TALLAHASSEE — People applying to lead Florida colleges and universities would get a public-records exemption to shield release of their “personal identifying information” under a measure passed Wednesday by the House.
The House voted 101-16 to approve a bill (HB 997) that would create a records exemption for applicants to become college and university presidents.
Only information about finalists for the positions would be made public. Under a change adopted Tuesday, that information would become available when a group of finalists is set or 21 days before meetings where candidates are interviewed or final action is taken.
The amendment aligned the House bill with a Senate proposal (SB 220), which needs approval from the Rules Committee before it can be considered by the full Senate. Lawmakers have considered similar bills in recent years but have not passed them.
House sponsor Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, said during floor debate Tuesday that the measure aims to create a “balancing act” between disclosure and protecting the identities of candidates. Garrison served on the St. Johns River State College Board of Trustees from 2017 to 2020.
Supporters of the bill say good candidates for presidencies might be dissuaded from applying if their current employers will find out.
“This is about a tradeoff,” Garrison said, “between the public’s right to know and our intent and desire to have the best, diverse, most (deep), most qualified pool of applicants for that critical role of president.”
However, some House Democrats raised a concern that the proposal could put presidential searches at odds with Florida’s Sunshine Law, which for decades has been designed to support open government.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, argued that the measure would hide from the public the names of candidates who do not become finalists — something he said is important for the public to know.
“Even in this more limited way of taking it out of the sunshine, we are denying the public, our university communities … the opportunity to more fully vet these candidates. And also, we’re denying them the opportunity to have a clearer picture of who some of those candidates are who were not selected as finalists,” Smith said.
Other Democrats on Wednesday questioned whether the measure is necessary if serious applicants are vying for positions.
“If they make it to the finalists, it’s going to be revealed anyway. So unless you think you don’t have much of a chance, and you’re just throwing your name in, it doesn’t even do any good.” Rep Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said.
Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, supported the measure Wednesday, telling his colleagues that he knows the search process well as a former member of the Florida A&M University Board of Trustees.
“I’ve talked to the headhunters. I’ve talked to the search firms. And it is extremely difficult for our state universities to attract strong candidates across the board,” Alexander said.
Get insights into Florida politics
Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Alexander asserted that the current policy on presidential searches helps politicians and people who are connected.
“People don’t want to apply, so you don’t have a lot of competition,” he said. “And, therefore, they’ve already set up on the front end who they’re going to pick. It’s already a done deal.”
Garrison touted the success of Florida’s colleges and universities, arguing that the House proposal would improve one of the state’s largest investments.
“We spend $7 billion a year on our institutions of higher learning. And this bill will allow us to continue to expand what we’re doing,” he said.
Ryan Dailey, News Service of Florida