BRADENTON — Experts on Florida’s Sunshine Law are critical of Manatee Community College’s board of trustees’ actions and the lack of public discussion when board members decided on the institution’s new name — the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota.
The speedy name change and the lack of notice to the public is raising questions about whether the board violated the intent of the Government in the Sunshine Law, which requires transparency on governmental decisions.
College officials and board members acknowledge a new logo and mascot were discussed before the state approved the college’s four-year nursing degree on March 17. The name change was approved April 15.
College officials say they had to move quickly to get the new name codified by state lawmakers before the legislative session ends for the year.
“It sounds like a lot of things went through rather quickly,” said Alexis Lambert, a deputy general counsel who specializes in the Sunshine and public records law at the Florida attorney general office. “We always urge public boards and commissions to give an opportunity for meaningful public participation on issues before the board that could be controversial.”
Adria Harper, director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, questioned why the change had not been discussed more among the public.
“It sounds like it’s been in the works for awhile,” she said.
The Bradenton Herald has requested to speak with college President Lars Hafner since last Friday, but was told he was not available for an interview.
Steve Harner, chairman of MCC’s board of trustees, said the board abided by the open government laws and disagrees with Lambert and Harper.
“They’re certainly entitled to their opinion,” Harner said. “We were doing our obligation as trustees. I think the board was acting in good faith as representatives in the area we serve.”
The sequence of events in the name change showed that a month before the board officially approved the name, college officials already started talking to a Sarasota graphics artist about a logo and mascot design.
Kathy Walker, spokeswoman for the college, said the idea of the name change had been discussed since last year, when the board of trustees decided to get state approval to offer the four-year nursing program.
So in March, before the state gave its approval, Walker asked the artist to come up with design concepts that “would capture the feeling of the location,” she said.
Christine Robinson, a board member, said she saw the State College of Florida logo the day before the board’s vote on the name change.
Each board member also had an individual evaluation meeting with Hafner in the weeks leading up to the vote, and Robinson and Harner said the name change was discussed in those meetings.
Harner said it was clear the board was looking into a name change.
Harner said the issue was discussed during board comments as a non-agenda item at a public meeting in March, and as an agenda item in April.
Minutes of the March 25 meeting did not reflect the name change discussion because it was not an official agenda item, college officials say.
An agenda for the following board meeting on April 15 also did not clearly specify that the name change would be discussed.
On the agenda, the discussion took place under an item with exhibits that state: “Approval of Recommendation from the Curriculum Development and Review Committee for New Programs, New Courses in Programs, and Course Revision” and “Implementation (separate exhibit).”
The Sunshine Law requires an agenda to list out the items that will be discussed in public meetings, but does not specify that the description should contain the details of the issue, Lambert said. In that sense, it satisfies the black-letter intent of the law.
Harper said the way the minutes and agenda were written raises questions whether it satisfies the intent of the Sunshine Law.
“It still should have been in the minutes so the public gets a reasonable idea of what was discussed in the meeting,” Harper said.
Said Lambert: “Changing the name of a 50-year institution would merit notice on the agenda.”
The only way there could be a definitive decision on whether the board violated the Sunshine Law would be if the issue went to court.
“A court could still potentially find that problematic,” Harper said. “These are the things the court would look at and determine the context of whether there is a violation.”
Robinson said swift action was needed on the name change to get the college on track to meet the nursing demand at local hospitals.
“There is such a great need now, if we didn’t have a name showing we had this bachelor’s program (in nursing), we might not have attracted the quality of students that these hospitals are so desperately in need of,” Robinson said. “This needed to be done to meet the community’s need for nurses.”
The board voted 6-1 for the new name. Robinson voted against the name change, because she disagreed with the name that was chosen.
“My vote was strictly about the name, not about the direction of the school,” Robinson said. “I firmly believe in the direction the school is taking. But I wanted something a little more inclusive.”