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Security concerns threaten state's open records, meetings law

By Jim Ash, Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau
Wednesday, September 26, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida is under a state of emergency, legislators are considering closing committee meetings, and routine public records are being withheld in the name of a massive federal terrorism investigation.

In the two weeks since suicide attacks killed thousands, civil libertarians are growing worried that Florida's ironclad Government-in-the-Sunshine Law -- the most open in the nation -- could become collateral damage.

"I understand the fear because I'm afraid. But this rush to close access doesn't do us any good," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. "At this time of national crisis, it's more important than ever that we know how well our government is functioning."

Petersen's concerns weren't eased Monday evening when House and Senate leaders announced the creation of special "security" committees assigned to coordinate Florida's response to the national emergency.

"The tragedies of Sept. 11 have prompted a nationwide effort to improve security measures, and it is important that the House of Representatives is equipped with the most current knowledge and technological information on anti-terrorism available," Speaker Tom Feeney, a Republican attorney from Oviedo, said in a release.

The 12-member committee's mission is fluid; no meetings have been set, and no legislation has been drafted. Feeney's goal is to conduct committee meetings in public, but his spokeswoman, Kim Stone, could not rule out closed-door sessions.

"There are no plans to ever hold meetings in secret. There will never be a vote held in secret," Stone said. Yet, "there is the possibility that they might be privy to some confidential information. We want to make sure that everything is done legally and handled cautiously."

Rep. Randy Ball, R-Mims, expects fellow committee members to concentrate on tightening security at Florida's flight training schools and beefing up agricultural inspections to watch for biological and chemical weapons at ports and airports.

It will be difficult if not impossible to conduct all of the committee's business in public, said Ball, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former Marine Corps officer who also worked as a homicide detective.

And that's the way it should be, he said. "You can't talk about what your particular strategy is going to be for locating some terrorist organization because obviously they read the newspapers," he said.

Senate President John McKay formed a similar Select Committee on Public Security and Crisis Management. He wants the committee to focus on state security as well as the sagging economy.

His chief of staff, Greg Krasovsky, said it was too early to say whether the committee will have to bolt its doors. "It really amounts to what kind of information the committee has before it," Krasovsky said. "I can see a situation where you have some information from the federal government or you talk about techniques for aerial spraying."

The consideration of closed committee meetings -- and a new proposal by Rep. Debby Sanderson, R-Fort Lauderdale, to create a state Division of Homeland Security mirroring a federal agency created last week -- raise the specter of the infamous "Johns Committee" and what proved to be the legislature's darkest days.

In 1956, when the nation was waging a Cold War, the Legislative Investigation Committee was born in Florida. Most often referred to by the name of its chief advocate, Sen. Charley Johns, D-Starke, the committee spent nearly a decade investigating suspected communists and subversives and rooting out homosexuals in Florida universities.

When the committee records were opened in 1993, researchers discovered that the committee had interrogated and harassed more than 1,000 suspects in motels, police stations and courthouses. Most were never charged with a crime.

Larry Spalding, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said legislators aren't likely to repeat the sins of the past. But given recent events, civil liberties in Florida and around the nation are at a crucial juncture, he said.

"I think the biggest concern you have right now is you have the rush to do something," Spalding said. "We're in a position right now that we've never been in, and I understand you probably have to change some of the rules. But we're worried that we could be back in the 1950s when all you had to do was mention `national security' and get a law passed."

Setbacks for open government laws and privacy guarantees show no immediate signs of abating. The same day security committee assignments were announced, journalists were scrambling to investigate reports that the World Trade Center bombing suspects had expressed an interest in crop-dusting airplanes in Belle Glade.

The Florida Department of Agriculture maintains a list of about 150 "aerial applicator" licenses but refused to turn it over to The Palm Beach Post. It was given instead to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which also refused to release it, saying the list is part of the FBI investigation.

Last Wednesday, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles temporarily banned public access to its database of driver license records after the FBI requested information on 13 suspected terrorists who held Florida driver licenses.

"We reached the conclusion that this was the prudent thing to do. Rather than take the risk of compromising any investigations in the field, we put a temporary stop to the outflow of records," department spokesman Bob Sanchez told The St. Petersburg Times.

While some agencies were taking unprecedented steps to close access to public records, others were considering changing their policies protecting privacy.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who heads the state library division, announced Tuesday her staff is working with county librarians to develop new "protocols" that would require "better identification" for using Internet-connected computers at libraries, such as those suspected of being used by some of the terrorists. Library patrons are now required to give only their first names when they use public computers to enter Internet "chat rooms."

Petersen is drafting a letter to the division of driver licenses to complain that closing the records was unconstitutional. If lawmakers decide to close committee meetings, "we will jump up and down," she said. The Florida Constitution is unusually strong in its requirement that three or more legislators must meet in public when discussing pending legislation. But legislators may be tempted to test another provision that appears to give them latitude to set their own rules, Petersen said.

In a statement released late Tuesday, Feeney quoted that portion of the state constitution: "The rules of each house . . . may, where reasonably necessary for security purposes or to protect a witness appearing before a committee, provide for the closure of committee meetings."

"While I remain a strong advocate for openness in the legislative process, should the protection of the security of the citizens of this state reasonably necessitate the holding of a closed meeting, I will not hesitate to take the necessary steps to authorize such a meeting," Feeney wrote.

Staff writer S.V. Dáte contributed to this story.