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Legislature

Public records dodge bullets

A number of proposed exemptions that would close records never reach a final vote during the session.

By RANDOLPH PENDLETON
Published May 5, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Faced with more than 30 proposed new public records exemptions, open-government advocates feared the worst during the legislative session.

But some said Sunday they were pleased that only four new exemptions passed in the 60-day session that ended Friday.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said they did not appear to be problematic.

"This is the lowest number since I started doing this in 1995," Petersen said.

Curt Kiser, lobbyist for the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and the Florida Press Association, said he was surprised that so many of the proposed exemptions sailed through committees with little or no debate, despite staff analyses that said some of them might be unconstitutional.

They came to a halt when they reached the House and Senate calendars, however.

"I'm just thankful the legislative leadership put the brakes on," Kiser said.

Lawmakers are set to return for a special session May 12 to resolve some major issues such as the budget, but most of the remaining exemptions are not expected to be addressed.

Petersen said the only one she had any concern about was the bill dealing with victims of sexual offenses, but she did not think it was a major problem.

The bill was introduced because of a case in which an inmate had made a public records request for police photographs of his victim.

Petersen said there might be rare cases when there was a legitimate need for such pictures and she would like to see the law amended to provide access if a judge approves the request.

The registry of possible fathers was established by a bill that repealed the so-called Scarlet Letter Law, which required mothers to publish details of their sexual history in newspaper ads to find the fathers before putting children up for adoption.

Under the new laws, men who think they may be the fathers of a child can sign a registry and must be notified if the child is offered for adoption.

Petersen said some of the bills that were defeated included exemptions for utility records and records of law enforcement officers' cellular phone use.

She said Florida law already allows the removal of sensitive, investigating information from public records regarding law enforcement officers' cell phones and there was no need to grant a further exemption. The utility record exemption would have prevented investigations such as those by newspapers into the wasting of water, she said.

The four exemptions that passed limit public access to certain information. They are:

Lists of possible fathers to be consulted in adoptions (SB 2526).

Information on the users of transportation for the disabled or needy (HB 1785).

Law enforcement pictures of the victims of sexual offenses (HB 453).

Some food safety investigation records (HB 1061).

[Last modified May 6, 2003, 04:46:54]


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