Florida Legislature Tries to Make University President Applications Secret

The First Amendment Foundation says, in 2014, 12 percent of the bills passed by the Florida Legislature were Sunshine Law exemptions. In the last 20 years, the amount of exemptions has quadrupled — totaling more than a thousand. 

by WGCU’s Rachel Ia

February 15, 2017

As Florida Gulf Coast University begins interviewing candidates for the school’s next president this week, a state representative has proposed a bill that would exempt those applying for president, provost or dean at state colleges and universities from Florida’s broad open records laws.

House Bill 351, proposed by State Rep. Bob Rommel, is not the first of its kind. In fact, a similar bill passed both the Florida House and Senate two decades ago, only to be vetoed by then-Governor Lawton Chiles.

Though currently introduced by Republicans, the bill is not partisan. In recent years, it was Democratic Rep. Dave Kerner who filed similar House Bill 361 in 2014, which was followed by Republican Senator Alan Hays filing Senate Bill 182 soon after. Kerner’s passed the House, but Hays’ bill died in the Senate.

“Just because it failed once — if it’s a good bill and it makes sense, you want to keep working hard to try to get it done,” Rommel said. “We shouldn’t be at a disadvantage to other states when people are looking to make the move. We should be just as welcoming and have a similar selection process, so that we do get the best.”

Rommel, of Naples, introduced House Bill 351 last month alongside Rep. Byron Donalds, who is also from Naples.

“When you have a situation where current law impedes the progress necessary for our various institutions to be at their best, something needs to be done,” Donalds said.

Proponents of the bill argue those qualified for positions, like university president, who are currently employed are reluctant to apply because their application will be disclosed publicly.

“I’m not convinced, frankly,” said Barbara Petersen, the president of the First Amendment Foundation. “If we look at who has been hired to lead our state universities, over the last however many years, I don’t know that we could do better.”

Petersen, who has been with FAF since 1995, says she sees similar bills to this one every few years.

Petersen says the organization has not seen any anecdotal evidence to support the claim that university presidential searches suffer due to the Sunshine Law.

In her 22 years with the foundation, Petersen says she meets with a representative maybe once or twice a session. Most recently, she met with Rommel last Tuesday to discuss coming to some sort of compromise on his bill.

“He understood our issues,” Petersen said. “I’m not sure if we agree completely, but that’s not unusual. What is unusual is someone asking me to come talk to them. That doesn’t happen very often.”

House Bill 351 would work in conjunction with Senate Bill 478 proposed by Senator Kathleen Passidomo, who is also from Southwest Florida. The region is currently searching for a president to succeed President Wilson Bradshaw at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Bradshaw says the bill is worth looking into.

“In my opinion, maintaining confidentiality until the candidates are invited to campus makes sense to me,” Bradshaw said. “That said, I think the finalists are distinguished people in their own rites and in their own careers, so it is a very good pool of candidates.”

For Rommel, finding that quality pool of candidates each time is the bill’s ultimate goal.

“To me, it’s common sense, and it still gives the protections that we’ll know who the real candidates are and we can publicly vet them,” Rommel said. “And, then, hopefully, the university will get the best and the brightest.”

Petersen says she’s hopeful an understanding can be reached in the future but, for now, remains apprehensive about what this bill could mean if passed.

“I can bet you dollars to donuts that if we get this exemption this year for university presidents, we’re going to see it next year for county administrators, city attorneys, virtually everybody who’s part of the hiring process,” Petersen said.

The First Amendment Foundation says, in 2014, 12 percent of the bills passed by the Florida Legislature were Sunshine Law exemptions. In the last 20 years, the amount of exemptions has quadrupled — totaling more than a thousand. 

State Sen. Greg Stuebe of Sarasota has also filed a Sunshine Law exemption bill, Senate Bill 80. Currently, attorney’s fees are awarded to people who win cases who were refused public records. His bill would change the language to say attorney’s fees “may be awarded.” [READ MORE/Listen to the Story]

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