Outrage: NJ Freeholders turn down Laurel Hester's plea for partner benefits
[UPDATE 2 (1/21): Laurel Hester will be able to leave pension benefit to partner! The Freeholders relented – see my update post.]
An update on Laurel Hester, the NJ police officer who has terminal cancer and has been repeatedly told by the Ocean County Freeholders that Hester cannot leave her pension to her partner, has decided to turn her down once again, and added insult to injury by saying the body has no plans to change its position on the subject before she dies.
Laurel is now so weak that she couldn’t attend the Freeholders meeting held last night, and Garden State Equality played a video taped testimony by Hester pleading for fairness. Appearing frail, her hair gone, it didn’t matter. The Freeholders declined to extend benefits. From the NJ Star-Ledger:
When a dying Laurel Hester appealed to the Ocean County freeholders a month ago, she sat in front of them in Toms River, spoke in a soft voice and asked the five- member board to allow her pension benefits to be extended to her life partner.
Yesterday, Hester was in front of the freeholders again — but this time she was in a videotaped message played on a laptop computer at the freeholders meeting — making what could be her last plea to them before her cancer kills her.
Although the freeholders appeared moved by the three-minute video, they were not budging from their decision to not extend Hester’s pension benefits to her life partner, Stacie Andree. At least one freeholder said the board would not change its mind before Hester’s death.
“The board has said so far it is a legitimate and reasonable position we’ve taken,” Freeholder John Bartlett Jr. said after the meeting. “In my opinion, I don’t see any need to change it.”
Readers have asked about the passage of legislation in New Jersey that gives same-sex couples the same rights as married couples regarding inheritance and funeral arrangements (and extends partner access to health benefits in the public sector) and whether it affects Hester.
The answer is no. All state employees, and county employees in Bergen and Hudson, Mercer, Union and Monmouth have extended the benefit, and Passaic County is expected to join them this month. But after 24 years of service to the county in a state that passed a Domestic Partnership Act, this is happening to Hester because the Legislature that covers these workers left it to local and county agencies to decide to grant or withhold the benefit — and this is why it’s rolling out piecemeal.
These are the men who have decided against equality by saying “No” in Ocean County:
The county’s five (conservative, “pro-family”) Republican freeholders: John C. Bartlett, John P. Kelly, James F. Lacey, Gerry P. Little, and Joseph H. Vicari. In fact, Kelly said that if Hester’s request was granted it would “violate the sanctity of marriage.”
Freeholder Bartlett, who is well-aware of the state’s extension of benefits, doesn’t give a damn.
Little left the room immediately after the meeting, but Bartlett, one of the freeholders who remained, told a reporter he saw no need to petition the Legislature for a change in the pension law. He said lawmakers were well aware of the flaw yet did nothing to correct it when it they amended the legislation for another matter two weeks ago.
“This is the way the law is structured at this time,” Bartlett said. “It has been this way forever. We are not denying someone by not extending the benefits, but I could see how people would disagree with me.”
For gays to have to beg and scrape for basic rights that married couples take for granted is depressing.
Joan Hervey of Plainfield, vice chairwoman of Garden State Equality, said having to go to each municipality is “dehumanizing. . . . We have to go door to door . . . asking, “Please, can we have some more?’ ” she said.
“Ocean County is (the) poster child for the homophobia in New Jersey,” Hervey said. “As a board I hope you are not proud of that.”
“She put her life on the line every day for each of you,” said George Farrugia, president of the Gay Officers Action League of New York and New Jersey. “You are being called to task for Ocean County to not sit behind numbers.”
Michael Jensen of The Big Gay Picture, who has been covering this from the start, including a three-part interview with Hester on her life, career and this controversy, will be reporting on the outcome as well.
Read Mike’s prior posts on Laurel Hester’s fight, and The Big Gay Picture Action Center/Issue Watch has more on how you can politely let the Freeholders know that they are wrong. They can be emailed at: CountyConnection@co.ocean.nj.us.
Click here to see Laurel’s video.