacat is a freelance writer for Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at jshacat@moderntimesmagazine.com. Wayne Schutsky is a senior contributor to Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at wschutsky@moderntimesmagazine.com.
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