Such a registry would have given unmarried couples in the county the power to make medical decisions and funeral arrangements for a distressed partner, and to participate in education decisions for their children.
The issue was proposed by GOP Commissioner Mark Sharpe, and supported by the only two Democrats on the board, Kevin Beckner and Les Miller. It was opposed by the remaining four Republicans on the board: Ken Hagan, Sandy Murman, Al Higginbotham and Victor Crist.
The vote will do nothing to change Hillsborough's reputation as anti-gay, though Sharpe insisted that the measure had nothing to do with LGBT rights and was simply good public policy.
Commissioner Les Miller urged his colleagues to support the measure, saying it was time that the county joined the 21st Century. He also emphasized that it wasn't a gay/lesbian issue, saying, "I’m a deacon of a black church, folks. I do know what I feel is right."
Currently 10 cities and six counties in Florida have passed such ordinances, nine of them within the last year (including Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo and Pinellas County).
Commissioner Victor Crist was considered by some observers to be the swing vote. In announcing he would not support the measure, Crist insisted that he had come to the meeting with an open mind, but ultimately joined the opposition after learning that an unmarried couple that got a certificate in Hillsborough wouldn't necessarily see it honored in another jurisdiction.
Both he and Commissioner Murman used the phrase "personal responsibility," explaining that it would be better if couples interested in a registry simply went online, downloaded the necessary documents to establish a health care surrogate and hired an attorney. Murman said, "I feel that this still can be done as a matter of personal responsibility by individuals thru living wills."
Earlier in the discussion Commissioner Kevin Beckner, the first openly gay elected member on the BOCC, pointed to the results of a poll commissioned by the Kitchens Group that showed overwhelming support for a domestic partner registry. That survey, of 350 likely and registered voters in the county conducted last September, showed support fot the measure by a 67-27 percent margin, with Republicans alone supporting it by 20 points, 58-38 percent.
But Commissioner Higginbotham said that his opposition was based on his Christian faith and personal beliefs, a stance that he believes is "strongly felt by many in this community."
Around 20 people spoke to the commission before the vote, with most supportive of the passing of the ordinance.
First to speak against the measure was Terry Kemple of the Community Issues Council. He said that just as with anti-discrimination laws and human rights ordinances, domestic partner registries are being used by the courts as a rationale for overturning one-man/one-woman unions.
Plant City's John Desmond, president of the Tampa chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), said his son does not live in the area, but he'd like him and his partner to be able to visit Hillsborough County and have "some assurance in the hospital."
Betty James of Sun City Center said she was "stunned" to hear the board was even considering the issue. She said such a registry was "an unnecessary proposal," since any citizen could download forms from the Internet to appoint a health care surrogate.
The ACLU's Mike Pheneger said the board had the unique opportunity to "right a historic wrong" — the 2005 vote banning gay pride events in Hillsborough County, a measure spearheaded by then County Commissioner Ronda Storms that remains on the books nearly eight years after passage.
Travis Smith expressed disappointment in Commissioner Mark Sharpe, the author of the proposed ordinance. Smith said he knew and supported Sharpe when he first ran for office 20 years, "because he supported traditional family values." Smith added that such a registry was a "subtle attack on the moral fiber of our country."
A representative from insurance giant Blue Cross/Blue Shield touted that such a registry could help the community in terms of showing that it values diversity, a point also made in an editorial on Wednesday in the traditionally conservative op-ed page of the Tampa Tribune.