TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners don't have the greatest reputation among those who advocate for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Past commissions have not only voted to deny discrimination protection for gays, but they have also eliminated protections that previously existed.
Next week, the County Commission that voted seven years ago to ban government recognition of gay pride displays will consider enacting a domestic partner registry. The registry would allow unmarried couples in committed relationships, including gays and lesbians, to participate in their partners' lives in ways that married people take for granted.
If patterned after a similar measure passed by the Tampa City Council last year, it would allow participants to make medical decisions for a partner who is incapacitated. It would enable those who enroll to make funeral arrangements for a partner and to engage in the education of a loved one's child.
"I really do believe we're at a point as adults where we can respect each other, and we're at a point where we can value everyone," said Mark Sharpe, one of the commissioners who voted in 2005 to ban government support of gay pride events. "It just seems like the right thing to do and the right time."
If board members' comments are an indication, the measure may have a chance. At least three commissioners appear to have been jockeying to be the first to introduce the proposal.
Commissioner Les Miller said Friday that he had been meeting with groups hoping he would introduce the concept. He then learned from some of the same people that fellow Democrat Kevin Beckner, who is openly gay, planned to bring up the topic.
Then Sharpe, a Republican, placed the domestic registry idea on Thursday's County Commission agenda.
"I applaud him for bringing that forward," Beckner said. "I think it's important that we continue to take steps to recognize and respect the diversity in our community and to create public policies that will strengthen the fabric of our community."
Sharpe and the two Democrats emphasized that such a step would assist the county's effort to lure new business investment by sending a signal that it is welcoming to all people. All three also emphasized that domestic partner registries benefit others, particularly elderly people who have lost a spouse but don't want to remarry for fear of losing benefits derived from their marriage.
"This is an issue that affects a lot of people," Miller said. "I hope we take the partisan politics and push it aside and look at what's best for the community."
Commissioners last week included promoting diversity as one of their top planks for promoting economic development. Republican Victor Crist sought clarification to ensure that commissioners were speaking not only about people of different races, but also about gays.
Sharpe was the only one of the board's four Republicans who returned phone messages that included the topic of this story.
Meanwhile, leaders of two socially conservative groups said they will oppose the proposal.
David Caton, president of the Florida Family Association, said domestic partnership registries are a "validation, albeit small, of a lifestyle association." He said his association will fight the proposal and accused Sharpe of going against his previously stated beliefs.
"What a turncoat," Caton said. "What a zebra. This is just going the way of Charlie Crist."
Terry Kemple, a founder of the Community Issues Council, which rallied on behalf of Hillsborough's gay pride ban but stood down on Tampa's domestic partner registry, said he will rally opposition to the county proposal.
"The reason we didn't do more at the city of Tampa is because there was no likelihood of winning that battle," Kemple said.
The Hillsborough County Commission stripped discrimination protections for gays and lesbians in the 1990s. It has blocked efforts to restore them.
But gay rights advocates may know the commission's 2005 stance best. That year, then-Commissioner Ronda Storms got fellow board members to ban government support of gay pride displays or events after seeing one at a library.
Commissioners approved requiring a supermajority of five board members to undo it.
If it adopts a registry, Hillsborough will join other Florida counties, including Pinellas, in approving the idea.
"We appreciate Mark Sharpe for showing leadership on the issue" said Brian Winfield, managing director for the gay rights group Equality Florida. "Domestic partnership registries provide real protections for unmarried couples, both gay and straight."
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813)226-3387.