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Ruling on gay-rights vote may come shortly

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Voters may know as early as next week if they will go to the polls Nov. 3 to decide whether to keep the city's gay-rights law.

Lawyers for the city and for Take Back Tampa, a citizens group that opposes the law, have until noon Tuesday to present Hillsborough Circuit Judge Guy Spicola with their opinions on whether the Nov. 3 election, in which voters will elect the president, counts as a city election.

Under the city charter, referendums must be put on the ballot of the next city election.

The City Council and County Commission decided in May to add sexual orientation to their respective human rights ordinances. The city's ordinance protects gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

Take Back Tampa launched a petition drive to get the gay-rights ordinances on the ballot in the city. City Council members decided to place the referendum on the Sept. 1 ballot, but have not made their decision official.

On Friday, assistant city attorney Ty Brown said the next city election is in March 1995, when voters are scheduled to pick the mayor and City Council members.

"I don't know any city officials who are on the ballot this year," Brown said. "Maybe I've missed something, but I thought the city election was last year."

Lawyers for Take Back Tampa disagreed. Take Back Tampa filed suit against the city to force the ordinance onto the Nov. 3 ballot.

On Nov. 3, voters will choose the supervisor of elections, a county post that includes city responsibilities. That makes Nov. 3 a city election, they said.

And the courts need to set a date because the city hasn't been able to, said Charles Wachter, an attorney for Take Back Tampa. He cited several delays by the City Council as proof of the city's "foot-dragging and politicking."

"The city has had five bites of the apple, and enough is enough," Wachter said. "Having to wait until 1995 is a denial of rights."

Brown disagreed, saying the courts don't have the right to choose a date in the first place. Only City Council members _ and not the courts _ can decide when the referendum should be held.

"This is a legislative matter," Brown said. "There's no basis in fact or law for the court to set a date."

Take Back Tampa's lawsuit is an attempt by the group's leaders to decide when to hold the referendum, Brown said. "The petitioners take the position that you do it our way or else."

Spicola, who is also up for re-election Nov. 3, asked for the information in a hearing Friday. He said the only issue left for him to decide is whether the Nov. 3 election is a city election.