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Florida Senate to vote on meeting in secret

If approved, the proposal, designed for meetings on terrorism prevention, would allow closed sessions for the first time in over 30 years.

By LUCY MORGAN and STEVE BOUSQUET

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2001


If approved, the proposal, designed for meetings on terrorism prevention, would allow closed sessions for the first time in over 30 years.

TALLAHASSEE -- Moving in a new, security-conscious climate, the Florida Senate is considering a change in its rules that would allow the chamber's 40 members to meet in secret.

Under the proposed rules changes, Senate President John McKay would be empowered to call secret meetings of the Senate. Its committees also would be able to keep the votes of its members secret "at the sole discretion of the president."

The proposal, designed for meetings to "discuss measures to prevent possible acts of espionage, sabotage, attack and other acts of terrorism" will be considered today by the Senate Rules Committee before a final vote takes place on the floor.

The effort -- drafted by Republican Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon -- is the biggest step yet to block the public's right to know in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It comes as lawmakers are weighing other bills that would close some police records and other documents that have traditionally been public in Florida.

"This is crazy," said Barbara Petersen, director of the First Amendment Foundation.

She said the proposal overlooks a section of the Florida Constitution that prohibits closed meetings except when the Senate is considering the removal or appointment of a public official.

The last time the Senate met in a closed session was Jan. 26, 1967, when it physically ejected reporters from the press gallery after the reporters refused to leave.

The public furor that erupted from that event led to the passage of the state's Sunshine Law later the same year. Embarrassed members of the Senate never again tried to meet in secret.

"The last time the Senate was closed is so long ago my memory has trouble pulling it up," said Florida State University president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former lawmaker and a longtime openness advocate.

Reapportionment was the big issue of the day in 1967, and the Senate was 20 minutes late arriving on the floor because its leaders had been conferring privately in a back room. When they arrived, some of them carrying redistricting maps, they moved immediately to go into an executive session. A day earlier a federal judge in Miami had hinted it would draw up the districts for a recalcitrant Legislature.

"We knew they had been having private discussions all over the Capitol," said Don Pride, a speech writer for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson who was a St. Petersburg Times reporter in the Senate gallery on that January day. "We did not believe them and decided to stay."

One by one the senators stood up to denounce the reporters who remained in the press gallery.

"It's a slap in the face," intoned Sen. Ben Hill Griffin of Frostproof, suggesting that he would fire the reporters if he was their boss.

Senate President Verle Pope likened it to anarchy and sent the sergeant at arms to escort each reporter out of the Senate gallery.

Newspapers around the state labeled the Senate action a disgrace and denounced the lawmakers for weeks.

It was in that atmosphere that Sen. J. Emory "Red" Cross of Gainesville finally got lawmakers to pass a bill requiring government bodies to meet in public, the bill that was dubbed "the Sunshine Law." Cross had spent years trying to pass the bill with no success.

"They never met in secret again," Pride recalled Tuesday.

Asked about the new proposal, Pride labeled it "ridiculous."

"It flies in the face of the people's right to know what is going on in government," Pride said.

Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law has forced city and county governments to meet in public since 1968. In 1990, voters took Florida's tradition of open government a bit further, passing a constitutional amendment that required the Legislature to provide public access and public notice for committee meetings, conferences and planned gatherings of more than two legislators. It also requires a recorded vote in committees when properly requested.

On Tuesday, state lawmakers defended the proposal to retreat from the tradition of open government. Lee, who is the Senate Rules chairman, said he thinks the change is needed.

"The truth is, we don't think there is going to be a whole lot of need for the president to exercise his discretion under these rules, but the rules are there for unexpected events," Lee said.

Lee said the rule will require the Senate to keep a record of any closed meeting, but it would not be released without an order from the president. Lee said he thinks the Senate proposal is similar to an existing House rule that allows the speaker to close a meeting when it is necessary to protect a witness testifying before a committee.

Petersen challenged the legality of any move to keep records secret, noting that the Constitution might allow some meetings to be closed, but not the records.

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