House preps for vote on collegiate presidential search exemption bill
As a first-termer, Sam Garrison notched up some solid wins.

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

The Florida House is one vote away from deciding the fate of legislation that would provide a public records exemption for information about applicants seeking state higher ed presidential positions.

The lower chamber heard the Senate version of the bill (SB 520) for the second time Thursday afternoon. Now, the House is prepped for a vote on the legislation championed by St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes.

The Senate already cleared the bill in a near party-line 28-11 vote, with Democrats mostly opposing the legislation.

Clay County Republican Sam Garrison, who sponsored the House version (HB 703), presented the proposal to the House. The bill 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.

“This gets back to that risk-reward calculus we do,” Garrison said. “Ultimately, I think there’s a compelling state interest in ensuring we do have that deep, qualified, diverse pool of applicants to serve this position.”

The Senate version of the bill varies slightly from that of the House, which died in committee. The only modifications to the Senate version were via an amendment brought by St. Petersburg Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson. The amendment would make public “the age, race and gender of all applicants who met the minimum qualifications” for the position after the finalists are selected.

That amendment, which garnered unanimous approval, attempts to address concerns from critics that fear the exemption would allow for minority applicants to be overlooked.

However, despite trying to remedy the legislation, it still received questioning from several Democratic Representatives Thursday.

Aventura Democratic Rep. Joe Geller questioned Garrison on the necessity of the public records exemption, pointing to previous collegiate presidential searches.

“Can you point to a single example of someone who was hired where the lack of that pool that you’re talking about resulted in what you consider to be a below standard?” Geller asked.

Garrison fired back, saying that he refuses to answer that question, “because I think it’s unfair to the applicants.”

“What I’ll say is this — how do you prove a negative, right? It’s one of the challenges that we deal with in this scenario,” Garrison replied. He argued the number of “lateral transfers” for presidents moving to Florida institutions is “far below” what’s expected “given the caliber of our institutions and what we have to offer here in the state.”

Notably, the legislation heard by the House Thursday stayed away from 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, which reduced that timeframe to 14 days.

Brandes, however, offered his word to concerned Senate members that he won’t budge on the timeframe.

“When you’re getting down to a list of finalists, we believe it is important for the public to have a right to know,” Garrison said. “Once you get to that small group or you’re in the final group — it’s not just you know, the preliminaries, you’re in the final group — you do have to have an understanding it’s going to become public.”

He added, “Ultimately, I think we’ve reached that appropriate balance with this legislation.”

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.

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.

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 widespread 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.

Kelly Hayes

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at [email protected].


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