Florida Bill Would Allow Some Felons at Ports

May 4--TAMPA -- Gonzo Salvador has the expertise to install and operate metal-working machinery for a new 50,000-square-foot steel processing plant a Clearwater company is building at the Port of Tampa.

Salvador, vice president of Summit Metal Service Inc. of Acworth, Ga., also acknowledges he is a convicted felon, after pleading guilty in 2004 to a charge of aggravated assault after a bar fight in Woodstock, Ga.

That's the problem. Current Florida law precludes felons from access to seaports, so Salvador fears he will not be able to complete his contract.

At best, he may be forced to communicate with his crew from beyond the port's security fences.

However, Salvador may get a chance to appeal his standing under provisions of a bill that the Florida Legislature approved last week and sent to Gov Jeb Bush for approval.

The proposed law would provide an appeals and waiver process for individuals such as Salvador for the first time under Florida's stringent seaport security guidelines, which were enacted even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Employers at Channelside businesses such as Hooters, which operate on land leased from the Port of Tampa, also might find relief from the prospect of paying for security background checks for employees.

House Bill 7145, and the companion Senate Bill 190, would provide flexibility for Florida port directors to review security plans, conduct a threat assessment and work with law enforcement officials to determine levels of security needed at various facilities at the port, including businesses on port property such as those at Channelside.

The bills are supported by the Florida Ports Council, a trade group that represents the state's 14 ports, said Mike Rubin, vice president of the ports council.

Still, it's premature to say what changes in port security might result if Gov. Bush signs the bill into law, said Richard Wainio, director of the Port of Tampa.

"We are reviewing the [bill] package internally and if it passes we are going to reassess our security laws," Wainio said. "The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the sheriff's office, port directors and legislators -- all of us want the same things, secure ports."

Wainio said the intent is to provide more flexibility, but added "not a whole lot is going to change."

However, the bill makes sense to employers such as Bob Wilcox, the manager of the Channelside Hooters, who has awaited a decision on stricter security mandates since the issue was raised last year.

"The legal arguments seemed over broad," Wilcox said. "Port security is important, but there has been a lot of opposition [to requiring employee background checks and badges] at places like Hooters."

Matt Rossi, co-owner of Titan Metal Service, also said he hopes some avenue will become available for employees such as his subcontractor. He says Salvador is one of just four or five people qualified to install the equipment he needs at the Port of Tampa, where he eventually expects to employ 25 to 30 workers at about $20 an hour.

<<Tampa Tribune (FL) (KRT) -- 05/08/06>>