Pasco-Hernando college trustees to ease public comment restrictions

Some students, staff say they’d like even more changes to the rules.
The Porter campus of Pasco-Hernando State College in Wesley Chapel.
The Porter campus of Pasco-Hernando State College in Wesley Chapel.
Published April 21, 2020

For years, the Pasco-Hernando State College board of trustees would listen to public comment only if the speaker won approval days in advance from the school’s president.

That was the board’s policy, despite state law guaranteeing Floridians the right to address public government bodies on items up for a vote.

The college’s newly formed faculty union, denied several times the right to speak, protested. And now the trustees appear ready to yield — but only to a point.

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

When the board meets Tuesday evening, it will consider amending its rules to allow members of the public to comment on any item appearing on the agenda. And that agenda, which people used to have to request in writing from the president’s office, actually appeared online in advance for the first time in anyone’s memory, though no backup material was provided.

If the trustees approve the proposal, they will put their board in the same position as the State Board of Education that oversees state colleges.

But some faculty members and students aren’t convinced the move goes far enough.

“I definitely appreciate the time they’ve put into adjusting it and trying to accommodate everybody’s needs,” said Dealaney Allen, president of the west campus Student Government Association. “But it’s less of a change than we were wanting.”

Specifically, the students and instructors had asked that the board also provide open time for anyone to speak on items that do not appear on the agenda, similar to the way that most school boards operate. The idea came up at a trustee workshop in March, but did not make it to the final recommendation.

Allen suggested the seeming unwillingness to broaden access to the board made the college governing process less open and more intimidating to students, who would still have to ask permission of the president to speak on unscheduled issues.

“We want to make sure the students have an opportunity to be heard,” she said.

Faculty union president Caitlin Gille had similar concerns. She, too, praised the trustees for the steps forward.

But she also worried that the administration could throttle conversation about items that are important to faculty and students, but haven’t risen to the level of a board vote. She noted that the president’s office had denied faculty requests to address the board on more than one occasion.

“The trustees don’t know everything going on,” Gille said. “It’s one-way communication.”

If the administration valued faculty, she added, it might choose to include them when making decisions instead of simply announcing changes. The union formed because of employees’ discontent.

She acknowledged that they could find ways around the public commenting rule, such as speaking on every scheduled agenda item.

“But that’s not the point,” Gille said. “What is it saying about our college if they’re not willing to let us speak to them?”

The trustees are scheduled to discuss this issue when they meet telephonically at 6 p.m. The public can attend the session by calling 1-888-585-9008, Conference code 692.935.907#.