Monday, January 23, 2006

Freeholders to Vote Again in Laurel Hester Case

(Link) After being denied the right to pass her death benefits to her partner, public outrage has led to the dying New Jersey cop getting a second chance to be heard.

1 comment:

LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:

By Margaret Bonafide
Asbury Park Press

There is a cautiously optimistic sense of joy in the home of Lt. Laurel Hester.

Hester, a 49-year-old lesbian and retired cop who is dying of cancer, learned Saturday that the Ocean County freeholders have had a change of heart and are expected to vote Wednesday to offer domestic partner benefits to county employees.

In a teleconference Friday, county Republican leaders took a poll on the question of whether the county freeholders should provide domestic partner benefits, and a majority agreed they should, state Sen. Leonard T. Connors Jr., R-Ocean, said.

"It is the right thing to do," Connors said Saturday. "She is a faithful employee."

Hester worked as an investigator with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office for 24 years. Before that, she worked for the Morris County prosecutor. She retired Jan. 1.

Hester and Stacie Andree, 30, have been together for six years and own a home in Point Pleasant. On Oct. 28, 2004, they registered as domestic partners; later that day they learned that Hester had lung cancer. Shortly after, they learned it was inoperable.

Ocean County Prosecutor Thomas F. Kelaher asked the freeholder board to authorize domestic partner benefits on her behalf. The board declined. Hester asked Kevin Schaal, president of her Policemen's Benevolent Association local, to act. In June, he sent letters to the freeholders but received no response.

In October, Hester and Schaal appeared before the freeholders with a room full of officers to show support.

Freeholder John P. Kelly said at that meeting that the board would revisit the matter and reconsider the expense to the taxpayers.

Because of her declining health, Hester had asked for an answer from the freeholders at the October meeting. In November, the freeholders released an answer through the county administrator that they were not going to approve the benefits.

Then came the outrage.

Supporters from law enforcement and the gay rights group Garden State Equality held a rally in late November and vowed to continue to pressure the freeholders.

In subsequent public meetings, the freeholders were lambasted for turning down a dying woman. Several hundred people attended the December and January meetings. Media coverage was intense.

Last Wednesday, Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, played a video for the freeholders that showed Hester — pale, bald, weak and wheezing — making a final plea. The group posted a copy of the video on its Web site for all to see.

"The situation this poor lady is in, she doesn't know from one day to another where she is going to be," Connors said. "A third of the counties have passed benefits, and I am sure they all will."

Kelly said Saturday that although he had come under fire for his comments on the morality of domestic partnerships, he was keeping an open mind.

State Sen. Andrew Ciesla, R-Ocean, said also on Monday he plans on drafting a bill that would make domestic partners equal to spouses in the police and fire retirement system.

They "should be equal," Ciesla said. "It is a matter of fairness."

Connors said that he expects some backlash from the freeholders' change of heart.

Hester said she is indebted to all her supporters. Her cancer has spread to her brain and throughout her body.

Andree is an auto mechanic at a Brick service station. The couple has two dogs, Lt. Dan, a 181-pound, 2-year-old male English mastiff who "thinks he is a lap dog," and Boo Boo, a female bulldog. The animals cozy up to Hester and Andree in the living room.

Hester said she realizes the issue has taken on a larger meaning.

"It started out being about Stacie, and it will always be about Stacie if there is one thing I know coming to this point of life," Hester said. "Want to know what I think about in all this pain? I think about people. Friends. People who are there for you. People who are genuine."

Carol Andree, Stacie's mother, has been part of a triad of support caring for Hester. Hester's sister, Lynda Hester-D'Orio, 48, of Kinnelon, visits regularly to help out.

Hester-D'Orio said she would do anything to help support her sister, who has helped so many others professionally and personally.

Dane Wells, Jackson, who had once been Hester's law enforcement partner at the prosecutor's office, visited Hester on Saturday. Wells called Connors a "world-class politician who can take two sides and bring them together."

John J. Mercun, also a close friend of Hester's and former chief assistant Ocean County prosecutor, said he was cautiously optimistic at the news but wanted to see it in writing before celebrating.

Mercun said municipalities should act on domestic partner benefits, particularly for new employees.

Eileen Steele of Howell, a long-time friend of Hester's, was visiting on Saturday. Steele is also Hester's chiropractor.

The freeholder news was a good thing for her friend, Steele said.

"This lessens her stress and gives her a sense of peace and accomplishment," Steele said. "She knows how her partner will be comfortable. It gives closure with her partner and a nice feeling for Laurel to have one less worry."

"This was a situation where people, events and timing all came together," Hester said about her situation before learning that the freeholders had a change of heart. "It is too much of a coincidence. I think it was fate that brought all this together for the greater purpose for all of us."