Unwed couples can soon register as domestic partners in all of Pinellas County

01/15/13 Janelle Irwin
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Unmarried couples in Pinellas County will soon be able to register as domestic partners to get a handful of benefits afforded to married people. After months of talks, commissioners voted 6 to 1 Tuesday to approve a registry that will also recognize people who registered in other municipalities.

Once registered, unmarried couples would be able to make healthcare and funeral choices for their partner, take part in the education of the other’s children, visit each other in the emergency room and make it easier to share healthcare coverage. Even though it applies to opposite-sex couples too, the passage of a county-wide registry was considered a win for several LGBT supporters at the commission’s meeting. Jan Lowe was one of four people to speak in favor of the ordinance. Lowe, who was married to her partner in Connecticut, said the domestic partnership registry is affording people like her basic human rights.

“It’s really odd that we, as gay and lesbian and transgender and bi-sexual residents of the state of Florida and the cities within Pinellas County have to actually come before a governing body and beg you to give us six little rights that people on the street who are holding a sign that says ‘will work for food’ can actually get by going down to the courthouse. So maybe they changed their sign – ‘will marry for food’ – I don’t know.”

A few municipalities across Pinellas have already implemented domestic partnership registries, but this decision essentially ties those programs together. A person registered in Gulfport can reap the benefits in Clearwater or St. Petersburg or any where else in Pinellas County. Ken Burke is the county’s Clerk of the Circuit Court.

“We will be accepting, upon your approval of the ordinance, the ability to register people at our downtown St. Petersburg location, at the Tyrone branch, at the Clearwater Courthouse here in our official records department where we do passports, marriage license and official records and also at north county. So, it’s good that we have locations throughout the county making it very accessible.”

The Pinellas County Clerk’s office will charge $50 for couples to register. But for those who are already registered in a city within the county, the amount they paid will be credited toward the county’s fee.

“The Clerk’s voluntary assumption of these new administrative functions is based on a mutual cooperative agreement between the board and the Clerk that the registry will be administered by the Clerk and in exchange, the Clerk’s office will receive fees for the services to offset the cost of the maintenance of the registry including staff resources for the administration of the program. The Clerk will look to the board to fund operation which may not be covered by the fees. We anticipate that this joint effort will best facilitate the implementation of the domestic partnership registry thus benefiting the county as a whole.”

Some supporters of the registry thanked commission for taking up the issue. Ian Taylor married his husband in Canada before moving to Pinellas County. After his husband praised the benefits of implementing a domestic partnership registry, Taylor said he was glad they were doing it, but it wasn’t enough.

“And as they say in some households, the views expressed by the management of the household are not necessarily those of the husband. But he is my husband. He’s not my domestic partner. He’s far too old to be my boyfriend and we stopped calling ourselves lovers long ago.”

There were three people who opposed the registry -almost as many as supported it. Joe Paige called himself a concerned citizen and blasted commissioners for pandering to constituents instead of doing the right thing.

“People ask with the recent gun debate, ‘What can we do about our society? Why is our society crumbling?’ Well, this is one reason among many that our society is crumbling. We’re talking about regulating guns when in reality we should be nurturing this male and female relationship, a partnership that will allow us to nurture our children, to love our children, to teach our children.”

Paige also argued that the registry is useless because the only way people can be uniformly granted access to non-family members in hospitals or school systems is by obtaining power of attorney. Norm Roche was the only commissioner to echo that sentiment because a domestic partnership may not benefit couples outside of the county.

“If we truly believe that it is time for a civil union situation then we have a mechanism in place. It’s called the legislative delegation and we meet with them soon. That’s where the power of this belongs and if we want than we should tell them. They have no problem handing stuff down to us, we all know that.”

Other commissioners agreed that the legislature should pass a statewide registry. But they wouldn’t agree to wait for the state to do it. Charlie Justice was one of them.

“Would I prefer that the Florida legislature take the lead and do this … but I don’t think the residents of Pinellas County should have to wait that long and God knows how long it will be.”

Hollywood Senator Eleanor Sobel, a Democrat, is introducing a domestic partnership bill this year. Sobel did not respond to emails or phone calls asking about the measure. The bill is similar to others filed by Sobel that were unsuccessful during previous sessions and would give registered couples similar benefits as the Pinellas County registry including rights to make healthcare decisions.

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Where and when can a couple register? It's about time!