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Gay rights foes aim at county

The opponents of the city's gay rights ordinance broadened their drive Tuesday to overturn Hillsborough County's human rights ordinance.

After forcing a referendum in Tampa on repeal of the ordinance, the group Take Back Tampa said it has found a way to get a similar vote at the county level.

In the city, the gay rights ordinance prohibits discrimination against homosexuals in employment, real estate and public accommodations. The county's ordinance protects gays from discrimination in real estate, public accommodations and public contracts.

The group proposes changing Hillsborough's charter to allow residents to petition the County Commission to approve or overturn ordinances. If the commission refuses to accept a petition, the issue would go before voters.

That process is similar to one in Tampa. But the county's charter does not allow residents to petition for change of an ordinance; it allows only a petition drive to force a vote to change the charter.

"This is the first step in a two-step process," Tampa lawyer Don Conwell said Tuesday.

The first step involves gathering more than 20,000 signatures from registered voters on a petition to amend the charter. If successful, the proposed charter change would go on the November ballot.

If voters approve the change, Take Back Tampa intends to begin a petition drive to ask the commission to overturn its amendments to the gay rights ordinance. Those amendments were passed after an emotional meeting of the Tampa City Council and the County Commission at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in May.

If the commission doesn't overturn the ordinance, it would go to voters.

A spokesman for the Bay Area Human Rights Coalition could not be reached for comment Tuesday night. The group has vowed to oppose any effort to change or water down the ordinance, such as the Sept. 1 referendum proposed for Tampa.

City Council members still must finalize a vote on the referendum; Mayor Sandy Freedman can veto that vote.