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Despite law, FSU trustee will leave job on his own schedule

Seven years ago, Jim Smith got a coveted seat at the 'Noles head table with an appointment to the Florida State University board of trustees.

The term was four years. But seven years later, Smith is still a trustee, providing garnet-and-gold stability, wisdom and occasional shocking outspokenness. It was Smith who recently triggered an uproar when he said it was long past time for FSU football coach Bobby Bowden to go, comparing the coach to a beloved family dog who reluctantly has to be "put down."

Smith is a former state attorney general and secretary of state and was appointed to the FSU board by then-Gov. Jeb Bush on Jan. 7, 2003. Smith, 69, also was a finalist for Florida's recent U.S. Senate vacancy, but that most prestigious of political plums went to George LeMieux.

Smith is the father-in-law of Brian Ballard, a prominent lobbyist who is both a fundraiser and a close political adviser to Gov. Charlie Crist.

All of this makes Jim Smith a household name in the state capital.

But how does a guy get to stretch a four-year appointment into seven years? Aren't there other qualified people eager to serve?

The answer is simple: Smith has connections to Crist, and that enabled him to sidestep a 2005 state law that prohibits lobbyists from serving on any state university trustee boards. Crist could not have reappointed Smith.

Technically speaking, political appointees serve until their successors are named. When Crist became governor nearly three years ago, and Smith's term ended, the governor did nothing, which allowed Smith to stay put.

"I just know of his dedication to Florida State University and how much he cares about it," said Crist, who like Smith is a graduate of FSU. "That's really kind of how I decided."

Asked what entitled Smith to the privilege of a seven-year term, Crist said: "It's just out of respect."

But Crist's inaction allowed Smith to avoid being snared by the 2005 law keeping lobbyists off trustee boards.

Former Senate President Tom Lee of Brandon championed that law as a way of curtailing the influence of lobbyists in the shaping of policy in the wake of a controversial plan to create a chiropractic school at FSU. Smith and other trustees ducked taking a stand on the issue because it was being pushed by a few influential legislators.

Smith, one of 13 FSU trustees, says he will step down as soon as the search is finished for a replacement for outgoing FSU president T.K. Wetherell.

"It's something that I'd like to get done and something folks in the governor's office asked me to see through," Smith said. "But I think five or six years is enough time for anybody to serve."

True to form, the plain-talking Smith detests the ban on lobbyists serving on university boards. "That law was passed for the wrong reason, and the law is probably unconstitutional," he said. "You can't carve out a class of people like university trustees and say people in the lobbying business can't serve on those but they can be on the Board of Medicine or Board of Pharmacy. It's just a ridiculous situation, but it won't affect me."

Said Smith: "As soon as the search is over, I'm going to write the governor a letter thanking him for allowing me to serve, and then I'll sail off into the sunset."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Despite law, FSU trustee will leave job on his own schedule 11/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2009 11:28pm]
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