Threat of lawsuits

The solicitor said the county already has been sued because the commissioners refused to fund benefits for same-sex spouses last year.

And he warned that others, including the American Civil Liberties Union, might file similar suits if action is not taken quickly.

Ott dismissed the threat of lawsuits as “a desperate plea.” He said it makes no sense that the commissioners not telling the county executive to do what he’s legally compelled to do is going to generate a lawsuit against the county.

Sorrentino predicted the lawsuit already filed against the county will come to a swift end if the commissioners took action.

Ott said that lawsuit was filed before the federal judge ruled that Pennsylvania’s law prohibiting gay marriage was unconstitutional.

Symbolic not substantive

Ott also suggested that any action by the commissioners would be symbolic rather than substantive “and there’s no need for us to do that.”

Ott argued Brace’s motion was unnecessary “unless the solicitor can tell us that without this, the executive will not comply with the law.
I believe the executive intends to comply with the law. I don’t think we should be telling the executive how to do his job and that he should obey the law. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“Commissioner, respectfully, you and I can agree to disagree about this,” said Sorrentino.

Commissioners rejected same-sex benefits

Sorrentino argued that commissioners created a policy when they refused to allocate funds for health benefits for same-sex spouses late last year.

“You did make that choice, back in November,” said the solicitor.

“We did not set a policy, we allocated money,” said Ott.

Schware said Sorrentino’s opinion infers a policy that the commissioners did not set.

Last October, the commissioners voted 5-4 to reject providing medical benefits to same-sex spouses of county employees.

Former county Executive Matt Croslis had earmarked $219,000 to pay for those benefits in the 2014 county budget.

A majority of commissioners felt approving that allocation would have put the county in conflict with state law as it existed at that time.

On Wednesday some commissioners noted that action was taken long before same-sex marriages were ruled legal in Pennsylvania.

The commissioners never voted to tell the executive not to comply with the state law or the ruling of the judge, “because it hadn’t even occurred,” said Mazziotti. “I just don’t follow the logic.”

That $219,000 was based on 30 couples applying for health benefits, but it was not believed the county, which has about 2,000 employees, would come close to needing that much money.

In late December, at the very end of his term as county executive, Croslis unilaterally issued a directive that would have given benefits to county employees who legally are married to someone of the same sex.

Muller, who took office a few days later, had to rescind that directive, because the commissioners were threatening to take legal action against the county executive.

At the time, Muller said Sorrentino's opinion was that giving same-sex benefits "was a policy decision and policy decisions rest with the board of commissioners, not with the county executive."

"I support same-sex benefits," said Muller. "But if it's not within the realm of what I can do, according to our charter, I'm not going to do it."