Rabid representation

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'I think the bill sets a dangerous precedent. How many groups or professionals are going to get in line?'

All he wants to do, insists Bob Sindler, is to encourage more people to vaccinate their pets against rabies

What he actually is doing, insist his critics, is pushing to restrict access to vaccination records so that lower-cost suppliers can no longer gather information that they might use to cut into Sindler's business selling pet medications.

The fact that Sindler, a veterinarian and Democratic state lawmaker from Apopka, also is continuing the trend in Florida to remove the "public" from public records just may be coincidental.

Whatever his motivation, the bill is bad news.

The exemption could start a rush by others wanting to keep their business secret, compromising the ability of consumer advocates and others to prove their points or expose wrongdoing, says Barbara Peterson, director of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation.

"I think the bill sets a dangerous precedent," she says. "How many groups of professionals are going to get in line?"

If Rep. Sindler gets his way in the legislative session just begun, health records of rabies vaccinations of dogs and cats would join more than 700 types of government documents exempted from the Florida Sunshine Law. Sindler's proposal was passed last year by the Florida House. It now goes to the Senate, where it already has the support of more than half of the members, including Sen. Buddy Dyer, a Republican from Orlando.

That proposal thumbs its nose at the state's residents. By a 9-to-1 margin, voters in 1992 gave more teeth to the law that establishes a constitutional right to access government records and attend government meetings. (As maintained by the state's Department of Health, rabies vaccinations currently are considered public government records.)

Since passage of the constitutional amendment that guarantees access, legislators can seek exemptions, but only when they can demonstrate that the exemption is in the public interest.

In this case, Sindler says that such a compelling interest is served because pet owners might be less likely to have their pets vaccinated if they knew the records of those vaccinations were public. Currently, for example, residents can request a county's vaccination records in bulk; under the change, persons would only be able to see individual records, and then only if they requested them by name.

Sindler says that he has only the interests of constituents, clients and pets at heart. But the legislation's fine print indicates that at least part of its purpose is to block inroads by mail-order companies, which pull those records and target pet owners for sales of items such as medicine. Given that 16 percent of a vet's earnings are tied to drug sales, according to a trade magazine, veterinarians presumably do not want the competition.

How much money is at stake? A survey last year by The St. Petersburg Times showed that someone buying three commonly prescribed pet medicines from Sindler would have paid a total of $70.50 -- or $12.65 more than they would have paid for the same medicine from a Fort Lauderdale mail-order company.

"What the open records law should do is allow people to get at records of what their government is doing," Sindler argues in defense of his exemption. Beyond that, "You have an inherent right to privacy that should be highly respected."

Never mind that the law could have called for potentially sensitive information to be removed from the vaccination form, or else blocked out before the records were made available for review.

"He has sponsored legislation that has directly benefitted him and his businesses," says Peterson.

And he's trying to push Floridians out of the sunshine.

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