Hillsborough Commissioners vote down domestic partner registry

By : Steve Blanchard
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Tampa After hearing from citizens on both sides of the issue, and discussing it at length late in the afternoon, the Hillsborough County Commission voted 4-3 to deny a domestic partnership registry on Jan. 24. The proposed ordinance would have given unmarried partners – gay and straight – to enjoy a handful of benefits typically reserved for married couples.

The measure was introduced by Republican Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who said the registry was not a way to redefine “traditional marriage.” The registry, he said, is a necessity in the reality of how today’s relationships work.

“These rights are fairly straightforward,” Sharpe told his fellow commissioners. “The term ‘partner’ may have people concerned, but the rights themselves are fairly basic.”

Sharpe said that he agreed with some of those opposed to the registry that attorneys can draft paperwork to offer protections. But added that a registry would simplify the process, lessen confusion and make it less costly.

“If that couple came to us and said I need water or sewer services, we wouldn’t say, “Hang on, are you married?” Sharpe said. “We would provide that basic service.”

Sharpe’s motion was seconded by Commissioner Les Miller of District 3, who said that a domestic partnership registry is about human rights and nothing more.

“I grew up in a segregated part of Tampa,” said Miller, who is the oldest commissioner. “A lot of people depended on government subsities, and in a lot of those instances people lived together who weren’t married. It was a financial issue, especially for the elderly.”

Miller shared stories about older couples who received benefits following the death of a late spouse who couldn’t remarry due to losing those benefits.

“Just because someone is elderly doesn’t mean they can’t fall in love again,” Miller said. “Many become ill with the person they love but can’t visit them in the hospital because there is nothing in place that allowed them to do this, even though they loved each other tremendously.”

The passage of the registry, Miller added, will help improve the county’s image, which has a history of denying human rights to its citizens, especially those within the LGBT community.

“Let’s bring Hillsborough County into the 21st Century,” Miller said before the vote. “People look at us and say, ‘What is wrong with Hillsborough County?’ Forget partisan threats and do the right thing and make this the county the county it should be.”

But those arguments, and the presentations by several specialists who have dealt with domestic partnership registries elsewhere, did not convince commissioners Susan Murman, Victor Crist, Ken Hagan nor Al Higginbotham to vote in favor.

While he “deeply appreciated” the viewpoints on both sides of the issue, Higginbotham said that he couldn’t support the registry based on his personal beliefs and religious faith.

“My Christian faith teaches me to treat others as I’d want to be treated,” the District 4 commissioner said. “In my faith and for thousands of years of precedence, I can’t support the unique, special status of those outside of married relationships. I feel strongly that’s reflective of many in the community and I won’t support moving forward with this registry.”

The meeting started in the morning with citizens speaking on both sides of the issue. It was a close split, but a few more speakers supported the registry than opposed it.

Some of those citizens opposed to the protections included Terry Kemple, president of the Community Issues Council and a long-time anti-LGBT advocate. He was the first speaker of the morning and he wasted no time voicing his opposition to it.

“This is an undermining, if you will, of the intent and the spirit of the marriage amendment,” said Kemple, referring to the passage of Amendment 2 in 2008, which defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. “In other jurisdictions around the country, things like the registries, anti-discrimination laws and human rights ordinances that include sexual orientation are being used by courts as a rationale for overturning or saying that these one man/one woman union efforts are unconstitutional.”

Kemple went on to say that with proper estate planning, any couple can secure the protections they need when it comes to end-of-life issues, especially concerning making healthcare decisions and hospital visitation.

While those power of attorney options are available, Zeke Fread argued they do not offer a guarantee of protections. Fread referred to the confusion surrounding his partner’s visitation at his hospital bed when he was in a car accident and the case of Janice Langbehn, who was denied access to her dying partner in Miami several years ago.

“The DPR is by no means a step closer to gay marriage and by no means does it only include gay couples,” Fread said. “The hospital is probably the most important issue. Yes, Mr. Kemple is right in that you can get an attorney and pay $4,000 to get this documentation. But you can also show up with that documentation to a Miami Hospital and get denied. Documentation isn’t always going to work.”

A DPR will protect those rights for all unmarried couples, Fread said.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he added. “All citizens should be protected equally. This is about four or five human rights.”

And a domestic partnership registry should not relate to political party affiliation, argued Nick Janovsky.

“In our times, people live in ways that marriage isn’t a choice or an option for everyone,” Janovsky said. “Sometimes it’s a mother who is recently divorced, living with a partner. She needs the support to make decisions for her children. This is the way people live in modern times. The domestic partnership registry is not a democratic or republican issue. This is a human issue.”

Commissioner Sandy Murman, Dist. 1, disagreed. She said that medical surrogacy and end-of-life previsions should fall under personal responsibility and not under government programs.

“I feel, bottom line, that this can still be done as a matter of personal responsibility by individuals,” Murman said. “You can go and get a legal document. This is about process and nothing more than that.”

She went on to suggest that the county’s elder affairs division should take a more active role in preparing unmarried, older couples for these decisions.

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