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Legislative push to deny public access to 911 recordings is dropped

TALLAHASSEE — With opposition building, House Speaker Larry Cretul is apparently abandoning his effort to make 911 calls confidential.

The Ocala Republican said the intent of the legislation became distorted, and it distracted from a separate measure that would implement statewide training standards for 911 dispatchers.

"At this particular time, we're just going to chill out," Cretul said after the annual open government luncheon. "I think we need to focus on the 911 bill (dealing with) certification, education and training for all 911 dispatchers, and allow this one to just kind of take a breath, and maybe nothing at all will happen."

Cretul left the door open, but without his muscle behind it, the bill is likely dead this session.

The reversal came a week after the Republican leadership used a rare procedural rule to guarantee its passage through a House committee, despite opposition from Democratic lawmakers, media organizations and free speech advocates.

But the measure — which would prohibit the public release of 911 call recordings except by court order — became a political liability after the Times/Herald revealed that Cretul sponsored the legislation on behalf of John Hoblick, the politically connected Florida Farm Bureau president whose son died from an alcohol and drug overdose in 2009.

"It had just become way too controversial this year," said Rep. Rob Schenck, a Spring Hill Republican who helped Cretul push the bill. "It is way too important an issue to be held hostage or negotiated over."

The measure lacked an advocate in the Senate, which made it susceptible to political horse trading.

The decision pleased the family of Denise Amber Lee, who was killed two years ago after 911 operators in Charlotte County mishandled a number of calls during her kidnapping.

After details of the mistakes leading up to Lee's murder became public, the Legislature passed the Denise Amber Lee Act, establishing voluntary statewide certification for emergency dispatchers.

Peggy Lee, her mother-in-law, said the family opposed the public records exemption for 911 calls because it would limit public accountability and restrict the use of tapes for training purposes.

Lee will make another trip to Tallahassee this week to urge lawmakers to pass a bill (SB742 and HB355) requiring mandatory state certification for dispatchers.

"We think Cretul's bill had good intentions but to get the system improved, it was counterproductive," she said.

Under the legislation Cretul sought, citizens would only have access to written transcripts of 911 calls. And those would not be available until 60 days after the incident. Also, individuals seeking the record would have to pay for the transcription.

Barbara Petersen, the president of the First Amendment Foundation, a media advocacy organization, said the bill had wide-ranging effects.

"It was done as a sympathetic and emotional response to something," she said. "I think this is one of those cases where (lawmakers) needed to stop and think about the broader implications."

But in the end, it was still a reluctant move for Cretul, who changed course over the weekend after further consideration and increasing opposition, including scathing critiques from newspaper editorial boards.

He said he still supports the concept.

"Personally, I still believe that the 911 exemption is still, in my personal opinion, good policy," Cretul said. "However, at this moment, sometimes you have to stand back and say: What is best to try to accomplish?"

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Legislative push to deny public access to 911 recordings is dropped 03/15/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 16, 2010 12:15am]
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