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City opposes biolab secrecy bill

By Laura Elder — Galveston County Daily News, May 15, 2009

GALVESTON An almost unanimous city council approved a resolution Thursday opposing a controversial bill critics said would make secret all information about deadly germs studied at the Galveston National Laboratory.

Six council members voted for the statement of opposition, which also urged state lawmakers to draft a narrowly focused bill accommodating concerns among University of Texas Medical Branch officials about laboratory security and the privacy of people working there.

Councilwoman Susan Fennewald, who works for the medical branch, abstained from the vote.

The resolution was a compromise hammered out during the meeting from an original draft offered by Councilwoman Elizabeth Beeton. The resolution will be sent to state lawmakers who will consider Senate Bill 2556 in coming days.

"This allows the legislature to look at this again and come up with something more specific," said Dr. David L. Callender, medical branch president.

Callender said he wanted to work with the city and residents to come up with something with which everyone could be happy.

Meanwhile, top medical branch officials, including Callender, will convene a public meeting at 5 p.m. today in William C. Levin Hall, 10th and Market streets, to talk about the bill.

The resolution and the meeting come as open government advocates across the state lobby hard to kill the bill.

Medical branch officials had planned to meet privately today with a 50-member Community Advisory Board in the national laboratory, from which security protocols bar the general public. The advisory board has no voting power and isn't subject to open meetings laws.

Alarmed by the broad language in the bill, Jackie Cole, a member of the advisory board, requested the initial meeting with medical branch officials, she said.

Cole this week was one of only a few advisory board members interviewed by The Daily News willing to comment about the proposed legislation.

"The national lab started with the promise of transparency, and it's critical they continue that promise to the community in which they do their work," Cole said.

Researchers at the laboratory, which opened in November, develop drugs and vaccines to battle infectious disease caused by such things as Anthrax, avian flu, bubonic plague and Ebola.

The issue boils down to trust: Broad language in the bill would allow the medical branch to keep secret all information about so-called select agents at the national laboratory, including whether any had escaped into the community or infected lab workers, critics argue.

But medical branch officials said they wouldn't withhold information just because a new law allowed it. The bill is meant to protect the names of low-level employees who might be targeted by terrorists or groups opposed to such laboratories.

It also is meant to stop what they say is abuse of open record laws by one former member of a biodefense watchdog group.

Critics of the bill said they aren't opposed to measures protecting security-sensitive information, but argue state law already allows laboratory operators to withhold it.

The advisory board was formed in 2002 as the medical branch sought to win public support for construction of the national laboratory and is meant to represent a wide range of civic, social and occupational sectors.

Harris L. "Shrub" Kempner, a board member, declined to comment about his view of the bill.

Rabbi Jimmy Kessler, of Temple B'nai Israel, who also is a member of the advisory board, is for laws that protect the privacy of laboratory employees, he said. But Kessler declined to comment about other aspects of the bill.

Lee Otis Zapp Jr., also a member of the board, was comfortable that the community could trust the medical branch to continue being open should the bill pass, he said. The medical branch has been transparent in its operation of the lab, Zapp said.

But Linda Strevell, president of Galveston Alliance of Island Neighborhoods and a board member, said she wanted to know more about the bill. She also wants the medical branch to remain open, Strevell said.

"Because from the start they said they were going to keep us informed," Strevell said. VThat was a verbal contract with the citizens."

The 186,267-square-foot Galveston National Laboratory is one of two approved in 2003 by the National Institutes of Health after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Reporter Leigh Jones contributed to this report. +++

At A Glance What: University of Texas Medical Branch meeting about SB 2556, which would change the way the medical branch treats public information requests about the Galveston National Laboratory

When: 5 p.m. today

Where: William C. Levin Hall, 10th and Market streets. Parking will be available in the garage across from Levin Hall and in the open lot at 11th and Market streets. On the Web: For a complete list of Community Advisory Board members visit: http://www.utmb.edu/GNL/community/cab.shtml

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