Friday, May 25, 2018
News Roundup

Hillsborough to provide health-care surrogate forms

TAMPA — Hillsborough County was the outlier two months ago when commissioners rejected creating a domestic partnership registry even as governments throughout the region pass them without controversy.

On Wednesday, commissioners approved what can't quite be considered even a half-measure of compromise, though it was a gesture nonetheless.

Commissioners voted 4-3 to produce a packet of forms that people can fill out under existing state law that provide unmarried couples at least one of the protections registries provide, and to make them available in libraries.

The forms allow people to designate anyone as a health-care surrogate, empowered to make medical decisions for them if they become incapacitated.

But the packet won't include anything pertaining to the five or six other rights typically granted with registries, including the ability to visit an unmarried partner in the hospital or make education decisions for a loved one's child. The registries are promoted by gay-rights advocates in particular as a form of protections not afforded them due to prohibitions against same-sex marriages, though they apply to unmarried heterosexual couples, too.

"This will ensure that citizens will have affordable and easy access to already existing rights," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who offered the proposal. "I'm optimistic this approach will provide a meaningful solution for Hillsborough County residents."

His proposal was backed by Chairman Ken Hagan and commissioners Victor Crist and Sandy Murman, who each rejected a registry proposal in January and offered no explanation for their votes Wednesday.

The other commissioners, Kevin Beckner, Mark Sharpe and Les Miller, while welcoming the gesture, said it fell short.

At Beckner's request, commissioners heard from lawyer Mary Meeks of Orange County, who has helped win passage of domestic registries there and around the state. She said Higginbotham's proposal does nothing to further other protections to unmarried couples granted by registries. The forms he offered should only be executed after consulting a lawyer, she said.

The packet is tentatively scheduled to come back to commissioners for final approval in April.

In other action, the board:

• Approved a contract with WellCare Health Plans internal auditor Michelle Leonhardt, who will take on that role for the County Commission. The two-year contract will pay Leonhardt $150,009 annually. She replaces fired auditor Jim Barnes.

* Formally approved setting aside $2 million requested by Commissioner Mark Sharpe to promote events and other activities that assist start-up technology-based businesses.

• Approved former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio as this year's recipient of the annual Ellsworth G. Simmons Good Government Award recipient. She'll be presented the award next month.

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