Tampa, Fla. Port Wrestles with Security Requirements

TAMPA -- Would Tampa's port be safer if waiters and movie theater ushers at the Channelside entertainment complex had to pass criminal background checks?

Yes, says the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. And a state law intended to protect Florida ports from terrorists and drug smugglers requires it, says Nevin Smith, the agency's seaport security administrator.

Port director Richard Wainio, however, hopes to come up with a plan that would satisfy the state's security concerns without forcing hundreds of Channelside employees to get the same criminal checks and wear the same ID badges issued to workers in traditional port businesses.

"Even if you badge those people, you still have thousands (of customers) going through the area," Wainio says.

"None of us would say that provides solid security in a public area."

The issue arises from a state law passed in 2001 to cut the flow of illicit drugs into Florida ports. Legislators later tightened up the law as seaport security became a concern in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Ports across Florida were required to fence off and otherwise secure restricted areas such as ship docks, cargo warehouses and fuel terminals. Longshoremen, truck drivers and other laborers had to provide fingerprints and pass criminal background screenings to get port-issued badges so they could get inside.

The hitch, Smith says, is the badging requirement applies to all employees working on property owned by port authorities.

Even if they don't go inside restricted areas, employees have special access to other places and could help smugglers and terrorists, he says.

His agency has told the Tampa Port Authority that employees at Channelside, which is next to a busy cruise ship dock, should wear badges like other workers on port property.

"The (law's) purpose is to defeat . . . conspiracies and know that people who working around those areas are not a terrorist threat," Smith says. "If you don't do background checks, you don't know who those people are."

That would present headaches for Channelside businesses, says Guy Revelle, a partner in four restaurants in the complex.

Turnover is notoriously high in food service, he says, and prospective employees might go elsewhere instead of waiting for the background check. Would anyone face penalties if a waiter went to work without a badge, Revelle asks.

He wonders whether legislators considered that the law would apply to restaurants and retail stores. "Laws are laws," Revelle says. "But when this was enacted, (lawmakers) might not have been thinking about my scenario."

The port authority charges businesses $70 for each badge, says Wainio, with a share paying for federal and state criminal screenings. Employees convicted of most types of felonies in the past seven years are denied.

Port authorities can ask the state to approve an alternative plan to those spelled out in the law, Smith said. A cruise company office in Miami, for example, agreed to arrange for its own background checks and hire private security officers around the clock, Smith said.