TAMPA — It was a decision that showed how much Tampa has changed in two decades, and it was remarkable for the controversy that it did not generate.
In a 5-0 vote Thursday, the City Council gave initial approval to creating the first domestic partnership registry for unmarried couples in the Tampa Bay area.
If approved in a final vote April 5, it will be open to heterosexual and same-sex couples in Tampa.
The ordinance creating the registry says that nothing about it "shall be construed as recognizing or treating a domestic partnership as a marriage," and its City Council sponsor said it's not meant as a step toward legalizing gay marriage.
Rather, Yvonne Yolie Capin said, the registry is designed to help ensure that couples can visit each other in the hospital, make medical decisions and funeral arrangements for their loved ones and be informed when a partner has been in an accident.
It's also meant to send a message about Tampa.
"We live in a good, compassionate and very strong city," Capin said. "Tampa was born of diversity, and that is what makes Tampa the economic and cultural engine of Central Florida."
The vote, with Chairman Charlie Miranda and council member Lisa Montelione absent, came after the council heard from 20 supporters of the idea, but not one opponent. Before the meeting, City Hall had received nearly 900 emails about the registry, all of them in favor, council member Harry Cohen said.
"It is really heartening to me that we did not have one negative comment about this," council member Mary Mulhern said. "This community realizes that this is the right thing to do."
The apparent consensus stands in stark contrast to the well-organized and tenacious opposition that rose up to fight Tampa's early efforts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In 1991, efforts to expand the city's human rights ordinance drew more than 2,500 people to a boisterous City Council-County Commission hearing at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
That night, opponents outnumbered gay rights activists at least 2-to-1. At times, the center turned into a circus as foes battled it out in the aisles, the halls and the restrooms.
The resulting city law, passed by a 4-3 vote, led to years of dispute, including several attempts to repeal it at the polls and no less than four legal challenges.
But on Thursday, the discussion focused solely on the benefits the registry would offer, such as making sure Tampa residents are not shut out of the lives of the people closest to them in times of crisis.
"No committed couple should ever have to worry about having their relationship being questioned in an emergency or whether they will be called if their partner is in a life-threatening accident," said a speaker, Frank Roder, 59, of Tampa.
The registry also could improve Tampa's business climate with little risk and virtually no costs, said Mariruth Kennedy, president of the board of the Tampa Bay Business Guild, a chamber of commerce for gay and lesbian businesses on both sides of the bay.
"We want to see businesses expand in and to Tampa, start up in Tampa and transfer their employees here," Kennedy said. "Corporations often take municipal inclusivity policies into account when developing their business. Establishing the registry is a way of ensuring Tampa is attracting top talent and high-paying jobs."
Tampa's registry would be similar to those in Orlando, Gainesville, West Palm Beach and Key West, as well as Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. It would be open to couples of two people who are 18 or older, not married and not related by blood, who live together and consider each other as immediate family. It would safeguard their ability to:
• Visit each other in health-care facilities.
• Make medical decisions for a partner who is incapacitated.
• Make funeral arrangements for a partner who dies.
• Be notified as a family member in an emergency involving a partner.
• Participate in the education of the child of a domestic partner.
While this would be the first domestic partnership registry in the Tampa Bay area, the city of Tampa, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department already offer health benefits to same-sex domestic partners of their employees.
To Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the lack of controversy around Thursday's vote "is something I'm pretty proud of."
"I have not gotten one email, had one conversation, had one phone call in opposition to what City Council's going to do," he said before the vote. "That tells me not only that as a city we have come a long way, but that people see this registry as basic human decency."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com.