Hillsborough County takes first step toward creating a domestic partner registry

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The Hillsborough County Commission is on its way to creating a domestic partner registry — though it may never actually be called that.

The board voted 7-0 on Wednesday to have the county attorney research similar registries in other parts of Florida that allow anyone, including same-sex couples, to designate a support person who could serve as a health care surrogate or make funeral arrangements.

Once approved, Hillsborough County would join a host of local governments that have passed such ordinances in the past two years. A similar effort to pass such a registry in Hillsborough lost back in January. That's when the man considered the swing vote on that decision, Commissioner Victor Crist, opted not to back the proposal. But today Crist said that, ironically, he was faced with a situation the night of that vote that spurred him to change his mind on the issue. 

Crist said that when he went to visit his 93-year-old father at a hospital in Pinellas County in the early morning hours, the hospital staff there wouldn't recognize his legal documents, and denied him the opportunity to visit his father in the Emergency Room. "I can't explain how angry, how disappointed and how helpless I felt," he said today. 

That's why he said any such registry "really needs to be bigger than just one small segment of our community," and called for an Advance Directive Registry, and adopt a measure similar to what Orlando/Orange County did in 2012. Left unsaid was why he never decided on his own to revisit the issue with the Commission, instead waiting until today to inform the electorate of his new viewpoint.

The Orange County ordinance approving the domestic partner registry also created what has been called the HELP program, which allows individuals to select one other person to perform any or all of those functions for them. Additionally, couples who live outside of Orange County can register with the county and will receive all of the registry's benefits while they are in the vicinity of Orange. 

Commissioner Sandy Murman, another previous no vote on a domestic partner registry, quickly concurred with Crist. She said she has spent time talking to hospital officials in the county, and said that it was important that a policy be consistent with all Hillsborough hospitals.

Before the vote, Commissioner Beckner brought up two members of the Tampa establishment to speak up for a domestic partner registry.

"We informally surveyed our hospital members," said Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce CEO & President 
Bob Rohrlack. "100 percent of them said it would be very helpful to us."

"We don’t necessarily believe this to be a political issue as much as a patient care issue," said Chris Roederer. Sr. Vice President, Human Resources at Tampa General Hospital. He was speaking on behalf of his boss, CEO Jim Burkhart, who last week wrote to the board in support of a DPR, saying it would help eliminate confusion when someone wants to visit a partner in the hospital.

Unlike so many other discussions when gay rights have come before the BOCC, public comment this time was dominated by the pro-LGBT crowd. Only Terry Kemple, currently running for school board against Melissa Snively in District 4, had disapproving words about the domestic partner registry. 

"This isn't about  a domestic partner registry per se, but this is really cynical, political manipulation," he declared. The proposal was brought forward by County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, and comes less than seven weeks before two of his colleagues, Republicans Al Higginbotham and Victor Crist, are up for re-election.

While Crist is favored to defeat Democrat Elizabeth Belcher in his District 4 race, Higginbotham is running countywide for the first time in his political career (against Democrat Pat Kemp), and all eyes were on him to see where he would come down on the high-profile issue.

"I’m not going to stand in the way or impede family members of loved ones in a time of medical crisis or end-of-life decisions," he began, before saying that he had spoken with many members of the community which "helped give me a different perspective." 

"People evolve and grow," he added, referring to the fact that when the issue came up a year and a half ago he opposed the measure because his religious beliefs viewed marriage should be between a man and woman.  And he said that he didn't want the ultimate vote postponed until after the election.

Murman said Higginbotham's statement made her "get a little choked up" emotionally. She acknowledged her own evolution on the matter (as she too voted no on it in 2013) by saying that "things do change over time," and said that only 51 percent of the public is now married, a far smaller figure than was the case in the 1960s or ’70s.

County Chair Mark Sharpe, who brought the initial vote up for the DPR in 2013, added, "We have to make sure that under the law everybody is treated equally."

Commissioner Ken Hagan also reversed his vote from 2013. He's running unopposed this year countywide, and was the only former no vote who opted not to speak about his change of viewpoint on the matter.

The vote on the registry wasn't the only victory for the LGBT community. 

Later County Attorney Chip Fletcher informed the board that after much work with the county's Human Rights Board, he is ready to submit a proposal to the board next month that would include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes of people in its human rights ordinance, after the board voted 7-0 in July to do so.

That was an important vote, as the county government had originally included gays in its human rights ordinance in 1991, but repealed that class in 1995. 

The vote to make the change official will come up on October 1.

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