SCF trustees vote to negotiate settlement with Hafner

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The State College of Florida Board of Trustees didn't hold a vote of no-confidence for Lars Hafner at a special meeting Tuesday scheduled to finish the president's evaluation.

Instead, board Chairman Carlos Beruff read a motion to hire counsel from the Sarasota law firm Kunkel, Miller and Hament to advise the trustees on their options concerning Hafner's employment status.

A second motion requires this counsel to meet with Hafner's attorney to come to a "mutually acceptable agreement" concerning his future as president by Oct. 30, when the board has its next regularly scheduled meeting.

The motions, both passed unanimously, are a culmination of months of public battles between Hafner and several board members, most of which were appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2011. At the September meeting, Vice Chairman Craig Trigueiro had strongly implied that another vote of no-confidence was in Hafner's future after an August vote stalled 4-4.

But recent dialogue made this new development possible, Beruff said. Still, the chairman offered little specifics about this new direction, explaining that the meetings would allow parties to come to "anything that could be practical."

Some trustees seemed confused and surprised by motions that Beruff read quickly to a packed auditorium of SCF staff that sometimes had to strain to hear him.

"So it's like a mediation?" board member Charlene Neal asked.

"Correct," Beruff said.

But college attorney Steve Prouty's use of the words

"settlement dialogue" in reference to the meetings, indicates that there is little chance the board will accept an option that allows Hafner to continue as president.

Trigueiro said that's just fine, for the board and Hafner.

"If that's what happens it will be good for everyone," said Trigueiro, who initiated the no-confidence vote that tied in August.

"This way he could resign. He could say he resigned because of a disagreement with the board. It happens all the time."

Board member Jennifer Saslaw, who has consistently defended Hafner along with trustee Joe Miller, said she hadn't had time to process whether a settlement is the best option for Hafner or the school.

"This is totally new news," Saslaw said. "We'll know more with time."

Trigueiro's suggestion to hold a vote of no-confidence anyway, as a statement to the public, was not taken up by board members Tuesday night.

In light of recent conversations, Beruff said, he felt the new direction would suffice.

Prouty seemed to agree.

"Right now, I think the parties are trying, from the positions they currently in, to come to a mutual agreement," Prouty said.

Hafner, 51, had a faint smile on his face throughout the proceedings, but did not speak. He declined to comment after the meeting, but was visibly in good spirits.

The trustees have been at odds with Hafner for the past six months, particularly Beruff, who pushed for a forgery investigation concerning Hafner's signing of documents with the signature of the past board of trustee's chair.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement found Hafner did not commit forgery. Beruff and others, however, have questioned Hafner's judgment on other issues.

Under Hafner's watch, Manatee Community College became State College of Florida in 2009, the same year the college was included among the top 100 associate degree producers in the nation in Community College Week magazine.

He also has been crucial in bringing four-year programs to the college, including a nursing program that graduated its first class of RNs with four-year baccalaureate degrees in May 2011.

But board members have criticized him for what they say have been irresponsible financial decisions.

Tuition and fees increased 8 percent at the college in August 2011, the same year Hafner asked for and later withdrew a request for a Cadillac Escalade for executive use.

There is much disagreement among current and past trustees over the representation of costs of school construction projects, such as tennis courts and a collegiate school. Some trustees claim that costs have ballooned and projects expanded under Hafner's leadership. Others say most projects were approved by a former board who had a full understanding of Hafner's plans.

According to his contract, which was extended through 2016 last year, Hafner could walk away from State College of Florida with $1.6 million in payouts. But his 2008 contract subjects him to new laws and rules relating to employment, leave and salaries, among other things. 2011 Florida statutes that cap severance pay may change the amount of money he receives.

He currently makes $323,000 a year.

On Tuesday, new trustee Eric Robinson, a partner in a Venice CPA firm, sat for the first time with other board members. On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott filled the Board of Trustee spot that has been vacant since May 2012, when Venice businessman C.J. Fishman's term ended.

Robinson has previously served on the Board of Workforce Florida and the Sarasota County Airport Authority, and his term is set to end in May 2016.

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