College president search exemption heads to House floor
Fleming Island Rep. Sam Garrison. Image via Colin Hackley.

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Lawmakers have repeatedly tried to create the exemption but have faced opposition from open-government advocates.

Legislation to create a 21-day Sunshine Law exemption on the personal information of college and university president applicants is on its way to the House floor.

The House Education & Employment Committee gave its approval to Rep. Sam Garrison‘s bill (HB 997) intended to attract a larger pool of applicants for president at Florida’s public higher education institutions.

The measure and similar proposals would create a public records exemption for information about applicants to become university and college presidents, though information about finalists for the posts would be available.

Garrison, a Republican from Fleming Island, referred to his experience on the St. Johns River State College Board of Trustees, where he served as Chairman from 2018 to 2020, while trying to persuade some Democrats that the bill doesn’t overstep Floridians’ rights to public information.

“What we’ve tried to do is find a balance with this bill to make sure that we have safeguards in place so that the process is laid out in the public, in the sunshine, so that everyone knows going in what the process is going to be and also ensure we have sufficient safeguards to make sure we get that deep, diverse pool of applicants as well,” he said.

Proponents contend some applicants from outside of academia are dissuaded from applying if their application is made known without knowing if they have a decent shot at the job. People in business and elsewhere could face repercussions for applying to a new job.

Speaking before the committee, United Faculty of Florida President Karen Morian argued eliminating the sunshine request would not improve the pool of applicants, which can include dozens of prospects.

“A hypothetical candidate for a hypothetical position who is hypothetically afraid that their boss might (not) like them applying is not a demonstration of necessity for removing a public process that is so important to local communities,” she said.

Florida AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin compared the presidential search process to the bill-writing process. Both are improved by public input he said.

“Imagine how easier this would be if the bills were secret, if we didn’t get to see the legislation,” Templin said. “No one would come and speak, because they wouldn’t know until after it was done.”

Outgoing Florida State University President John Thrasher has said the dialogue between him and the public helped improve his candidacy, Templin relayed.

Brevard County Republican Rep. Randy Fine suggested universities might intentionally want presidential applicants posted publicly to dissuade applicants from outside of academia.

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes is sponsoring the Senate version (SB 220). That bill has been awaiting a hearing in its final committee, the Senate Rules Committee, for about a month. In that time, Garrison’s version flew through its three assigned committees.

Because the bill would create a public records exemption, it requires a two-thirds vote of each legislative chamber in order to become law.

The House Education & Employment Committee voted 15-4 to give its stamp of approval. Democratic Reps. Tavaris McCurdy, Daisy Morales, Susan Valdés and Patricia Williams cast the dissenting votes.

Lawmakers have filed such proposals in the past but have faced heavy opposition from open-government advocates. The House passed a version of the bill during the 2020 Session, but it did not clear the Senate.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.



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