Lawmakers try to draw shade on public records
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Want to know the average light bill for a house before you buy it?
Some Florida lawmakers want to keep that information in the dark.
How about knowing that a doctor has harmed a patient in his office before you take your child there?
You can now, but that information would slip into secrecy if lawmakers approve a proposed exemption.
Despite efforts by voters to limit new exemptions to Florida's government in the sunshine laws, legislators are proposing a record number again this year.
"I just continue to be stunned by the sheer number of the proposed exemptions," said Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, an open government advocacy group. Too many exemptions have sailed through committee meetings with little or no debate this year, Petersen said.
This year, proponents will have to muster two-thirds of legislators to pass any exemptions because of a constitutional amendment approved in November.
Some of the proposals are in response to to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Others can be attributed to the continuing problem of identity theft.
Others, say Petersen and other open records advocates, make little sense.
One is an exemption proposed by Rep. Charles Dean, R-Inverness.
Dean's original bill would have exempted all cell phone billing records, pagers and e-mail addresses of every law enforcement officer in the state, plus a laundry list of other officials.
In its amended form, the bill exempts each law enforcement officer's government-issued cell phone number, plus the list of phone numbers called by that phone.
Dean argued against narrowing his bill before a House committee this week, saying the exemption was needed to protect officers and informants and "to prevent nosy reporters from putting the wrong information on the street."
It also would have prevented the public from learning that Hillsborough County sheriff's Maj. Rocky Rodriguez made scores of calls to his girlfriend, talking on his county telephone for 38,508 minutes during a 24-month period. That racked up a bill of $6,007 over the base cost, which Rodriguez ultimately reimbursed.
Rodriguez was forced to retire, partly because of the cell phone scandal.
Dean finally agreed to the amendment after he faced the ire of several House members, who said his bill would prevent city councils from finding out how much police departments were spending on cell phones. The bill is still working its way through committees.
"As a nosy council member I used to look at my department's bills," said Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey.
Petersen said current exemptions already prevent disclosing active criminal intelligence, such as the phone number of an informant. Another controversial exemption is sponsored by Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River. It would shield information such as names, addresses and phone numbers from public utility bills. Argenziano said the exemption was needed to prevent would-be thieves from looking up a person's utility bill to predict what time of day the occupants were least likely to be at home. But it also would make it harder for private utilities to lure public utility customers.
"It does protect your private information," said Argenziano. She agreed to an amendment that would keep open the records of certain public officials after several senators reminded her of publicized cases of exorbitant water usage by public officials. It also is working its way through committees.
Former legislator Curt Kiser, now a lobbyist for the Florida Press Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, said utility bills show only that a person likely wasn't home a month ago, not today.
"If someone could watch your house for a day or two, why would they wait a month?" Kiser wondered.
Other exemptions that have caught the eye of open records advocates include measures that would prohibit public disclosure of doctors' office visits that resulted in harm to patients, shield information about the state's high-risk investments and keep secret information contained in rabies vaccination certificates.
The Legislature on Monday enters its final two weeks before the scheduled close of the 60-day session on May 2. None of the exemptions open government officials are keeping tabs on have made it out of the Legislature yet.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire