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University job search bill would punish loose lips

A year in prison could await anyone who reveals the name of a university or college presidential hopeful under a new bill.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001

A year in prison could await anyone who reveals the name of a university or college presidential hopeful under a new bill.

Republican lawmakers pushing a bill that would allow community college and university presidents to be selected in secret have added a kicker -- the threat of criminal penalties against anyone who reveals a candidate's name.

The sanction, usually reserved for disclosures involving child abuse or ethics investigations, was not sought by the state task force that recommended presidential searches be taken out of the sunshine.

Laurie Cain, deputy director of the Education Governance Reorganization Task Force, said that panel is interested only in obtaining the best possible candidates for presidencies.

She was asked what that goal said about the quality of Florida's current presidents, all of whom were selected in the sunshine.

"It doesn't mean people of high caliber didn't seek out those positions. We were blessed," Cain said. But she said there is no doubt public searches discourage top people from applying, especially sitting presidents, who can appear disloyal if they are seen as job-hunting.

Cain referred questions about the criminal penalties to Rep. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who is the bill's primary sponsor. Her measure would make the disclosure of a candidate's name a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison. Lynn, a member of the education task force, did not return calls seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush said he has not taken a position on the bill.

Barbara Petersen, director of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit watchdog for open government in Florida, said the measure is just the latest example of the Legislature's desire to limit public scrutiny.

Petersen said she has seen more bills in the first few weeks of this session that exempt public records than she saw all of last year.

The most notable is the measure that would limit public access to autopsy photos, a bill that responds to the Orlando Sentinel's request to review the autopsy records of race car legend Dale Earnhardt.

Petersen said the push to allow secret presidential searches is especially worrisome given the expected abolishment of the state Board of Regents, which has selected university leaders since 1965.

Much of the regents' authority will be shifted to university boards of trustees, including the power to hire and fire presidents.

"If this passes, we'll never know who was considered or why they were eliminated," she said. "This is misguided, and a dangerous precedent."

The call for secret searches is not new. It was heard last year when officials struggled to pick a new president at the University of Florida, a search that eventually was abandoned. Charles Young, the former leader of UCLA, agreed last year to fill the job for about two years.

Several years ago, lawmakers changed the procedure for selecting the university system chancellor, saying that only the names of finalists must be made public. They did not, however, attach criminal penalties.

That process was used only once, when Adam Herbert was selected three years ago. His was the only name included on the list of finalists.

Under Lynn's bill, only the name of the winner would be revealed to the public.

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