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Secret or Sunshine? Who knows?

Officials say it's unclear whether a new association of state university presidents is subject to Florida's open meetings laws.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001


BOCA RATON -- Once the state Board of Regents goes out of existence, Florida's 10 university presidents want to refashion themselves as an association that could meet to discuss matters of common interest.

Whether those sessions would be open to the public, however, is unclear.

Until recently, the presidents met regularly as a council to advise the regents on specific issues. Those sessions always were open.

But in recent months, the presidents have met at least twice behind closed doors, including a gathering Wednesday over lunch.

Several presidents said that conclave was strictly social.

"No business was discussed," said University of Central Florida President John Hitt.

That certainly wasn't true in December, when the presidents met privately in Orlando to discuss the proposed overhaul of Florida's higher education system.

It was a key moment in the sputtering battle to save the regents, which could be abolished as early as July 1 if the changes go through.

The presidents decided they would no longer oppose the regents' abolition. Instead, they chose to embrace the changes, though they soon offered suggestions they said would make the reorganization more effective.

University system officials say that discussion, and the one Wednesday, is not covered by the state's Sunshine Law.

Such meetings are public only when the presidents are acting at the behest of the regents, or on their behalf, said university system spokesman Keith Goldschmidt.

"If they aren't working on a specific issue, then they are acting as staff and can meet out of sunshine," Goldschmidt said.

But what happens once the regents are gone and the presidents form their association? Will the public be privy to their discussions? How about when they meet with Gov. Jeb Bush, which they intend to do next week?

It's not at all clear, said Assistant Attorney General Pat Gleason.

"The law is triggered if they are acting in an advisory capacity or are delegated responsibility," she said. But after the regents are gone, who are the presidents advising?

"This essentially becomes uncharted territory," said Gleason, who said state lawmakers may have to determine the Sunshine Law's applicability.

Recent coverage

Regents approve pay packages (February 15, 2001)

http://www.sptimes.com/News/021401/State/Perks_await_college_l.shtml (February 15, 2001)

Questions surround university reform (February 5, 2001)

Graham starts push to preserve Board of Regents (February 1, 2001)

Abolishing regents ignores history (January 14, 2001)

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