Candidates for school presidents won’t be secret in Florida after all

A bill that sought to shield the release of “personal identifying information” about candidates applying to be college or university presidents died in the Senate.
Florida State University campus
Florida State University campus [ BILL LAX | Bill Lax/FSU Photo Lab ]
Published April 27, 2021|Updated April 27, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — A measure that would have provided a public-records exemption for information about people applying to lead Florida colleges and universities died Tuesday in the Senate, as it failed to draw the required support of two-thirds of senators.

The Senate voted 25-14 to support the bill (HB 997), falling one vote short of the 26 votes needed to reach a legally required two-thirds threshold for passing public-records exemptions.

All Senate Republicans backed the measure and picked up the vote of Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, while 14 Democrats opposed the bill. Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, did not vote in the roll call that determined the outcome of the bill, though she submitted a largely symbolic vote later against the bill.

The House passed the bill on a 101-16  vote this month, easily surpassing the two-thirds vote needed.

The bill sought to shield the release of “personal identifying information” about candidates applying to be college or university presidents.

Only information about finalists for the positions would have been made public, under the bill. That information would have become available when a group of finalists was set or 21 days before meetings where candidates were interviewed or final action was taken.

Proponents of the bill argued that quality candidates for presidencies might be dissuaded from applying if their current employers would find out.

“If you’re looking for transparency, why not have a cooling-off period, why not have a 21-day review, which is what this bill offers. If we’re looking for diversity, why not look to have the broadest pool of applicants we can possibly get? That’s what this bill does,” Senate sponsor Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said during debate.

Opponents argued that the measure would conflict with Florida’s Sunshine Law on open government. Also, Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, raised a concern that the measure would hide from the public the names of candidates who do not become finalists.

“Under this 21-day provision, until you get to that final list, all the other applicants are going to be hidden in secret. The process by the headhunters, the search committees, all that will be done in secret. So we will never know whether candidates with greater expertise or experience were bypassed by people with greater political connections,” Farmer said.

Farmer also said he received emails and other correspondence from “faculty and administrators who we are purporting to protect” telling him the current president search process is “not a problem.”

Pizzo, the lone Democrat voting for the bill, said during debate that he supported it,in part, because of the 21-day “cooling off period.” In asking a question to Brandes, Pizzo suggested there were misconceptions “that this is going to be completely behind closed doors and everyone’s going to be unfairly surprised at the end.”

But Democrats ultimately weren’t persuaded, and several groups that have opposed the measure celebrated the bill’s failure.

“A huge win for transparency and accountability! University communities and taxpayers will still have a say in the hiring of college/university presidents. The process will still be in the sunshine! HB 997/SB 220 just failed in the Florida Senate,” the Florida AFL-CIO tweeted.

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