Lawsuit charges State College of Florida board with breaking Sunshine Law

MANATEE — A day before State College of Florida trustees are set to vote on a settlement agreement with embattled president Lars Hafner, a citizen has hit the board with a lawsuit.

On Monday, Robert Chandler filed a lawsuit in Manatee County Circuit Court that asserts trustees have violated the Government in the Sunshine Law because meetings held in the last week between Hafner’s attorney and the Kunkel, Miller & Hament lawyers hired by trustees to negotiate an agreement were not open to the public.

Chandler also has requested an injunction against the board in the interest of the public. It remains to be seen if that will affect Tuesday’s meeting.

Trustees have spent the past several months publicly sparring with Hafner over financial decisions for the state college. A vote of no-confidence tied in August. Last week, the board voted to hire counsel to negotiate a buyout with Hafner, seemingly to avoid litigation if they fired him. It was clear then that some conversations had already occurred when confused board members were informed by Chairman Carlos Beruff that motions to negotiate had been inspired by “mutual discussions.”

Beruff has been very open about the fact that he has participated in discussions with Hafner’s attorney, the new counsel and college attorney Steve Prouty. The lawsuit states that Beruff participated in and conducted negotiation meetings.

“The attorneys would reach some recommendations, which they would share with me,” Beruff said last week. “And if I believe that it is in the best interest of the college, I would proffer that to the board for their consideration on Tuesday.”

Board Vice-Chairman Craig Trigueiro said he did not believe the board had violated any law because board members had not spoken to each other privately about the issue.

He pointed out that the college has a precedent of having one trustee represent board interests, similar to when former chairman Ron Allen negotiated a redo of Dr Hafner’s current contract by himself last year.

“It’s up to the board to take action,” Trigueiro said. “(Beruff) can’t bind the board to anything.”

Chandler’s lawsuit also states that he was denied access to information from Prouty that would shed light on whether Hafner will be held to a 2011 Florida statute that caps severance pay to 20 weeks.

Trigueiro said the memo does exist and was sent to all trustees, but Prouty told him it was privileged information.

Without any kind of reduction, Hafner stands to walk away from State College with $1.6 million in payouts, since his contract was recently extended to 2016. He currently makes $323,000 a year.

But that seems unlikely, since his 2008 contract binds him to laws enacted after his contract.

“His contract says that anything adopted after his contract is in effect,” Trigueiro said. “His own contract says that.”

The trustees meet at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Bradenton campus of the State College of Florida.

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