Pasco-Hernando State College poised to let public speak at meetings without advance notice

People have needed to get permission from the school’s president to appear.
Associate professor of biology Caitlin Gille leads the Pasco-Hernando State College faculty union, which challenged the school's public comment rules.  (Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Gille)
Associate professor of biology Caitlin Gille leads the Pasco-Hernando State College faculty union, which challenged the school's public comment rules. (Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Gille)
Published Feb. 18, 2020|Updated Feb. 25, 2020

Floridians attending most government meetings come with the understanding that if they want to talk about issues, they’ll have that opportunity if they show up.

It’s guaranteed in state law.

But access hasn’t been quite that simple at Pasco-Hernando State College.

State statute allows boards to establish rules to maintain decorum during their sessions, but the college Board of Trustees has gone far beyond that to restrict commenters to those the school president approves.

It took the activism of the college’s recently formed faculty union to point out the discrepancy. And now the board is poised to change its policy.

During contract negotiations, union president Caitlin Gille and her team sought to speak to the board at its meetings, only to find themselves shut out by the existing rule. It requires any member of the public to ask the college president for time to appear before the board. The request must be made in writing at least 10 days before the session.

The president is given the latitude to resolve the issues independently, determine the material will not go to the board or present the item to the board.

“Faculty have requested to speak at board meetings twice now and were denied by Dr. (Timothy) Beard, the college president,” Gille said via email.

They called upon the board to have its rule follow statute. The administration introduced a proposed amendment to trustees at their Feb. 18 meeting.

It would establish a time at each meeting for public comment, giving speakers up to 3 minutes and limiting them to items appearing on the board’s agenda.

Gille said some faculty members and students want the board to go even further.

“We are pleased to see the changes,” she said, “but the new board rule restricts public comments to agenda items, unless approved by the college president. We feel that citizens should be able to address any college-related issue at board meetings.”

She noted further that the trustees’ agenda is not posted on the college website in advance. Anyone who wants it must make a formal request to receive a copy, making it difficult to know what will be discussed at the meetings.

The union wants that fixed, too.

“Being able to find the board meeting agenda online or sign up to speak to an agenda or non-agenda item as late as 15 minutes before the board meeting will facilitate the board’s interaction with the community,” nursing professor Lydia Massias wrote in remarks presented to the board at its meeting.

Melanie Snow Waxler, spokeswoman for the college, said the administration is committed to making these changes. The public-comment rule had been on the books for years, she said, and “it’s never come up before.”

After the union presented its concern, a rewrite was offered.

“We will be looking at posting the agenda as well,” Waxler added. Although the current practice for distributing the document follows law, she said, “I think we can go above and beyond that.”

The ultimate call remains with the board. Members said they planned to provide their thoughts to the administration ahead of a March workshop, in case they want further changes or answers.

They expect to vote on the measure at their April meeting.