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Tampa Bay area chambers of commerce oppose public records bills

Chambers of commerce around Tampa Bay and beyond are fighting two proposed public records bills they contend could complicate and compromise their work.

House Bill 1151 and Senate Bill 1648 would require that when a government agency uses public money to pay dues or membership contributions to belong to an organization, that organization must make two kinds of records available for public inspection and copying.

In the first category are financial, business and membership records that pertain to the government agency paying the dues. In the second are any other records that the organization shares with its members at no cost other than the dues they pay.

The Senate passed its version of the bill 39-0 Wednesday. The House version is pending in the Government Operations Subcommittee.

In response, chamber executives say the bills are unnecessary and overreaching.

"We strongly oppose it," said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce. At the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce, president Laura Simpson said she would expect to set up training and create policies to handle records requests, taking staff off their core work of marketing the community and providing business opportunities for their members.

Moreover, chamber leaders say the government agencies themselves already have to make records about their spending on membership organizations public, and that's where the burden of record-keeping should remain.

"I'm all for freedom of information. I get it. You have to hold people accountable," Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Bob Rohrlack said. But, he said, "the way this is structured, it's going to have a negative unintended consequence at a time when chambers are taking a leadership role in working to improve and strengthen our local economies."

In Tampa, the city and Hillsborough County are not dues-paying members of the chamber, but the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, Tampa International Airport, Port Tampa Bay, University of South Florida and Hillsborough Community College are.

Chamber leaders fear that the bill could force them to open all of their records to public scrutiny, which could discourage some private-sector members from wanting to belong. They also say they might have to drop government members such as airports, seaports and transportation authorities in order to protect their members and employees from requests for records.

Those concerns are misplaced, Senate President Don Gaetz said. The bill, he said, "does not seek to penetrate the internal business of the chamber."

Rather, he said, the public records provisions would apply when a chamber or other group takes taxpayer money from a government agency and performs a service, such as acting as an economic development organization, in lieu of that agency doing so.

In such cases, he said, "the public has a right to know how that money is being spent."

Gaetz said no chambers have contacted him in opposition to the bills, though he said he's heard indirectly that the Florida Association of Counties is concerned about the bills. Association communications director Cragin Mosteller said the organization is monitoring the legislation and keeping its members informed, but has not taken a position.

As of late Thursday, House Speaker Will Weatherford's office had received three emails against the bills, all from members of the Bonita Springs Area Chamber of Commerce.

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, danielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

Tampa Bay area chambers of commerce oppose public records bills 03/27/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2014 11:46pm]
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