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Domestic partner registry could come to Pinellas County

St. Petersburg has one. Clearwater has one. Even Gulfport, a city of 12,000 people, beat Pinellas County in establishing a domestic partnership registry.

On Thursday, the Pinellas County Commission will meet to discuss allowing unmarried residents to register as domestic partners, giving them rights that, currently, only come with a marriage license. The registry would be countywide, effectively stitching together the patchwork that exists now that means domestic partners registered in one city are not recognized in all of the others.

"It makes sense for the county to do it countywide instead of having a registry in every little town, but it didn't happen that way," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "So we're playing catch-up."

It will be some time before the commission votes on the proposed registry, but a majority of its seven-member board supports the idea.

Gulfport, which has a large gay and lesbian population, was the first city in Pinellas County to create a registry, unanimously approving one in May. St. Petersburg followed and since Aug. 1, when the city clerk began offering domestic partnerships, 223 couples have registered. Clearwater also has one.

Tampa was the first city with a registry in the Tampa Bay area, creating one in March. And across Florida, a handful of counties have passed them, including Miami-Dade, Leon, Orange, Broward and Palm Beach. Hillsborough County has not approved one.

The registry proposed for Pinellas would allow unmarried couples, gay or straight, who live together and are 18 or older, to become domestic partners.

Under this new title, couples would be able to visit each other in the hospital, make health care decisions for each other in the event one is incapacitated, and make funeral or burial decisions for each other.

People would be able to attend the parent-teacher conferences of their partners' children. And some businesses and municipalities, including Pinellas County, extend health insurance coverage to employees' domestic partners.

Pinellas' proposed ordinance is similar to the ones other counties and cities, said Paul Valenti, director of the county's office of human rights. As in Tampa, there would be no residency requirement, meaning that the same rights would be extended to couples who visit or live part-time in Pinellas County.

Becoming domestic partners does not equate to getting married, as the ordinance spells out. In Florida, it is unlawful for same-sex couples to wed or register for a civil union, which carries more benefits than a domestic partnership.

Asked whether he would support creating a registry, Pinellas Commissioner Norm Roche said he was unsure one was needed, "as opposed to something along the lines of a standard power of attorney."

Although granting someone power of attorney does allow people to transfer rights to partners who are not their spouses, the process can be intimidating to couples who can't afford a lawyer, Valenti said. In St. Petersburg, it costs only $30 to become domestic partners. In Gulfport, the cost is $25.

"This provides some baseline for registered domestic partners without needing to incur the expense, the difficulty, of dealing with the legal system," Valenti said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Domestic partner registry could come to Pinellas County 12/04/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 5:27pm]
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