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Largo will explore setting up domestic partnership registry

LARGO — The "City of Progress" is about to add another chapter to its turbulent history of dealing with gay and transgender rights issues.

The city's staff is working on a domestic partnership registry, similar to ordinances approved this year extending certain rights to unmarried couples in Tampa, Gulfport, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

Largo City Commissioner Michael Smith, who is gay, proposed a registry at the end of Tuesday's commission work session.

"It's not a gay or straight issue, it's a human issue," said Smith, who noted that heterosexual couples not interested in marriage can also register as domestic partners.

Smith would like a Largo domestic partnership ordinance to mirror St. Petersburg's, which seeks to ensure hospital visitation rights and health care decision-making powers for domestic partners. Registered partners can also plan funerals, participate in the education of the partner's child, and are notified in cases of emergency.

The fee to register as domestic partners is $30 in Tampa and Clearwater, $25 in Gulfport, and will probably be similar in St. Petersburg, where the staff has not finalized a cost but has proposed a $30 fee.

Smith also wants a Largo ordinance to honor domestic partnerships from other cities, as St. Petersburg's does. And he hopes a Largo registry would add momentum to talks by Pinellas County commissioners about establishing a countywide program.

Largo Commissioners Gigi Arntzen and Harriet Crozier and Mayor Pat Gerard all expressed interest in a city registry Tuesday. The staff will bring a proposal to the commission at an undetermined work session, probably in a few months, and collect feedback before any official vote.

Commissioner Curtis Holmes said he needs more details.

"I don't care what your lifestyle is. As long as it's legal and it doesn't cost the taxpayer any, it doesn't bother me," he said.

Holmes is skeptical, though, that a city can force hospitals to recognize domestic partners as family members. Officials at Largo Medical Center and BayCare Health System, which includes several area hospitals, said they'd honor local domestic partnerships.

However, hospital officials also urged unmarried couples that want the right to make medical decisions for each other in cases of emergency to take extra steps, like giving each other power of attorney or naming each other health care surrogates.

For Largo, any discussion about gay rights will provide the opportunity to see how much has changed since 2003, when the city considered a human rights ordinance that would have barred discrimination based on sexual orientation. The ordinance sparked controversy, with hundreds of people on both sides of the debate petitioning City Hall. In the end, four commissioners (including the one who initially proposed the ordinance) voted it down.

Four years later, Largo again found itself in the midst of controversy when City Manager Steve Stanton disclosed his decision to undergo a sex change. Again, hundreds of people flooded City Hall with letters and emails, but this time the furor drew the attention of national media. Commissioners voted to fire Stanton one week after finding out he planned to become Susan Stanton.

Between those two conflicts, commissioners briefly considered in 2005 adding language to Largo's city charter banning discrimination against gay city employees. The change required a citywide referendum. Then-City Manager Steve Stanton recommended shelving the ballot question, though. It wasn't worth the trouble, he said, since Largo already had an internal policy forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation. In explaining his decision, Stanton said he had been offended by the number of bigoted comments he heard during the human rights ordinance debate two years earlier.

"I guess this issue can be easily exploited," he said then, "to bring out the worst in people."

Staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Largo will explore setting up domestic partnership registry 07/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 14, 2012 4:30am]
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