2/19/2006

N.J. Cop in Benefits Battle Dies

Lt. Laurel Hester died Saturday morning at her home only weeks after winning a long battle with Ocean County freeholders over who would get her benefits. She was 49.

Hester's longtime partner Stacie Andree was at her bedside when she died.

Hester had been ill with cancer for some time. Until she became too ill to work Hester was a lieutenant with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. She had worked there for 23 years - more than half her life - and was a member of the New Jersey Police and Firemen's Retirement System.

Although the state's five other pension systems allow its members to pass pension benefits to domestic partners the NJPFRS does not. Under the state's domestic partner law local governments can transfer pension benefits.

For months Ocean County freeholders refused to allow Hester to transfer her benefits - amounting to about $13,000.

Knowing that she had very little time to live Hester made a final plea from her hospital room.
Appearing weak, and breathing with the help of a machine, she said on a video tape that she feared partner Stacie Andree would lose the home they shared after Hester dies.

Nevertheless, freeholders refused to reopen the issue. But following news coverage including television reports which showed Hester's deteriorating condition, freeholders were besieged with critical phone calls and emails.

Fearing a backlash from voters state GOP leaders from the county held a conference call with freeholders and threatened to bring in legislation that would amend the police and fire pension fund to permit domestic partners to receive benefits.

Freeholders quickly agreed to reopen the case.

In a special meeting on January 25, they quickly voted to allow the transfer of benefits. Despite her fragile condition, and against her doctors' wishes Hester showed up at the meeting to personally thank the politicians.

In a voice barely audible Hester thanked the freeholders saying it "was democracy at its best."

While Ocean County politicians dithered over transferring the benefits nearly a half dozen other municipal governments in the state immediately changed local laws to permit the transfer of benefits to same-sex domestic partners and the case became a rallying point for gays and lesbians across New Jersey for full marriage rights.

Arguments were heard earlier this week at the state Supreme Court in a marriage equality case.

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