Did the Florida State University presidential search committee violate Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Laws?
It’s a question being raised after State University System Board of Governors member Alan Levine first voiced concerns about potential interference with the process, which triggered a review of the search committee’s discussions last Saturday.
To constitutional law expert and former General Counsel to the Constitution Revision Commission Will Spicola, the answer is simple: “Yes.”
According to Spicola, videos of the meeting suggest a violation because the Sunshine Law requires decision-making by committees to be made in public.
“Florida leads the nation in its open government and Sunshine Laws. Not only is the requirement of ‘open public meetings’ in our constitution, but willful violations can also be criminal,” he said.
Based on videos posted by FSU, following an hour and a half luncheon by committee members, which was closed to the public, the consultant hired by FSU, Alberto Pimentel, took charge. Pimentel began by stating, “based on (his) discussion with all of you” there seems to be “excitement” about three candidates to move forward.
Within 10 seconds of him listing the names, faculty member Pam Perrewé made a motion to advance them together for campus interviews. Her motion was immediately seconded.
As one observer noted, “this happened so fast it had to have been planned in advance.”
This sudden maneuver prompted FSU Trustee and search committee member Craig Mateer to tell Pimentel he didn’t vote because he felt it was in violation of the Sunshine Law.
His accusation was unrefuted.
FSU General Counsel Carol Egan, in an Oct. 19, 2020, meeting, gave the search committee an overview of the Sunshine Law.
Her instructions were clear: “No secret ballots are allowed; candidate votes must be publicly taken; and all members must vote.”
She also cautioned that “there are to be no use of evasive tactics” and “the remedy for violating the law is to undo what has been decided by the committee.”
Spicola said that the Florida Supreme Court has declared a “violation occurs whenever any evasive device is used to avoid the public meeting. The courts have said the laws are intended to prevent “closed-door” or “backroom politics,” so it must be broadly construed to achieve its purpose.
Watching the video certainly indicates “evasive devices” as the Supreme Court has referred to.
Other discussions also appeared to have taken place outside the sunshine.
Chairman Bob Sasser announced it had been decided that the committee’s goal was to interview no more than four candidates, but the topic had never been publicly discussed by the committee.
Spicola said, “A violation would require a ‘good-faith redo’ of the actions taken.”
“To ensure public confidence and cure a potential violation, at a minimum they should review the tapes of the additional six candidates to see if they warrant further consideration, but should probably forward all nine to the Board for consideration due to the ‘good-faith’ requirement and the fact that the FSU Board of Trustees has the ultimate responsibility to select the president.”
Spicola pointed to a Sunshine Law case Finch v. Seminole County School Board where the court said, “A violation may be cured by an independent final action taken in the sunshine that is ‘not merely a ceremonial acceptance of secret actions and not merely a perfunctory ratification of secret decisions at a later meeting open to the public.’”
The Sunshine Law is just one concern with the FSU presidential search process, which has drawn increased scrutiny in the wake of a letter from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges that seemingly threatened the university’s accreditation.
In the letter, SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan questioned whether Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who applied for the job, had the necessary qualifications to serve as FSU president. She also said it was improper for Corcoran to seek the job while holding a seat on the Board of Governors.
Corcoran’s candidacy did not move forward.
That led to Levine expressing concerns that SACSCOC exerted undue influence over the search committee, and later calling for the entire process to be halted so the Board of Governors could review what happened.