For decades, Florida lawmakers have talked about changing the public records law to hide the names of people who apply to run our state universities. This year, they may well do it.
Their argument is simple. They say no good candidates will apply to be president of a Florida university if their names are going to be made public.
Poppycock. If that argument held any water, it would mean none of Florida’s current 12 university presidents are worth their salt. And who believes that?
By all accounts, the presidents chosen in just the last year — former Clemson vice president John Kelly at Florida Atlantic University, former Cornell University provost W. Kent Fuchs at the University of Florida, and former Florida state Sen. John Thrasher at Florida State University — are all dynamic choices.
But let’s agree the process has not been without its problems — people submit applications just before the deadline to delay their names from becoming public, and end-arounds are happening outside of public view.
It happened at UF, where trustees in October voted to hire Fuchs, pronounced “fox,” without discussion five days after he applied and two days after he became a finalist, according to the Gainesville Sun. There was no opportunity for public comment during the trustees’ meeting and the lack of discussion about his hasty selection leaves a bad taste about the integrity of UF’s process.
It also happened last summer at FSU, when trustees were asked to put aside a presidential search and hire someone who hadn’t even applied — John Thrasher, an influential state senator and chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign team. Absent public record laws, we wouldn’t have known that a headhunter had suggested the search committee consider only Thrasher. Amid a firestorm of controversy, the trustees relaunched the search, keeping Thrasher on the inside track.
At FAU, to the trustees’ credit, the process played out properly. The initial list of candidates was released, publicly vetted, then winnowed. Sure, there was talk of back-channel conversations after two big-name politicians — Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux — applied. But it’s worth noting that the public records law didn’t keep these two good candidates from applying.
But convinced that Florida universities are failing to attract the best candidates, lawmakers appear poised to take the search for tomorrow’s leaders behind closed doors.
On Monday, the Senate Higher Education Committee voted 7-2 to approve SB 182, which would exempt information about potential presidents, deans and provosts from the state’s public records laws. The bill would only require the finalists’ names be released 10 days before a selection is made. A similar bill by state Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, passed the Florida House last year, so it appears the deck is stacked.
In truth, if this bill were now law, people who care about UF would have had at least 10 days — better than the two they received — to vet Fuchs as a finalist.
But no matter UF’s disingenuous process — which should alarm donors across Gator Nation — it is poor public policy to hide the names of people who seek to lead our public universities, control their multi-billion dollar budgets and make decisions that affect the lives of people and communities.
As taxpayers, we deserve to know if the candidate pool is diverse, deep, lined with politicians or skewed to pick a developer’s pal. It is insufficient to reveal the finalists — what if there’s only one? — at the end. Such back-room dealings are what recently rocked the faith of non-insiders who care about UF and FSU.
Besides, if a potential president, provost or dean has a problem with Florida’s open government laws, perhaps they’re not a good fit.
Aside from universities, the bigger danger is that if you take this thinking to its logical conclusion, the names of everyone who applies to hold public office — school superintendents, county administrators, judicial appointments, anyone — could become kept secret. After all, if their names are going to be made public, no good candidates will apply, right?
SB 182 is the latest in the annual assault on Florida’s public records law, which now has more than a thousand exemptions, according to Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. Last year, 12 percent of bills passed were exemptions to the Sunshine Law. In truth, Florida’s proud legacy of open government is suffering death by a thousand cuts. (Full disclosure: Sun Sentinel editorial page editor Rosemary O’Hara serves on the foundation’s board.)
Sen. Don Gaetz, former president of the Florida Senate, was one of only two senators to vote against SB 182 in committee, according to the News Service of Florida. In doing so, he cited his experience on a presidential search committee and a committee searching for a church pastor.
“There are no secrets in processes like that,” he said. “Everyone talks, even when they solemnly promise before the altar of God not to.”
Citizens shouldn’t have to count on sinners to learn the names of those who want to lead our public universities.
The Legislature should pull the brakes on this bad bill. If not, Gov. Rick Scott should get his veto pen ready.
Original article here.