TAMPA — Tampa took a step Thursday toward becoming the first city in the Tampa Bay area to create a domestic partnership registry for unmarried couples.
Modeled on a new registry in Orlando, Tampa's would ensure that registered domestic partners could visit loved ones in the hospital and make health care decisions for a partner who is incapacitated.
"I've always thought that this was something that was lacking in our community," said City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, who made the proposal. "More and more people are cohabitating, and there are issues that come up. You never know who is going to be in an accident."
The council voted 5-0, with Charlie Miranda and Frank Reddick absent, to ask city attorneys to draft an ordinance similar to Orlando's and report back on March 15.
Orlando's ordinance notes that the 2010 census found more than 12 percent of Americans — or nearly 6.8 million households — living in domestic partnerships. That's a 25 percent increase since 2000.
The registry would be open to both heterosexual and homosexual couples, Capin said. She does not see it as a step toward legalizing same-sex marriage.
The city of Gainesville and the counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach also have domestic partnership registries. This week, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Orange County commissioners moved to expand Orlando's registry countywide.
"It's no longer a cutting-edge or pushing-the-envelope thing," said Brian Winfield, managing director of Equality Florida, which advocates on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.
Registries include only a handful of protections, but they apply to the times when people are most vulnerable, Winfield said.
"When they are important, they are critically important," Winfield said.
In addition to same-sex couples, Winfield said the registry would benefit older men and women who live together outside of marriage because they don't want to complicate their retirement benefits or estate planning.
Orlando's registry is open to couples of two people who are 18 or older, not married, not related by blood, who live together and who agree to provide for each other's basic needs. It protects their abilities 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.
The Orlando ordinance says nothing in it "shall be construed as recognizing or treating a domestic partnership as a marriage." It allows partners to terminate the partnership by filing an affidavit with the city clerk.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is sympathetic to Capin's idea, saying "people who are not married but are in committed relationships ought to have some protection in those situations."
"I'm not privy to the nuances, but it's certainly a discussion we ought to have," he said. "It goes to the heart of who we are as a community, how we treat people and how fair we are.
"But more important, I think it goes to our economic competitiveness," Buckhorn said. "If we're going to attract the best and the brightest, we can't be demonizing each other based on race, creed, orientation or any other factor."
The city of Tampa, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department offer health benefits to same-sex domestic partners of their employees.
Capin said she brought up the issue Thursday partly because that's the day her daughter, who is married, was scheduled to deliver her first grandchild.
"That is the kind of city I want my grandson to grow up in," she said.