TAMPA — One sentence in the ordinance was clearly intended to prevent debate.
Hillsborough County commissioners were set to vote Wednesday afternoon on a domestic partnership registry, which has long been controversial. A single sentence in the ordinance was seemingly written to pre-empt opposition.
In legalese, it said the commission "does not intend that this Ordinance be construed as recognizing … domestic partnerships … as a marriage."
It didn't work. Although commissioners unanimously approved the registry, another in a series of votes in a year the commission shed its socially conservative reputation, the discussion before the vote was reminiscent of the past. Dozens of people spoke against the registry, which they clearly saw as a threat to the sanctity of marriage.
"We are being force-fed a line of garbage in the media," said Donald Koffron, 68, of Tampa, who warned commissioners of the punishment for going against "Mother Nature" and "the Golden Rule."
"Just remember, come election time, there are way more people opposed to this than are for it," Koffron said.
Others complained of "hidden agendas," and the harm a registry would do to America's reputation as a "godly country." Of the more than 30 people who spoke, more than two-thirds of them opposed the registry. Like similar ordinances in Tampa and Pinellas County, it ensures domestic partners rights such as hospital visitation and the ability to make health care decisions. The crowd did not sway commissioners, though.
Four Republican commissioners — Ken Hagan, Al Higginbotham, Sandy Murman and Victor Crist — reversed their votes from January 2013, when the commission rejected a registry. Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who is gay, pushed for the measure, which Crist asked to be expanded to allow relatives and trusted friends to obtain the same rights through an advanced-directives registry. Beckner agreed.
Earlier this year, Beckner pushed for a local law barring discrimination against gay or transgender people, which also passed unanimously. None of the discussions on that measure, or previous discussions on the registry, drew such a crowd of opponents as Wednesday's final vote.
"We have a history of discrimination … in this community for years," Beckner told the crowd. "We live in a diverse county. … This isn't about one segment of the community. It's about our whole community."
Wednesday's vote essentially expands Tampa's registry countywide. Those interested in becoming domestic partners can go to the city of Tampa clerk's office, 315 E Kennedy Blvd., and sign up. The advanced-directives registry, for trusted friends and relatives, will be set up by the Hillsborough clerk's office within the next 90 days. Names in both registries will be provided to local hospitals in a database.
After the meeting, Beckner speculated that a local church or community group had urged people to come and speak against the registry.
"It was pretty evident that many of the people who came out had scripts," Beckner said.
Outside the meeting, some of those who spoke denied being part of a coordinated effort.
Although they were outnumbered, a handful of people spoke in favor of the registry. Mona Posinoff, a Riverview woman who has had the same partner for 15 years, criticized commissioners for including the line denying domestic partnerships are equivalent to marriages.
"I want rights," Posinoff said. "I'm 58 years old. I pay taxes. … I shouldn't have to keep coming up here to say I'm a lesbian and I deserve equal rights."
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In other business Wednesday, commissioners approved a temporary 45 percent reduction in building permit fees intended to spur construction. The fee reduction takes effect Jan. 1 and will last until Sept. 30. It replaces a 60 percent fee reduction that commissioners approved for this year, for the same reasons.
The reduction will save the local construction industry an estimated $6.3 million, according to Bonnie Wise, Hillsborough's chief financial officer.
Contact Will Hobson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.