SCF trustees postpone confidence vote on Hafner

MANATEE -- The students who gathered to support their president at the State College of Florida Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday were waiting for a vote that never came. Perhaps other members of an overflow audience that had to be moved to a larger venue were waiting for the same thing.

But the fate of SCF president Lars Hafner, who survived a no-confidence vote from trustees at last month's meeting, was not clear until the end.

This time, board member Charlene Neal saved him by being absent.

"I know that there was great anticipation on whether there would be a vote on certain topics here," said trustee Craig Trigueiro, who had made the no-confidence motion before. "I will not make any motion of importance unless the whole board is here."

The board's inaction means Hafner will remain as president until an almost-certain vote at the next meeting, or the completion of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement forgery investigation involving Hafner.

The investigation began in June after board chairman Carlos Beruff provided evidence that Hafner forged the signature of former board chairman Steve Harner on a 2010 state grant application for SCF's Collegiate School, a charter school that helps first-generation college students graduate. Hafner has maintained repeatedly, and in an affidavit, that he did sign the name with Harner's permission.

As of Tuesday, the Hafner investigation was still active, said Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.

Board members tightened the reins on Hafner in the meantime.

Before Tuesday night, Hafner could approve college construction projects under $325,000 without board approval. The board voted Tuesday to decrease that amount to $150,000.

"I want to rein in the authority." Trigueiro said. "It would prevent anyone in this college to enter a contract, legally binding, without the board's approval."

The Board of Trustees has taken issue with Hafner's spending on several occasions before the accusations of forgery occurred. At the last Board of Trustees meeting, Triguerio's motion of no-confidence eventually stalled 4-4 after intense debate about Hafner's financial judgment.

After that meeting, an online petition was circulated by students through the Facebook page "Let Lars Lead." It threatens "outrage" if Hafner is fired from his position. As of Tuesday evening, 140 people had signed the petition.

Students gathered before the meeting to show support for Hafner.

"We didn't want people to say that students aren't supportive," said student Leah Feliciano, 18, who praised Hafner for expanding the school's nursing program and increasing the number of baccalaureate programs at the state school. "He really has brought our school to a new level."

Other students said they had gathered because the board has not provided an opportunity for them to speak on behalf of their president. Public comments are not usually heard at Board of Trustees meetings, and at the August meeting Beruff reprimanded those who had cheered in support of trustee Joe Miller's defense of Hafner.

"The biggest thing is that they wouldn't let us speak," said Cindy Micochero, 20. "We're the ones paying to be here."

Beruff and Trigueiro have also created a precedent of adding items, such as Tuesday's motion to limit Hafner's spending, during board comments. Trustee Jennifer Saslaw said she was tired of being surprised by these items.

"I would like to suggest that we get all the information on this and put it on the agenda," Saslaw said. "I really don't like things like this coming up at the end of the meeting, when we have a week to go through everything (else)."

Saslaw and trustee Joe Miller were the only members to oppose Trigueiro's motion. It passed 5-2.

At the meeting, the trustees also chose Evergreen Solutions to conduct a external market study of SCF's pay structure and an internal equity review. An assessment of the competitiveness of the college's salaries and benefits compared to similar colleges will be taken for about 50 percent of positions, said Human Resources Executive Director Peg Beck.

Before the meeting, the roughly 50 students who had gathered parked themselves outside of doorways, looked for board members and shouted "Let Lars Lead."

One of them spotted the board chairman.

"That's Carlos," a student said, gesturing to her classmates. "That's the one that won't let us talk."

The chants grew louder.

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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