A close call this time, but lawmakers have a bad attitude on openness | Cotterell – Tallahassee Democrat

Posted: May 3, 2021 at 6:55 am

Bill Cotterell, Capital Curmudgeon Published 3:14 p.m. ET May 1, 2021

Bill Cotterell(Photo: Democrat files)

We in the news media tend to treat every proposed exemption from Floridas open-meetings and public-records laws with a skepticism bordering on hostility, even contempt.

More: Want public records? So sue me seems to be states attitude, First Amendment experts say

Some information in the hands of government, some proceedings involving public officials, must be secret for obvious reasons of public safety and security. Still, news outlets will take cases to court whenever a public document is withheld or a meeting is closed, unless there is a specific statutory authorization for such secrecy. If we didnt, theyd probably close Cabinet meetings and legislative sessions some day.

Were as uncompromising on the First Amendment as the National Rifle Association is on the Second. But while elected officials will go to extremes to mollify the NRA, theyre not so skittish about infringing on the states vaunted Government in the Sunshine law.

In fact, sometimes their attitude seems to be that people can have any public information theyre willing to sue to obtain.

So it was good to see the failure of a bill that would have allowed executive search committees to hide the names of people applying for the presidency of state colleges and universities. The House passed the exemption in mid-April by 101-16 vote but it failed 25-14 in the Senate just one vote short of the two-thirds majority it needed.

At least 14 new exemptions were enacted in the past session and eight old ones were renewed. Maybe some were worse than others, but the won-loss bottom line shows what legislators think of open government.

Thats discouraging. It means most legislators are just dandy with secrecy for lists of applicants wanting to be college or university presidents. Under the failed bill (HB 997/SB 220), names of finalists for a campus presidency would have become public three weeks before a final selection vote would have been scheduled.

It can be helpful to find out early if theres something especially bad, or good, in an applicants record. Maybe a faculty member or student will know something that doesnt show up in an applicants resume.

Thats not the reason for openness, though. It really is the principle of the thing. Exemptions should be guarded jealously, granted for only the most serious reasons when some real harm would result from disclosure. Confidentiality is not just a favor given for the convenience or comfort of big shots in academe.

Yes, top-level administrators and managers the deans and provosts, nationally known professors, top corporate leaders or university presidents may not want their boards of regents to know theyre seeking sunnier climes. Well, if they dont get the Florida job, theyll get over it. Sorry if it makes things a little chilly around the faculty lounge or a while.

Football players enter the transfer portal when it suits them. Head coaches change jobs all the time.The way universities treat football, are we to pretend a university president has a position of higher dignity than the sunburned guy with a whistle and a ball cap?

Credit for the narrow escape goes to the Florida First Amendment Foundation. Pamela Marsh, the FAF president and a former U.S. Attorney for northern Florida, wrote an opinion piece last year, when the same bill was up, noting how the state Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that the purpose of the Sunshine Law is to protect the public from closed door politics.

Thats particularly important in higher education.

Foundation board member Bob Shaw, a longtime Capitol reporter for the Miami Herald and former editor at the Tallahassee Democrat and Orlando Sentinel, probably knows more about open government than the legislators who voted on the confidentiality bill.

He sent out an alert urging FAF members to contact legislators in opposition to the bill.

Floridas colleges and universities have soared in the rankings, led by presidents selected in the sunshine, Shaw wrote. If a person wants to hold such a job that requires the highest levels of leadership, experience, confidence in decision-making, and financial responsibility, that person should be prepared to be vetted thoroughly and must not fear public scrutiny.

As this is written Thursday night, theres one day left in the legislative session. The bill doesnt look likely to be revived this year, although rabbits get pulled out of hats in the closing hours of a session. But we know where legislators minds are, regarding open government, so we will see this unneeded exemption again next year.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat Capitol reporter who writes a twice-weekly column. He can be reached at bcotterell@tallahassee.com

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A close call this time, but lawmakers have a bad attitude on openness | Cotterell - Tallahassee Democrat

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