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    Senate voting flurry chips at open records law

    In a frantic rush, senators sign off on 14 exemptions to the state's Sunshine Law.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 14, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- State senators passed bill after bill, some in just a couple of minutes, even though many of the legislators knew little or nothing about the proposals, all of which restricted the public's access to records and meetings.

    Some were hand-written, filled in at the last minute. One would withhold addresses and phone numbers of all public employees, including elected officials.

    As the night passed, senators approved 14 exemptions to Florida's nationally recognized Sunshine Law during one of the latest scheduled meetings this legislative session.

    Many audience members were there to speak but weren't allowed.

    "I was outraged," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog for open government in Florida. "It was really a travesty. The cavalier manner literally made me ill."

    Just one day after Florida newspapers united to denounce the record number of exemptions to laws governing public records and meetings, Petersen and others say the Senate committee flatly ignored the message.

    The newspaper editorial pages had dubbed March 10 Sunshine Sunday. But March 11 quickly became known as Sundown Monday.

    "I don't think it was well-handled," said Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, a committee member and candidate for attorney general. "It was certainly ironic it was the day after Sunshine Sunday."

    Particularly galling to Petersen wasthe Senate's increasing reliance on blank bills filled in at the last minute, known as shell bills.

    Eighteen shell bills relating to public records were filed this year, three times as many as last year.

    "They are antithetical to the whole spirit and intent to the constitutional guarantee to access," Petersen said.

    House rules don't allow shell bills, and House members are praising that after Monday night's Senate committee meeting.

    Curt Kiser, former legislator and lobbyist for the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, said shell bills pose a problem when they are introduced at the last minute. Kiser attended the Monday night meeting but was not allowed to speak.

    Some of the bills that were passed allow elected officials to go into closed meetings to talk about spending taxpayers' money, withhold information about accountants under reviews for license renewal and keep secret addresses and phone numbers of public employees, including elected officials.

    Most were passed unanimously, even though some had questions about the bills that couldn't be answered.

    Sen. Rudy Garcia, a Hialeah Republican and chairman of the Governmental Oversight and Productivity Committee, told the audience they couldn't speak because it would not leave enough time for all 37 bills.

    "It was clear to get those bills through, he was left with two bad choices," said Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua.

    -- Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

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