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A trade secret // Convention centers want law changed

TALLAHASSEE - Florida's Sunshine Law could end up putting convention centers around the state out in the cold, according to officials who say competitors only have to ask for trade secrets to get them. "Five years ago there were 20 civic centers around the country competing for business," said Eric D. Jones, director of Tampa's convention and facilities department. "Today there are 50 and not all of the states have the open-government law that Florida has."

Centers in Texas, Ohio and Tennessee can withhold client information.

"The market is competitive and the stakes are millions of dollars to a city's economy," Jones said. "Florida is at a real disadvantage, especially the big boys like Orlando and Miami."

An Orange County study showed that conventioneers spent $354-million in area restaurants, attractions, hotels and rental car agencies in 1989. Norm Litz, director of Miami Beach's civic center, said the city's annual boat show generates $100-million for the local economy.

"To say that this business is important to Florida is an understatement," Litz said. "We scrutinize every request for information we get, but what can we do?"

Rewrite the law, say officials in Orange County, where the legal department has drafted a bill that will be introduced this session by Rep. Richard Crotty and Sen. Toni Jennings, both Orlando Republicans.

The legislation would amend the Florida public records law and allow convention centers to keep their booking information confidential.

By law, convention centers must reveal their marketing strategies, client lists and customer profiles upon demand - even if that demand comes from someone intent on stealing those clients.

Media organizations and government watchdog groups routinely oppose any attempt to scale back the 23-year-old landmark legislation, called the Sunshine Law, which was meant to allow citizensnearly unlimited access to government meetings and records.

But this time, the state's civic centers' directors say, the stakes are too high.

"That information is golden," said David O'Neal, director of Orange County Convention and Civic center. "It is the heart and soul of our business, and it is what makes us a successful operation. Right now someone could step in and clean us out."

If the bill becomes law, the booking records of public convention centers, sports stadiums, arenas, coliseums and auditoriums will become confidential. Records of an event - such as how much a group paid to use a facility - would only have to be released one year after the event took place.

Dick Shelton, director of the Florida Press Association, said he had not heard of the bill, but a staff of lawyers and lobbyists routinely reviews all proposed Sunshine Law amendments.

"We're very protective of public records and very zealous in our attempt to prevent the closing out of public access to important information," Shelton said. "This bill will undergo a lot of scrutiny and examination before it goes anywhere."

Three areas are deemed exempt from the open records law, Shelton said. The first is personal records of public employees, such as medical records; another is items that must be secret for an agency to properly operate, such as labor negotiations; the third is government records that would reveal a private contractor's trade secrets.

Civic center directors say they should be given the same courtesy as private companies.

Among the information they want to protect are the specific space needs and program desires of clients, the cost of producing certain trade shows and the list of exhibitors at shows.

"There is no question that this chips away at some level at the Sunshine Law," Crotty said. "But you have to weigh the public interest against the public's right to know. What is it worth to risk the economic impact at stake here?"