Fabiola Santiago

Powerful senator wants to hold Miami Dade College president search in the dark | Opinion

Once again, Republican Senator Manny Diaz Jr. is using his powerful post in the Florida Legislature to inappropriately influence the Miami Dade College presidential search.

Diaz — who represents a swath of communities from Miami Springs to Miami Lakes and was rumored to be one of the politicians who wants the well-compensated and prestigious job — is sponsoring legislation that legalizes holding the selection process in the dark.

Florida Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., R- Hialeah, left, talks with Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, on the floor of the Florida Senate on April 30, 2019. Scott Keeler Tampa Bay Times

The bill he filed Tuesday, SB 774, would chip away at the widely respected Florida Sunshine Laws, protections that hold government accountable by guaranteeing public access to records, votes, deliberations and meetings.

The Sunshine Laws give you, the public, a front seat to government action — and apply as well to the state’s college and university system. These laws are essential to keeping politicians, office holders and bureaucrats in check. They’re supposed to prevent abuse of power.

Our Sunshine Laws are an example of democracy at its best. Other states envy us for them.

But Diaz, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, wants to exempt from public records “any personal identifying information of an applicant for president of a state university or Florida College system institution,” his bill says.

As if keeping in secret who is being considered for the job weren’t egregious enough, Diaz also wants to exempt from public meeting requirements “any meeting held for the purpose of identifying or vetting applicants for president of a state university or Florida College System institution and for any portion of a meeting held for the purpose of establishing qualifications of, or any compensation framework to be offered to, such potential applicants which would disclose personal identifying information of an applicant or potential applicant.”

See how dark the controversial process of selecting the replacement for longtime MDC President Eduardo Padrón, a Democrat who seldom paraded his politics and sought bipartisan alliances, would become?

In essence, Diaz wants to close the search, hindering the ability of journalists, faculty members, students and other interested parties from holding those making the decisions accountable.

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What he’s doing only throws more shade on a process that has already been suspect and tainted by political preferences and backroom dealing (in probable violation of Sunshine Laws).

His unrelenting desire for secrecy speaks to intention.

It’s further confirmation that state politicians are trying to stage an ideological Republican takeover of the college, one of the largest and most prestigious in the country.

Diaz, who also serves on appropriations, ethics and elections subcommittees, has been trying to hide the search from public view for a while. This isn’t the first time he files this bill, which would close future presidential searches all over the state, not just MDC.

His wiser colleagues rejected the bill. One can only hope they do so again this session.

“The bottom line is that there is zero evidence that closing the search produces better presidents,” Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center at the University of Florida, told me.

In fact, the opposite happens in closed searches, LoMonte and center researchers found in a study of recent closed and open presidential searches in Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.

“The result is that the president is not a good fit for the institution and comes in in a cloud of mistrust and ill will,” he said.

I tried to share that information and get answers from Diaz and his staff.

But despite assurances from his Tallahassee office that the legislative assistant who worked on the bill, Daniel Martinez, would call me to discuss it, no one did, except to confirm my name.

The avoidance of uncomfortable questions is modus operandi for politicians.

Yet, Diaz should answer the most obvious ones: Why is he so intent on keeping the MDC search secret? Is it to cater to the commercial interests of head-hunting firms that benefit from a confidential process and are so prevalent in hiring today? Is the senator interested in the job himself or is he playing the field on behalf of political amigos?

Whatever the answers, his bill is a deplorable attempt to meddle in the MDC presidential selection, and in the process, strip away the public’s right to information about an institution vital to Miami-Dade County. The college, after all, extends far beyond its campuses as host of signature cultural events like the upcoming Miami Book Fair.

This is the second try at a presidential search.

Ugly, dirty political games mired the first, ending with the governor-appointed MDC Board of Trustees scrapping the search, which had included a large number of community stakeholders asked to give their input.

Lots of people felt betrayed when the board — all but two members appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and chosen by local politicos and Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez — refused to vote.

The search committee had boiled down a long list of candidates from 49 to four with MDC provost and executive vice president Lenore Rodicio rising as a favorite.

Instead of voting, the board appointed former provost and trustee Rolando Montoya as interim president and started the search from scratch.

The MDC community — students, faculty, staff and benefactors of the college who turned out to protest — has had enough of the shenanigans. They included attempts by the board to do away with the requirement that candidates have at least a terminal degree, the highest in their field.

The legacy and credibility of the college as an independent institution are at stake in this new search.

So is the sanctity of the Florida Sunshine Laws.

It would be a travesty if both were a victim of political malfeasance.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”