Republicans' closed meeting opens debate

Published March 15, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Stem cell research is an explosive subject, dividing political parties, religious groups, even scientists. It is also highly complex.

So to better understand the issue, House Republicans got together Monday night for a buffet dinner and a slide show by a college professor from Utah.

But the meeting was private, unadvertised to Democrats, the news media and the general public - raising questions about open meeting law violations.

State law and House rules require that meetings be advertised when lawmakers discuss pending legislation.

Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach, said the meeting, at a minimum, curtailed the free exchange of ideas.

"In this era of open government and bipartisanship, I'm not seeing the actions to match what they're saying," she said.

Republicans said the meeting did not violate any rules.

"There was no legislation discussed. There was no debate," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale.

The morning after the meeting, Rep. Anitere Flores of Miami sent e-mails to fellow Republicans thanking those who attended the "very informative meeting" and asking for support on the stem cell research bill she sponsored.

The legislation (HB 1065) calls for the state to spend $20-million on biomedical research projects that do not require the destruction of embryos. Many experts say cells harvested from embryos provide more promise than adult cells, but some conservatives view the practice as immoral.

The Republican Party sponsored the event and also paid travel costs for the guest speaker, University of Utah professor Maureen Condic, who favors adult stem cell research over embryonic.

Party spokesman Jeff Sadosky estimated about 72 House Republicans attended, nearly the entire caucus. Others put the figure at about 25.

"We followed the law by both letter and intent," Sadosky said. "We were very careful to make sure we were not in violation."

Sadosky said there was no mention of bills or strategy, just a discussion of the overall issue. "There was nothing wrong," he said.

One expert agreed.

"If they are just sitting there listening to information, not talking about anything coming up for vote, then they should be fine," said Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.

"But we want to make sure when they are having meetings about issues that are of critical public importance . . . that our constitutional right of access is always considered."

This is not the first time this year that House Republicans have had to answer questions about closed meetings.

In January, 14 representatives held an hourlong meeting, without giving notice, and discussed which education proposals in House Speaker Marco Rubio's book 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future should be assigned to various committees.

In February, lawmakers attending an unadvertised training session on the budget were told that budget constraints might kill requests for local projects. Though not acknowledging a violation, the House has begun informally giving notice about the training meetings.

Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat who serves as the minority leader, said he did not know all the facts about Monday's meeting and reserved comment.

But he said Republicans ought to have second thoughts about Flores' bill.

"Most Floridians don't think stem cell research should be as restrained as President Bush wants and that's exactly what this bill would do."