Community strategizes after Hillsborough DPR rejection

By : Steve Blanchard
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Nearly 50 people attended a town hall meeting at the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County in Ybor City Feb. 5 to strategize in the wake of the county commission’s vote rejecting a domestic partnership registry.

That 4-3 vote rejecting the ordinance that was similar to those passed in Tampa, Pinellas County and numerous other cities and counties throughout the Sunshine State shocked residents on Jan. 24. Many thought the measure would pass with an easy majority, if not a unanimous vote of support. But the four dissenting commissioners, Ken Hagan, Al Higginbotham, Victor Crist and Sandra Murman, cited concerns ranging from religious beliefs and government intrusion as to why Hillsborough shouldn’t consider a DPR.

“Our job isn’t just to be angry at the vote,” Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith told the audience. “Our job is to change that vote.”

Smith said that the mission of Hillsborough County residents should be to not only convince the commission to create a registry for domestic partners, but to create a level of protection for all residents of the county. She referred to a vote in 1995 by the commission to repeal sexual orientation from its human rights ordinance, a measure that is still in effect today.

“We have to make a commitment to this,” Smith said. “Times are changing and the majority of the commissioners need to wake up.”
According to Equality Florida, about 100 people emailed the commissioners prior to their vote asking them to support the ordinance. After the vote, nearly 300 emailed the commission sharing their frustration with the outcome.

To mobilize the community, Equality Florida and the ALCU of Hillsborough County organized the town hall meeting to come up with ideas for how to proceed. Ideas ranged from speaking with large corporations within the county with diversity policies in place to speak at upcoming commission meetings to utilizing the influence of the University of South Florida, which has its main campus in Hillsborough County.

The decision by the commission is an embarrassment, according to Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern, who was present at the meeting.
“Hillsborough is hurting our brand,” Mulhern explained. “They hurt our brand in the City of Tampa.”

Mulhern said she plans to attend an upcoming Hillsborough County Commission meeting and may express her displeasure with the county’s vote. Mulhern and her co-council members in Tampa adopted a domestic registry in February 2012 with a unanimous vote.

“We should thank (Hillsborough Commissioner) Mark Sharpe for introducing this measure and I truly believe he thought the votes were there,” Mulhern said. “I think it’s helpful for (Tampa Council members) to make an appearance to support them reconsidering the registry and to also make commissioners think, ‘Hey, you may be running against me in the next election.'”

And it’s not the first time Tampa Bay’s brand took a hit thanks to the Hillsborough Commission, according to Smith, who talked about former Commissioner Ronda Storms’ push to ban recognition of gay pride in Hillsborough County by the county in 2005.

“After that, businesses took Tampa off of their selection list for their conventions,” Smith explained. “Businesses see places like Orlando and Orange County adding diversity measures and that brings in talent and business.”

Equality Florida and other organizations like the ACLU and the Hillsborough GLBT Democratic Caucus plan to continuously remind their supporters about the “no” vote on the countywide domestic partnership registry. The ultimate goal is to get the commission to reconsider and pass the measure in the coming months. That may be unlikely, however, despite a poll by Equality Florida showing 80% support for a registry in the county.

“The problem is [four commissioners] are really out of touch and it’s a weird dynamic on the  board,” Mulhern said. “It’s like peer group pressure that swung the vote the wrong direction.”

Sitting by silently isn’t an option for the community at large, Smith explained, comparing silence following a disastrous vote to a bystander remaining quiet around a bully.

“We’re not asking Hillsborough County to do something amazing or groundbreaking here,” Smith said. “This is a measure that has been adopted across the state and across the country because communities see the need. this issue isn’t going away.”

A representative for Commissioner Kevin Beckner spoke to the group as well during the meeting, and shared that the county-wide representative left the commission meeting following the vote determined, not defeated.

“He pledges to rebrand Hillsborough County as an inclusive and respectful of all of its citizens,” Holly East said of Beckner. “He knows that communities that are forward thinking attract business growth.”

Smith is hopeful that the registry will come before the commission again later this year, but the ultimate goal is to convince the commission to think more progressively on all issues it takes up.

“The goal is to shift to make Hillsborough stop embarrassing us and itself and catch up with the rest of the state,” Smith said.

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