Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hillsborough County Commissioners again reject domestic partner registry

Posted By on Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 4:59 PM

Al Higginbotham
  • Al Higginbotham
Hillsborough County Commissioners voted 4-3 today to support Commissioner Al Higginbotham's motion to have county staff create an information packet about current Florida programs for designating a health-care surrogate.

The motion was the Commissioner's attempt to address the request for a domestic partner registry that came before the commission back in January; the registry, an idea that has won acceptance in many communities in Florida and Tampa Bay, was rejected by the same four commissioners who supported his motion today: fellow Republicans Victor Crist, Sandy Murman and Ken Hagan.

But according to an attorney selected by Commissioner Kevin Beckner to address the board, Higginbotham's plan falls well short of the six rights that would be granted to a domestic partner by such a registry.

"The hugest problem obviously is that couples who execute that packet of documents still will not have the legal right to visit each other in a hospital, or correctional facility," said Orlando-based attorney Mary Meeks. "They still would not have the right to arrange each other's funeral. They still would not have the right to be notified in the event of an emergency. They still would not have the right to participate in the educational activities of their partner's children. This particular packet of documents does not address any of those other five rights. No legal document can afford those rights."

Meeks added that, as someone who works on helping local governments craft domestic partner registeries, she would never recommend anybody complete the form that Higginbotham was proposing without the aid of an attorney and a doctor.

But Commissioner Beckner was not immediately dismissive of Higginbotham's new proposal, asking questions of his more conservative colleague to see if they both were on the same page. Beckner said there were different paths to the same destination of helping out domestic partners: "I think we can show Washington and other people that we can take a very divided body that is looking at a difficult issue and come to a bipartisan solution." He then proposed a substitute motion that would compel county staff to continue to research the issue and look at what other communities have done.

But what other communities in Florida have done is create a domestic partner registry, including two more in Florida last week. That's what seemed to confuse Beckner's two allies on the board, Commissioners Les Miller and Mark Sharpe, who along with Beckner supported creating a DPR back in January.

Sharpe, who proposed the ordinance back in January and seems to have become only more convinced of its righteousness, said he didn't like dealing with the issue piecemeal. "I don't get it, I don't get why we would give individuals pieces of rights," he said, adding that "a part of a right is not a whole right."

When Higginbotham then asked county attorney Chip Fletcher for legal guidance, Fletcher agreed with attorney Meeks that there was not one form that can work for a domestic partner in all instances, but said there wouldn't be a legal problem in creating such a form that could be accessible at county libraries and on their Web site.

The Commission then voted 4-3 to support Higginbotham's proposal, which would direct county staff to craft the forms, and bring it back to the BOCC at their April 17 meeting.

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