SUNSHINE SUNDAY; A FOCUS ON FLORIDA'S PUBLIC RECORDS LAW Access, Privacy 'A Balancing Act'

Article excerpt

Byline: Joe Black, Times-Union staff writer

Florida has one of the oldest and strongest public records laws in the country. It can be used to research nursing homes and day-care centers, identify doctors who have been sued for malpractice, do background checks on prospective employees and more.

Today, newspapers across the state call attention to the law and the exemptions the Legislature seeks to enact.

TALLAHASSEE -- From closing public utility records to medical incident reports, lawmakers are proposing the highest number of bills ever to change Florida's open government laws.

Under Florida's public records law, introduced in 1909 and known as one of the most open in the country, all government records are open for inspection unless specifically exempt.

In 1992, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that guarantees access to information and records from all three branches of the state government and places the burden on lawmakers to make specific exemptions if deemed necessary.

About 115 bills to close records and meetings have been filed for the 2003 legislative session as of Tuesday, according to the First Amendment Foundation, an open government watchdog group. Last year, 107 bills had been filed by this time.

Exemptions must pass through both legislative houses by a two-thirds vote and be signed by the governor to become law.

"[Approving exemptions] is a balancing act," said Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "We have to ask if there is a greater good to be served by letting people know."

The increase in exemptions comes just a few weeks after a report commissioned by the Legislature did not include a call for more exemptions to the widespread laws. The report, released by the Study Committee on Public Records, made 13 recommendations urging the Legislature and the Supreme Court to continue to monitor Florida's open records law. The proposals included a request to Congress to force credit card companies to aggressively fight identity theft and a move to clarify the role of court clerks who control public access to millions of documents each year.

But King said members think many of their proposals are necessary because of an understanding of identity theft and fear of security threats after the Sept. 11 attacks.

However, First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen said legislators' fears often are unfounded because personal information, such as Social Security numbers, is exempt from open records laws.

"[People] think public records are the culprit for the problems," Petersen said. "But much of what is being exempted can be found in other places, not just public records."

She contends that some exemptions are necessary, such as stopping access to personal medical records. However, she added others just bring in a "trust-me government," where citizens have to trust officials are telling what's really going on behind closed meeting doors.

Rep. Mike Hogan, R-Jacksonville, filed an exemption to public utility records, which he says is necessary for competition between public and private utility companies. Also, he said it keeps people safer so they can't be targeted by someone looking for their home address through public records.

"I'm just looking to provide a lot of protection and privacy," he said.

Hogan originally filed the bill during the 2002 session after the Times-Union reported the highest water users in Jacksonville in fall 2001.

"Those people were held up in disregard for being in that report," he said, adding that it didn't include the people with private utilities.

But this year's proposals and renewals of past laws are not what's scaring First Amendment advocates the most. That distinction goes to the 13 so-called shell bills filed for the Legislature's 60-day annual session, which is entering its third week. …