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House leader pulls plug on 911 recordings ban

TALLAHASSEE – A bill to ban the release of recorded 911 emergency calls was sidelined Monday by its powerful legislative champion. The move came on the first work day of Sunshine Week, which spotlights the importance of open government.

House Speaker Larry Cretul said that, after consulting with colleagues and media representatives, he decided to suspend efforts to push the bill through the Legislature. The measure would have outlawed the timely release of recorded 911 calls, now open to the public under Florida’s government in the Sunshine laws.

“He reached the conclusion that it’s time to take a breather on this issue,” said Jill Chamberlain, Cretul’s press secretary. “He still continues to believe that this bill is an important piece of legislation, but at the present time, he doesn’t want it to become a distraction.”

Cretul and other advocates of the bill, which passed an initial House committee vote last week, said it protected victims’ rights during traumatic events. Opponents said it damaged efforts to monitor emergency response departments and dismissed it as “The Tiger Woods Relief Act,” a reference to 911 calls during the golfer’s sex scandal. Gov. Charlie Crist said he would not sign it.

Meanwhile, two gubernatorial candidates from opposing parties and disparate ideological camps found a point of agreement Monday when it came to Florida’s Sunshine laws.

Republican state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and Democrat Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer, praised the state’s open-records and open-meetings laws. They also condemned efforts by some lawmakers and others to widen exemptions for the convenience of those who benefit from secrecy.

“Every year for the 14 years I’ve been in the state Legislature, we have passed some exemptions,” Dockery said during a luncheon sponsored by the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit group that lobbies for open government. “Each one, when you hear the reason, sounds reasonable.

“But when it becomes exemption after exemption after exemption, it undermines the very principle that all of that information should be available to the people,” she said. “It’s their government. It’s their money.”

The event marked Sunshine Week, a nonpartisan, national effort that began in Florida and draws attention to transparency in government. The Associated Press and a number of other media outlets have financially supported The First Amendment Foundation.

“We know that members of the press are having to do more with less people,” Sink said. “I’m thankful that the press continues to manage.”