FAMU search committee members unhappy with open meeting laws

Members of the search committee during Tuesday’s Zoom meeting. Photo by Tanzania Ralph

Members of the search committee to nominate candidates to be the next dean for FAMUs School of Nursing appeared decidedly uncomfortable Tuesday talking in public during a public meeting.

Several members of the committee voiced concerns about naming the four finalists who they had interviewed earlier this month, and requested a separate private meeting so they could speak candidly.

Cynthia Hughes Harris, dean of the School of Allied Health Sciences and chair of the search committee, informed members that a private session would be a violation of the state’s open meeting laws. Legal counsel supported her assessment.

In previous committee meetings the identity of the candidates was not kept from anyone watching on Zoom, but on Tuesday the candidates were assigned numbers and their names were not revealed.

During the meeting private chats took place among some committee members that werent open for all viewers to see or hear, and only committee meeting members had access to the true identities for the numbered candidates, the scoring and the comments made about each candidate.

These details werent given to those attending the meeting, but each member had their own general and specific information that guided their decision when asked by Hughes Harries if they wanted to bring three candidates or four to be interviewed by the provost.

Before they came to a consensus, Hughes Harris asked if they would decide publicly or privately.

Schedule another meeting if we find out from general counsel that we indeed can have a private search committee session. We would have to find that out,” Hughes Harrissaid.

Members voiced their concerns about the privacy of the meeting and declined to choose between nominating three or four candidates. Committee members displayed more concern about the privacy of their comments regarding the candidates than actually choosing the candidates to bring forward to the provost.

The focus os the meeting  appeared to changefrom decision-making to protecting their personal opinions. The focus was no longer on the candidates but on who was attending the public Zoom meeting and if it was safe to give their honest opinion.

Hughes Harris attempted to shift the focus back to choosing three out of four finalists, and asked for members to be vocal. Committee member Johnnie Early was one of the members who didnt want to give his final judgment on the candidates due to privacy reasons.

There is some background information that you have given us in the past that I dont have that you probably dont want to state. I cant make a declaration,” Early said. Some committee members appeared to snicker at his comment and agreed with his position.

Committee member Sevilla Bronson said that she and others would speak freely if  the meeting was private. She gave an example of how things were handled privately in a previous search committee that she was part of.

Im just feeling that some people may want to say something that they arent saying,” Bronsonsaid.

This prompted Hughes  Harris to get more information to determine if a private meeting could be held in order to satisfy the committee members’ privacy concerns.

She turned away from the camera to make a call to the general counsel’s office. She said one of the school’s attorneys, who was referred to as Thomas, had advised her and the entire committee that they could not make the meeting private and be in compliance with Florida statutes.

We cannot go into executive session because there are no statutory exemptions that are applicable to this session,” Thomas said, according to Hughes Harris.

After it was decided that the session had to remain public, members of the committee started to speak less when Hughes Harris asked questions in an effort to reach consensus on the candidates.

As soon as she asked for members to turn their mutes off and to speak, no one did. Every committee member stared blankly at their cameras as if they were waiting for someone else to step up after their push for a private meeting was shut down.

After a period of silence, Hughes Harris suggested candidates 3, 18 and 23. The rest of the members one-by-one repeated those three numbers.

No one offered an explanation.

One member said he still didnt agree with making his own choice on which candidates to nominate due to the lack of privacy to discuss his thoughts.

I’ll be like Jesus, Ill be back. He couldnt save everybody so that means Im in support of whatever the committee wants. Ill leave it like that because we cant have a private session and other people can listen,” committee member Lekan Latinwo said.

The committee, following the lead of Hughes Harris, agreed to send the three candidates identified only by numbers for the provost to make a final decision on the School of Nursing’s next dean.