St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is to be applauded for adopting a new benefits policy that treats all city employees fairly. By extending same-sex partner benefits to the city's entire workforce, Foster is quietly drawing a welcome distinction between his administration and that of his predecessor, Rick Baker, who let his discomfort with the rights of gays and lesbians color city policy. Foster may share religious conservatism with Baker but he has chosen to take a more pragmatic approach to governance, reaching out in multiple ways to the city's gay and lesbian community and making the city a more inviting place for all people to live, work and visit.
Foster's decision comes in concert with his support for a domestic registry ordinance that will likely be considered by the City Council within the next month and appears to have broad support. The registry, modeled on one recently passed in Tampa, would allow unmarried straight and gay couples to document their status and gain rights to make health care, child-raising and other decisions for each other.
Foster says his decision to equalize benefits for all 2,600 city employees reflects his desire to treat all employees the same. In practical terms the mayor is closing a disparity that occurred after the city's rank-and-file police officers negotiated same-sex benefits into their 2010 contract. The city's fire department administrators have also been granted domestic partner benefits. But the mayor is also telegraphing that St. Petersburg will not be left behind as the nation increasingly accepts equality for gay and lesbian families. A majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, including, momentously, President Barack Obama, who announced his support Wednesday.
Foster, like Baker, still refuses to sign a city proclamation supporting the annual gay pride parade. But Foster has shown up at the event and has signed a welcoming letter for the event's brochure. In it Foster wishes visiting revelers a "successful week of celebration" and urges them to return soon. Now that St. Petersburg treats its gay and lesbian workers as equals, they have one more reason to do so.