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Bills would make much more private

The Legislature is considering 132 proposals affecting public records and open government, a First Amendment group says.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001

The Legislature is considering 132 proposals affecting public records and open government, a First Amendment group says.

TALLAHASSEE -- Mike Wells remembers the call he took from the son of a Pasco County resident.

"He said, "You've listed my mother on your Web site as a widow,' " said Wells, Pasco's property appraiser. The son feared the widow's exemption noted on his mother's record could make her the target of scams.

After consideration, Wells said he removed all references to widow's or veteran's exemptions from his Web site, although the paper records in his office remain public.

"Every property appraiser, when they do a Web site, has to do some soul searching," Wells said.

Wells' fear that public records could fall into criminal hands mirrors the concern of state lawmakers, who have filed a record number of public record exemptions bills this year.

Dale Earnhardt's family fight to keep his autopsy photos private has held the spotlight. But lawmakers have quietly filed bills seeking to keep other personal information the state collects private. Examples include information about people who qualify for state services like special-needs transportation and a 60-day cooling-off period for personal information found on car accident reports.

In all, 132 bills affecting public records or open government are on file, according to Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. Last year at this time it was just 79, she added.

"It's a big record," Petersen said.

State Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, said Gov. Jeb Bush asked him to sponsor the changes proposed by a state task force on privacy. Burt's bills package would establish the office of chief privacy and public access officer, and require agencies to review information they are collecting and releasing. It would increase the penalties for anyone who uses public records, many of which are available now on the Internet, for a criminal purpose.

"Identity theft is a serious problem in Florida. We have thousands of people who are being ripped off by unscrupulous criminals," Burt said. To illustrate, Burt pulled three fake driver licenses from the top drawer of his desk. All bore official-looking markings, including a hologram of the state.

Former military personnel are told to file their discharge papers with the circuit court for safekeeping. What they weren't told is that in Florida they become public record. Another of Burt's bills would exempt the discharge papers.

"That's an example of information the government has that people never intended to make public," Burt said.

He also wants the state to think twice before it asks residents to give up personal information.

"What we are going to do is ask the question, do we really need it and if we don't, why are we collecting it," Burt said. "If we don't have the information, they can't steal it."

State Sen. Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, has sponsored a bill requiring people who request police reports to sign affidavits.

Holzendorf said her bill wouldn't keep anyone from getting the information.

"We just want a record so if someone uses it (in a crime), there's a trail," Holzendorf said. People just have to sign their name, she added.

That irks Petersen, who said this bill in particular reverses Florida's precedent of not requiring people to say who they are or why they want the information.

"The affidavit would be contrary to 100 years of public policy in Florida," Petersen said.

But the proposed public records exemptions aren't limited to personal privacy. Jon Kaney, a lawyer, said he has seen an alarming increase in exemptions pushed by state agencies that are being encouraged to operate more like the private sector.

"I think its the leadership of the governor and the (Republican) party. They are ideologically committed to making government more like a business," said Kaney, a board member of the First Amendment Foundation. But that shouldn't spill over into the arena of public records, which is how government remains accountable to the taxpayer, Kaney argued.

"Be like a business all you want to, but don't take away the public accountability," Kaney said.

Besides, Kaney noted, businesses that do work with the government may get exemptions for things they likely have to file anyway because they are publicly traded.

For example, a bill requiring tobacco companies to file additional financial information as part of a settlement agreement has a companion bill exempting that information from the public records. State Rep. Irving Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, said the exemption is needed to make sure the tobacco companies hand over the information. Without it, the state can't be sure it's getting all the money owed to it under the settlement agreement, he said.

"They might not be forward with the state of Florida because of the fact that they are in a very competitive environment," Slosberg said.

"We just want to make sure that we are collecting the amount that's coming to the state of Florida."

Other exemptions would make the search for a new university president secret, exempt records of doctors' mistakes unless there was enough evidence to penalize the physician and expand the exemption law enforcement officers get for their home addresses to code enforcement officers and human resource managers.

It's the last one that particularly bothers Kaney, who didn't like the original exemption for the police.

"A law enforcement officer parks his marked cruiser in his driveway, but he claims he needs an exemption" from public records, Kaney said.

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