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Ports want to keep records secret

Two days after the Senate passed a landmark amendment to guarantee open government, a committee decided Thursday that government still is a bit too open.

Florida's deep-sea ports say their business might be better if there wasn't so much public scrutiny of it.

They're pushing for a bill that would give them an exemption to the public meetings and public records laws. A Senate committee unanimously approved it Thursday, but its future in the House is far from certain.

"What it really comes down to is do you want Toyotas unloaded in Charleston or Jacksonville?" said Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa, the bill's sponsor.

But Rep. Mary Figg, D-Lutz, said that unless the exemption is tightened considerably, she may not allow the bill to be heard in the House Governmental Operations Committee, which she heads. The bill will die if she refuses to put it on the agenda.

"Both the Port of Tampa and Port Everglades, and perhaps some other ports I haven't heard about, have had ahistory of dealings that were not above-board," she said. "We're wary of giving them any more relief from public scrutiny."

As government entities, the ports are required to conduct their business in the open. The ports say that's a problem when a private business wants to talk about relocating.

The bill would allow private businesses that want to relocate or lease space to negotiate with the ports in private. The exemption would not permit ports to solicit business in private.

The original bill would have kept the records secret for two years. But a compromise drafted by the House Governmental Operations Committee staff was the measure that passed Thursday. It requires that 14 days before a public hearing on the transaction, records relating to it would be made public.

That would be plenty of time for reporters and the public to find out if there's anything questionable about a pending deal, said John LaCapra, attorney for the Florida Ports Council. Later public scrutiny would mean that no one was "going to pull any funny business" during secret negotiations, he said.

LaCapra said that as ships have gotten bigger, shippers tend to use fewer ports, making the competition for business fierceer. Toyota, which once used eight American ports, now uses four, including Jacksonville, he said.

Joe Valenti, director of the Tampa Port Authority, said that he didn't knownegotiations with prospective tenants had to be conducted in the open until the Tampa Tribune sued the port last year to obtain information on the proposed Garrison Seaport Project.

Valenti brought that up at a meeting of the Florida Ports Council, and other members said they also were unaware that negotiations with prospective tenants were subject to the open records law.

"Private companies don't want to negotiate in the newspaper," Valenti said. "All companies don't care about it, but some do."

Deputy Attorney General Pete Antonacci said another exemption to open government is not a good thing.

"Anytime anything is done in secret that involves contracts, there's a risk of insider dealings and breaks being given to friends," he said.

Although the records eventually become public, the public still wouldn't know what transpired during closed meetings. Antonacci said he doubts that this bill rises to the standard of the proposed constitutional amendment, which says exemptions must address"public necessity."

"If "public necessity' is interpreted as economic development, that would be pretty hollow," he said.

Antonacci said he supports economic development but doubts that this bill is needed. "This state has a lot to offer people. There's no income tax, a beautiful climate, a good regulatory climate for business. There's no need to add secrecy to the mix."

Tampa Port Authority officials have had trouble with the open records law. During negotiations with a company that wanted to build an amphitheater on port property last year, a competing company that is building an amphitheater in Plant City got the documents over the authority's objections.

But Grant said this legislation was requested by the Florida Ports Council to encourage economic development across the state and has nothing to do with the Tampa Port Authority's problems.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"What it really comes down to is do you want Toyotas unloaded in Charleston or Jacksonville?"

SEN. JOHN GRANT,

pushing to give ports an

exemption from public records

and meetings laws

_ Staff writer Kim Norris contributed to this report.

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