Gov. Rick Scott today is urging the Florida A&M University’s board of trustees to require a recently created anti-hazing committee to do its work in public.
Scott sent the trustees a letter Tuesday urging them to reverse their decision last week to let the committee meet in private, a move designed to help the group to work more quickly but which also allows members to skirt Florida’s broad open-government, or “Sunshine,” laws.
Two other organizations — the State University System and the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation —sent similar letters this week.
Trustees formed the committee of seven national experts to help FAMU stop hazing in the months after the beating death of drum major Robert Champion in Orlando on Nov. 19.
But the panel, aiming to help FAMU implement changes before the fall semester, wants to simply gather research about successful anti-hazing programs at other schools and allow trustees to make their own recommendations for how FAMU should move forward.
In his letter, Scott said he was “extremely concerned” about the committee discussing university business outside a meeting that is open to the public.
Meanwhile, trustees have called a special meeting for Friday afternoon to discuss the anti-hazing committee. It is not yet clear whether Chairman Solomon Badger will recommend that trustees follow Scott’s advice. Badger could not be reached for comment.
A few months ago, the governor was widely criticized for interjecting himself by calling for the university president’s suspension while law enforcement investigated Champion’s death and two other issues at the Tallahassee-based, public university.
Trustees shrugged off his recommendation days later.
Last fall, Scott also directed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to help the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in its investigation of Champion’s death. FDLE also began to investigate fraud. Agents said the probe involves potentially thousands of dollars in bogus travel per-diem payments to members of the school’s famed marching band.
The state agency already had been looking into allegations of child sexual abuse at a grade-school program operated on the FAMU campus.
While no one has been charged yet with Champion’s death, investigators forwarded the case earlier this week to the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office.
Meanwhile, the university has suspended the marching band indefinitely, canceled this year’s Summer Band Camp and called off recruiting activities for all student organizations until fall 2012.
Scott said trustees should reconsider their decision about their anti-hazing committee “in the interest of openness, transparency and Government-in-the-Sunshine.”
“Who will monitor whether the members are toggling between fact-finding and possible policy and procedural changes that would make such a meeting subject to Florida’s Sunshine Laws?,” he wrote. “The safer course, and more in keeping with the view that Florida government proceedings should be done in the Sunshine, would be to have all Committee meetings noticed and open to the public.”
If the expert committee gives up its advisory role and does not make recommendations for how to fight hazing at FAMU, the original value of the committee’s findings might be lost, said Dean Colson, chairman of the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System.
In a letter Colson sent to Badger on Thursday, he stressed that the need for transparency outweighs the challenge involved with following Florida’s broad open-government laws.
“Further,” Colson wrote, “the need for transparency is particularly heightened in this situation because hazing is an activity normally conducted under a cloak of secrecy, and — rightly or wrongly — the university has been accused of failing to take sufficient action to prevent and/or respond to well-chronicled hazing-related activities.”
On March 23, trustees voted 7-2 to change the committee’s role during a teleconference.
During the meeting, trustee Rufus Montgomery had said he feared the move would lead to more complaints that FAMU wasn’t openly dealing with hazing.
“There they go again, trying to keep this thing together, bottled up in secrecy,” Montgomery said critics could say.
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