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State examines closed meetings

Published Sep. 9, 2005

The public university presidents' private gatherings are being investigated because of the Sunshine Law.

State attorneys are investigating whether Florida's 10 public university presidents violated the Sunshine Law by holding private discussions over the restructuring of higher education.

The presidents belong to a group called the Council of Presidents, which advises the Board of Regents, a panel overseeing Florida's public universities.

The council operates as a public body, publishing an agenda and meeting to discuss items in public.

But with the Board of Regents facing elimination in favor of a new governing structure made up of several boards each overseeing one university, the presidents have begun meeting in private as the State University Presidents Association.

"I don't see why they feel they have to do this behind closed doors," said Barbara Petersen, director of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. "They work for us, and we have a right to know what they're doing."

Pam Bernard, general counsel for the University of Florida, said she is not sure whether the group was created by law to function as a public body or whether it has been doing so voluntarily, but thinks the presidents need to be cautious regardless.

"When two or more members of a board or commission discuss matters that have some likelihood of coming before that body, then they have to meet in public," Bernard said.

The First Amendment Foundation and editorial writers at several newspapers have criticized the presidents for meeting privately at least four times, either by telephone or in person, since November.

The presidents counter that they are privately discussing the sweeping education restructuring plans being pushed by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Critics say this is the very type of situation the Sunshine Law was created for: times of political upheaval or crisis.

Florida's Sunshine Law provides a right of access to governmental proceedings at the state and local level, the state Attorney General Office has said.

The law applies equally to elected and appointed boards, and to any meeting involving two or more members of the same board to discuss issues before the panel.

University of Florida President Charles Young said the critics "may have a legitimate point," about the State University Presidents Association meetings.

He said the group was trying to create a new forum for the time when the Council of Presidents is abolished.

Florida Gulf Coast University President Bill Merwin said he had not conducted any university business in private.