The Florida Senate is preparing to vote on legislation that would provide a public records exemption for information about applicants seeking a state higher ed presidential position.
The proposal made it through its second reading Thursday before the Senate. It now awaits a third reading, in which Senators will decide the fate of the infamous legislation.
“We’ll see if there’s the votes. We never know until they happen. I just believe it’s the right thing to do. I think there’s been some politicization of that bill,” Senate President Wilton Simpson said. “Since we have another university in South Florida now looking for a president, maybe that will add some more attention to getting this passed so that we can get the best possible candidates available.”
The measure (SB 520), filed by St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, would create a public records exemption applicable to the pool of public university and college presidential applicants. Information on selected finalists would be made available, however.
The bill has made it practically unscathed through the Senate, dodging a controversial amendment tacked onto the House version.
The Senate version provides a 21-day period for information on the finalists to be made public in order for the university or college to receive community feedback. That 21-day period is where the Senate bill differs from the House version (HB 703), sponsored by Rep. Sam Garrison, which reduced that timeframe to 14 days.
During its second reading before the Senate, Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami-Dade Democrat, questioned Brandes. Critics of the bill argue it will reduce transparency and that the exemption violates Florida’s Sunshine Law.
“Why is the right of one individual, the candidate who wants this application hidden from the public, more important than the right of the university and college communities to know who all the applicants are?” Taddeo asked.
She also expressed concern over potential minority applicants being overlooked.
“How will we know that qualified candidates or women or people of color are given equal consideration in the process if we do not even know who applies?” Taddeo said.
Brandes argued that the current process itself is not transparent, citing the use of headhunting firms by college presidential search committees. However, as state agencies, the recruiting firms do have to offer such records.
“The first decision that a presidential search committee makes is not, ‘Who are the types of applicants we want?’ It is, ‘What headhunting firm are we going to acquire?'” Brandes said.
“What they will do is produce all of the records that they have. … It’s actually very obscure. And if you actually go to a headhunting firm and ask them for their recruitment list, sure, you’re gonna get 500 names, but it doesn’t actually mean anything.”
The bill has been subject to public scrutiny, including from statewide higher education faculty members and the First Amendment Foundation.
However, proponents of the bill continued to advocate for it, saying it is necessary in order to improve the pool of applicants to state university and college presidential positions.
“The purpose of this bill is to ensure that we get the broadest pool of applicants possible to apply for Florida’s great public colleges and universities,” Brandes said. “We have heard both anecdotal evidence and also in-person testimony that individuals are not applying because they’re afraid to tell their current employer or they’re afraid to look bad if they don’t make the finalist list.”
Brandes has sponsored the bill for several years now, and this will be the proposal’s eighth time trying to cross the finish line in the Legislature.
Following the Senate’s meeting on Thursday, the House Government Operations Subcommittee cleared its version of the bill, with the reduced timeframe, in a 10-7 vote. The House bill is now on to its third and final committee hearing, despite a myriad of opposition in public testimony from state university faculty.
Because the bill would create a public records exemption, it requires a two-thirds vote of each legislative chamber to become law.