SUNSHINE SUNDAY; A FOCUS ON FLORIDA'S PUBLIC RECORDS LAW Access, Privacy 'A Balancing Act'
Black, Joe, The Florida Times Union
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.
Shell bills are filed with a vague title and few details. Lawmakers can go back later and add the specifics -- often without all the scrutiny that bills filed early receive.
Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, filed the majority of these shell bills before the session began. He said because Senate committees cannot file bills as a group later in session, these will give the opportunity to introduce new laws later in session.
"We don't know what we'll need, and this just gives us the opportunity to come back later," he said.
Staff writer Joe Black can be reached at (850) 224-7515, extension 10, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some of the public records exemption bills under consideration by the Florida Legislature this year:
Pharmaceutical Adverse Incident Reports: Creates a public record exemption for information contained in notification of a pharmaceutical adverse incident that identifies a patient, pharmacist, pharmacy, office, or entity by name, location, or other identifier provided to the Department of Health until 10 days after a finding of probable cause.
Sen. Skip Campbell (D-Tamarac). No House companion.
Cell Phone Numbers, Pager Numbers, E-Mail Addresses: Creates a public record exemption for cellular telephone numbers, pager numbers, e-mail addresses, ID numbers and access codes, as well as all associated billing records, for active or former law enforcement personnel, including correctional and probation officers, and specified personnel of the Department of Children & Family Services, Department of Health, Department of Revenue, and local governments.
Rep. Charlie Dean (R-Inverness). Identical to SB 1666; Sen. Bill Posey (R-Rockledge)
Victims of Sexual Offenses: Creates a public record exemption for any photograph, videotape, digital image, electronic image, recorded image, or other visual image of any part of the body of a victim of a sexual offense.
Sen. Rod Smith (D-Gainesville). Identical to HB 453; Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Oviedo)
Hospital Adverse Incidents Notification: Amends the exemption for notification of adverse incidents made to the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) under s. 395.0198, F.S., to exempt: (1) information that identifies the hospital involved in the incident; (2) the identity of the person reporting the incident on behalf of the hospital; (3) the identity of the patient; (4) the identity of the health-care practitioner(s) involved; (5) the name of or the contact number for the medical examiner; (6) any description of the circumstances of the incident; and (7) actions taken to implement an investigation.
Senate Committee on Health, Aging, and Long-Term Care. No House companion
Public Utility Records: Creates a public record exemption for personal identifying information held by a public water, wastewater, natural gas, electric, cable television, or telecommunications utility. Defines "personal identifying information" as a customer's name; social security number; taxpayer identification number; address; telephone number; bank account number; debit, charge, and credit card numbers; and driver identification numbers. Stipulates that the exemption applies retroactively.
Sen. Nancy Argenziano (R-Crystal River). Identical to HB 451; Rep. Mike Hogan (R-Jacksonville)
Rabies Vaccination Certificates: Re-enacts, without change, the exemption under s. 828.30(5), F.S., for information identifying the owner of the animal vaccinated in a rabies vaccination certificate provided to animal control authorities, authorizing access to all information in a rabies vaccination certificate by the physician of, or by any person who has been bitten, scratched, or otherwise exposed to rabies. Also allows access by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, other animal control authorities, and emergency medical response, disease control, or other governmental health agencies, but prohibits public release of the information. Stipulates that a person with an animal tag number may receive the vaccination certificate information, and that any person who makes a written request may view or copy any individual rabies vaccination certificate, one certificate at a time. Also stipulates that a copy of any database may be obtained, but that the owner's name, street address, phone number, and animal tag number must be deleted.
Senate Committee on Agriculture. No House companion
Building Plans & Blueprints: Amends the exemption for building plans, blueprints, schematic drawings, and diagrams depicting the internal layout and structural elements of government owned or operated buildings in s. 119.07(3)(ee), F.S., to stipulate that the exemption applies to any such record held by a government agency, thus expanding the exemption to include the building plans, blueprints, etc. of buildings owned or operated by private entities as well, if those documents are in the hands of government. Allows access upon a showing of good cause.
Sen. Mike Bennett (R-Bradenton). No House companion
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Publication information: Article title: SUNSHINE SUNDAY; A FOCUS ON FLORIDA'S PUBLIC RECORDS LAW Access, Privacy 'A Balancing Act'. Contributors: Black, Joe - Author. Newspaper title: The Florida Times Union. Publication date: March 16, 2003. Page number: Not available. © 2007 The Florida Times-Union. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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