Fiasco at hospital district a lesson in benefits of open government

open government

Here’s a New Year’s resolution every public official should make: Don’t ever conduct a job candidate search and promise to keep applicants’ names confidential.

The board members of the South Broward Hospital District have learned in the past few weeks that trying to circumvent Florida’s open government laws to keep applicants’ names secret is just a bad idea.

The board hired a search firm to find a replacement for Frank Sacco, who is retiring after 28 years as the CEO of Memorial Healthcare System, which is headquartered in Hollywood. The board governs the tax-supported system.

The board hired the firm Korn Ferry. The consultants are being paid $330,000 plus expenses to find the best candidate for the job, which may come with a $1 million annual salary. The consultants told the board that the best way to recruit the most talented candidates is to keep their names secret.

The board agreed, and the firm told candidates that they would not be identified.

It’s reasonable to assume that many candidates for top-tier jobs would prefer that their names remain confidential. They might get fired from their current job if their boss knew they were looking elsewhere, defenders of secrecy say.

So, some of the best candidates for public-sector jobs simply won’t apply, they say.

“That’s baloney,” said Barbara Peterson, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation. Being on a short list for a prestigious job “just boosts your value. They make a counter-offer and pay you more.”

First Amendment attorney Martin Reeder agrees: “It’s like the sports coaching profession. Coaches are always on the move. It’s just understood.”

Nonetheless, advocates for secrecy introduced bills in the Legislature the past two sessions that would have allowed public colleges and universities to keep secret the names of applicants for presidents, provosts and deans. Again, their argument is that good candidates won’t apply if their names are made public.

That’s nonsense, said Jennifer Proffitt, an FSU professor and president of United Faculty of Florida, who lobbied against the bills, which died in both sessions.

“These are really important jobs,” she said. “The public has a right to know who is being considered.”

She pointed out that presidents at four Florida universities have been hired in recent years — FSU, UF, FAMU, FAU — and that quality people were chosen even though candidates’ names were disclosed.

“That’s the way it is in higher education,” Proffitt said. “You’re expected to move on to better jobs.”

She noted that when FSU hired the politically connected John Thrasher as university president in 2014, the initial search firm told the board that no one would apply if Thrasher were being considered. The school hired another firm and between 30 to 40 people applied and were named, Proffitt said.

The fiasco that’s playing out in Hollywood should convince any board member that secrecy doesn’t work.

On Dec. 17, the hospital board met to pare down a list of 14 candidates offered by the search firm. The firm prepared a one-page summary of each candidate. But the information was so cryptic that the board members struggled to decide who was best qualified.

Then, a Sun Sentinel editor who was attending the meeting challenged the process, saying the board and the search firm were violating the state’s open-government laws by refusing to identify the candidates. The newspaper subsequently submitted a public records request for any documents related to the search.

Furthermore, several doctors who work for the district also complained that the process was too secretive. They support four in-house candidates.

“I wouldn’t hire a maid” based on the consultants’ one-page summaries, the chief of staff of Memorial Regional Hospital told the Sun Sentinel.

So, lawyers got involved. The board hired former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux to advise its members.

At a Dec. 23 meeting, he explained that Florida law is clear: all the records associated with the search are public, including the names of the applicants. His advice pleased the standing-room-only crowd of district employees and local politicians who spilled out into a hallway.

The board then named the four in-house candidates. The consultants said they will contact the other finalists and ask whether they would be willing to be identified.

The consultants contend

the documents generated by their search are a “trade secret” and therefore not public records.

The board discussed its options and adjourned. It will meet Thursday to grapple with the issue yet again.

Meanwhile, attorneys will negotiate what’s a public record and what’s confidential and the board members will ponder how best to proceed.

The lesson here is obvious: if you’re on the board of a public institution, don’t ever agree to let consultants promise job candidates confidentiality.

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Tom O’Hara is a veteran newspaperman. He is the former managing editor of The Palm Beach Post and The Plain Dealer in Ohio. His email: [email protected].

For more state and national commentary visit Context Florida.

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