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Florida Senate panel approves secret security meetings

By The Associated Press


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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Senate committee approved rules yesterday that would allow secret committee meetings to discuss anti-terrorism security and approve related bills without revealing votes or changes to the legislation.

The committee cited the possibility that testimony or research related to a bill could compromise security. Sen. Steven Geller gave the example of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission official talking about what parts of a nuclear power plant would be most sensitive to a terrorist attack.

“You would not want that testimony to get out to the public,” said Geller, D-Hallandale.

Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, cast the only vote against the rule change to allow portions of meetings to be closed. The rule would also let meetings be closed to discuss security issues related to espionage or acts of sabotage.

There was more debate about a rule change that would seal records from the secret meetings, including any committee vote on bills and amendments.

“Once we vote, I don’t see any reason why that vote’s not public,” said Sen. John Laurent, R-Bartow. “I’ve got a real problem with shielding how we’ve voted on a product that is leaving this committee.”

An amendment he proposed to make votes public failed. The rule change means a bill could reach the Senate floor with no public record of who voted for or against it in committee.

The rule change would also allow the Senate president to make the votes and committee records public. The records would also become public after five years unless the Senate president decided they should stay sealed.

The full Senate must approve the rule changes before they take affect.

“We would be supportive of it,” said Carole Strange, spokeswoman for Senate President John McKay. “The times that we’re dealing with right now, there are provisions that need to be addressed to handle sensitive issues.”

The action astonished Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, an open-government watchdog group.

“It really does stun me,” she said. “It seems to be contradictory to everything you learned in fourth grade social studies about democracy.”

She said you could interpret the rules to mean that a bill could reach the Senate floor and be voted on without the public's ever seeing the wording.

“It’s far broader than the discussion at the meeting this morning would lead you to believe,” she said.

Later yesterday, the Senate Governmental Oversight and Productivity Committee unanimously approved several bills that would restrict access to public records, all crafted in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Senate Bill 68B would allow the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to block access to otherwise public records for up to a week and an additional 14 days with a judge’s permission. The types of records would include things like driver’s license information and real estate documents.

As an example of a record he would seek to temporarily block, FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore cited a list of all crop dusters registered in the state that his department requested from the Department of Agriculture while investigating the possibility that terrorists were trying to purchase crop dusters.

Other bills would keep secret documents on the location of drugs stockpiled for use after a terrorist attack, police officers’ cell phone and pager numbers, and law enforcement requests for public records as part of an investigation and the response they receive.

Though he voted for the measures, Sen. Richard Mitchell, D-Jasper, cautioned that they may do more to block the public’s access to records than stop terrorists from getting them.

“A terrorist is going to find it anyway,” he said. “Somebody who wants your secrets is going to find a way. ... It’s kind of like a lock on a barn door — the real effectiveness of it is to keep the honest people out.”


Some Florida driver's license records sealed during terrorist probe
Meanwhile, university library director rescinds ban on ‘Proud to be an American’ stickers; other First Amendment developments in aftermath of attacks.  09.20.01

Most public-records bills die at end of Florida legislative session
Lawmakers pass 10 measures blocking access to records but also endorse legislation that could make it more difficult to close records in future.  03.25.02

Legislature dims Florida's sunshine laws
Lawmakers passed 15 new exemptions to public-records laws, routinely met in secret, and approved bills so quickly some members didn't know what they were voting on.  05.12.01