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St. Petersburg creates domestic partnership registry

Published Jun. 8, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG­­ — The City Council unanimously approved the creation of a domestic partnership registry Thursday that would give legal rights to unmarried couples, gay or heterosexual.

The law, modeled after one Tampa approved in March, requires health care facilities to allow any registered domestic partner to visit their mate and make care decisions if their partner is incapacitated.

Since January, all hospitals receiving federal aid were required to allow domestic partners access to patients and the control of their care. A city registry would help local hospitals follow federal guidelines, said Jeannine Williams, an assistant city attorney.

The new law also allows registered partners to direct burials, visit partners at the city correctional facilities, participate in the education of their partner's children, to be notified in case of a partner's emergency and to direct their partner's estates during times of duress.

"We're very pleased the City Council gave us this right," said Todd Richardson of Equality Florida. "It's a huge step for the gay community."

Any two people may register as domestic partners if they are 18 or older, unmarried, not blood relatives, live together and consider each other members of their immediate family.

Residents of neighboring communities concerned about visiting their partners at St. Petersburg hospitals recommended the city take out the law's city residency requirement.

Council members listened and passed the law without a residency requirement.

Paula Witthaus, 51, reminded the council that the registry will help heterosexual couples, too.

Witthaus said her partner of 18 years was hospitalized and put on a ventilator for two weeks before he died. During that time, she was not allowed to make decisions for him. His family took over, she said, and made decisions that went against what he would have wanted.

Council member Steve Kornell, who is gay, pushed his colleagues to approve the new rules to keep pace with a wave of other cities doing the same.

Also on Thursday, the Clearwater City Council approved a domestic registry. Tampa and Gulfport already have done so, along with Orlando, Gainesville, West Palm Beach, Key West, and Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties

Following other cities, St. Petersburg is making it clear that domestic partnerships will not be recognized or treated as marriages. In 2008, a wide majority of Florida voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage.

One speaker at Thursday's meeting argued that the registry was unnecessary.

Brian Pitts, 40, said unmarried partners can get the same rights by creating a mutual trust or durable power of attorney.

But another speaker, Matthew Medina, 25, said that would cost hundreds of dollars in legal fees.

The city has not yet determined the fee it will charge partners to register. In Tampa and Clearwater, the proposed fee is $30; Gulfport charges $25.

St. Petersburg's law goes into effect June 15, and the city clerk's office has 90 days to create the registry. The registry may be put in place sooner, said Eva Andujar, the city clerk.

Before the council's decision, seven people urged the council to approve the law.

"Passing this domestic registry," said Darden Rice, president of the League of Women Voters of St. Petersburg, "would be a love letter to the entire community."

Times staff writer Drew Harwell contributed to this report. Alli Langley can be reached at alangley@tampbay.com.

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