Miami Herald

Florida House: Colleges can shield IDs of candidates for president until end stage

- BY RYAN DAILEY

People applying to lead Florida colleges and universiti­es would get a publicreco­rds 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 2017-20.

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.

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.

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