tampabay.com

Sunshine Law isn't always illuminating

Lawmakers are considering dozens of exemptions to the state's open government laws.

By ALEX LEARY
Published March 12, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - A prestigious California research firm is eyeing St. Petersburg for an expansion and wants government help getting there. But ask to see documents relating to the negotiations, and you are out of luck.

State law cloaks economic development records with secrecy for at least two years - long after the deal may have been finalized.

The provision sunsets this year, but lawmakers are being asked to approve it again, along with dozens of other exemptions to the state's open government laws.

Among the proposals: hiding concealed weapons permits, allowing those who file court records to decide which ones should be private and cutting off access to crime scene evidence.

There are more than 30 new exemptions proposed and nearly as many open records laws up for renewal.

"The onslaught continues," said state Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, who is participating today with other open government advocates, including newspapers, in what has become known as Sunshine Sunday.

The campaign, in its fifth year in Florida, is part of a weeklong effort to raise awareness about the importance of open government.

"There should be very few occasions when records aren't public," Seiler said.

Florida's open records law, Chapter 119, is considered one of the most progressive in the country. Under that law, all documents dealing with government business are presumed open unless there is an explicit exemption.

Just last week, one of those exemptions made news. Gov. Jeb Bush secretly met with some of the state's most powerful lawmakers and an unnamed company, widely considered to be the California research company SRI International. Bush's staff said the meeting did not violate open meeting law because specific legislation was not discussed. The exemption requires government to keep confidential any records about a company's proposed relocation or expansion, if requested, for two years. A company can request an additional year. A government employee can be charged with a misdemeanor for violating the law.

"It gives communities no chance to protest until the deal is done," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. She agrees negotiations deserve some protection but thinks two years or more is far too long. Records should be released shortly before a deal is struck or right after to provide time for public comment.

But Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, said economic development would never happen without confidentiality because companies are worried about competitors learning about their plans.

"Economic development is largely a covert operation," Lee said. He agreed with Petersen, however, that the duration of the exemption should be reviewed.

Far more alarming to Petersen is a bill being pushed by state court clerks that would allow those who file records after Jan. 1, 2007, to decide what information should be withheld from the public.

Clerks argue they do not have manpower to redact court records.

Another proposal, by state Sens. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, and Rod Smith, D-Alachua, would exempt crime scene photos and other documents from public view. The proposal stems from a battle over photos in the murder of Carlie Brucia in Sarasota.

Evidence could still be viewed as part of court proceedings, but publishing photos or videos would require court approval.

"We're trying to strike a balance between the public right to know and the privacy rights that exist for family members when they've lost someone," said Smith, who is running for governor.

"But what if it never gets entered into evidence?" asked Petersen.

A law of that nature, she said, could have kept from view the videotape showing guards at a Panama City boot camp beating a 14-year-old youth who later died. Before the tape was made public, little notice was given to abuse at boot camps for youthful offenders; now the camps are under pressure to close.

ON THE WEB

A complete list of the proposed exemptions, and those up for renewal, can be found at the First Amendment Foundation's Web site, http://floridafaf.org The group is supported by newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times.