After almost three decades in office, Leon County’s election supervisor is stepping down. One of Tallahassee’s statehouse representatives wants to replace him, but his attendance record in the Legislature might give some voters pause.
Rep. Alan Williams has served House District 8 for eight years in the Florida legislature. Now with term limits bringing that tenure to a close, he’s running to be Leon County’s next elections supervisor. But back in May, with signs going up and the campaign beginning in earnest, something seemed to be missing.
He missed a May 26 forum after skyping in for another event a few days earlier. Then on July 2, he missed the Frenchtown candidate forum. Williams has shown up at some other events, but it turns out spotty attendance is nothing new.
Back in February, Representative Marlene O’Toole called for Williams to introduce a bill in the education committee. The Central Florida Republican got silence followed by scattered laughter. Williams eventually showed up to the hearing—one of the five times he was marked present.
He missed the committee’s seven other meetings.
And that pattern continues in other committees. All told Williams has a 51 percent committee attendance record for the previous session.
Representative Alan Williams’ Absences:
10/06/2015: Energy & Utilities Subcommittee
10/07/2015: Education (unexcused)
10/20/2015: Energy & Utilities Subcommittee
12/01/2015: Select Committee On Affordable Healthcare, Appropriations
12/03/2015: Education, Economic Affairs
01/15/2016: Select Committee On Affordable Healthcare
01/20/2016: Select Committee On Affordable Healthcare
01/21/2016: Economic Affairs, Education, Appropriations
02/04/2016: Education (unexcused)
02/10/2016: Economic Affairs
02/18/2016: Economic Affairs
Total committee votes missed: 57
It’s worth noting lawmakers are people. People with families, businesses, and responsibilities of all sorts. Some—like Bradenton Republican Jim Boyd—show up for every committee hearing. But many, if not most, miss a few. It’s also worth noting the speaker’s office says it received no complaints about Williams from constituents or other lawmakers, and Williams broke no rules. House rules only impose a penalty for back-to-back unexcused absences. Nearly all of Williams’ absences were excused. But his letters asking for those excuses rarely offer an explanation. So, I asked him about it. Here are a few of the answers he gave:
“Being in senior leadership in the House,” Williams said, “there are a lot of times where we have votes that take pace that you know we’re trying to work with the speaker or work with other leaders in the House.”
Williams also suggested, “A lot of times when committees begin, members may not necessarily be there because they may be presenting bills in other committees.”
“A lot of the information that we had before us was more presentations more power points,” Williams pointed out about workshop sessions where no votes are taken.
“Last year we had a number of special sessions,” Williams said, “and so you have to remember we’re part time legislators so we’re also focusing on our business.”
But on closer examination those excuses don’t seem hold up.
First, Williams isn’t in senior leadership. He served as Democratic Whip from 2012 to 2014, but currently holds no title. Anyway, the House minority leader, pro tempore, and whip all have attendance records of 76 percent or better. Jim Boyd--the representative with perfect attendance—is the Republican whip.
What about missing hearings to present bills in other committees? Comparing every bill Williams sponsored or cosponsored with who presented that bill in committee produces no examples of a Williams absence occurring because he was presenting a bill elsewhere.
Williams admits missing hearings where lawmakers saw presentations instead of taking votes—some of those include a Department of Education overview with Secretary Pam Stewart, an explanation of the EPA’s clean power plan, and the governor’s budget proposals for the coming year.
Williams missed all of them.
Williams’ point about being a part time legislator came up with another lawmaker, too, but he took it in a different direction.
“Florida has a part time legislature,” Former Senate President and unabashed rules geek Don Gaetz says. “That means we’re not always in Tallahassee, in fact we’re in Tallahassee the minority of the time, so if committee hearings are scheduled or votes are scheduled it’s critical that members be in attendance.”
Although Williams didn’t break any rules, Gaetz says missing that many meetings can’t be good for a lawmaker or the constituents.
“I can tell you as a former presiding officer of the Senate, and as a committee chairman now in the Senate that an attendance record like that would be seriously problematic for a senator,” Gaetz says. “And speaking as the senator for Northwest Florida, if I had an attendance record like that I’d have a very difficult time explaining myself to my constituents in Northwest Florida.”
But if Williams’ excuses don’t jibe with his absences what was going on? A partial explanation is travel. He missed hearings in September and December to attend meetings of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. Then in February he went to Colorado for a Young Elected Officials meeting.
In January House officials turned down his request to attend the HOPE forum in Atlanta. He ended up missing two committee hearings anyway—popping up at the Digital Pathway Summit on Amelia Island.
All of these events could help men and women become better lawmakers, but with an attendance record barely better than a coin flip, it’s clear Williams’ attention is divided.