Bill widely expands secrecy in government
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Residents packed a St. Petersburg meeting last year when the City Council was picking a company to manage the Pier.
The council could have met in secret under a proposal state lawmakers are considering.
A bill quietly and quickly making its way through the Legislature would allow city, county and state elected officials to go into closed meetings to talk about spending taxpayers' money or negotiating proposals from companies for hundreds of reasons.
"It's an unwarranted and unjustified expansion of the current law," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog for open government in Florida. "Our Constitution gives us the right to participate in the entire deliberative process."
The bill, proposed and unanimously approved by the state House Fiscal Policy and Resources Committee, is heading straight to the full House without the usual stops for review by other committees. A Senate version is expected to be introduced today.
Experts say the proposal would be the biggest restriction on open meetings in Florida in a decade, when the Legislature allowed elected officials to meet behind closed doors to discuss legal matters.
The First Amendment Foundation outlined its complaints in a letter to Rep. Rob Wallace, R-Tampa, the committee chairman. Curt Kiser, a lobbyist for the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, plans to talk to House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, and Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, Feeney's designated successor.
But Wallace and committee members insist the proposal has enough safeguards to protect the public interest, including requiring that minutes of closed meetings be available for public scrutiny later.
That should reassure the public that decisions won't be made in "smoke-filled back rooms," Wallace said.
Committee members explain that the bill is designed to help state agencies negotiate proposals with competing companies, some of which have gained an upper hand because of the openness of the process.
"We're definitely in support of it," said Robert Hosay, acting director of state purchasing at the Department of Management Services.
But the bill is broad enough to allow elected officials at all levels of government to meet behind closed doors to discuss spending millions of dollars on everything from new computers to hiring a redevelopment company.
Rep. Mark Weissman, D-Parkland, said he will trust elected officials not to shut out the public and will rely on the news media to watch over the process and point out problems. "I don't see anything in here that jumps out at me, that we are opening up anything that will be problematic," Weissman said.
But experts say that making the process more expedient is not sufficient justification.
"It's poorly drafted, it's poorly conceived," said Jon Kaney, a First Amendment lawyer in Daytona Beach. "It could be a back door out of the sunshine for everyone."
Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, said he didn't realize the bill's consequences and will try to fix it before it gets to the House floor, particularly because it doesn't have an expiration date as most other public records exemptions do.
"That's concerning," he said. "It shouldn't be very easy to come out of the public eye."
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From the Times state desk
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