The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


June 24, 2013

Joe Hadsall, columnist: Sunshine Law is a guiding light for next search

— Although it was almost six years ago, it seems like yesterday when Missouri Southern State University searched for a president to replace Julio Leon. I was covering the education beat for The Joplin Globe then and followed the search closely.

Now that the university is at square one to replace fired president Bruce Speck, the hiring process used to find him will be in the spotlight.

In a nutshell: A committee of about 15 faculty members, staff and community professionals sifted through 41 applications and narrowed the field to two finalists.

One of those finalists, Joe Wiley, accepted a position as president of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn. — a post he still holds. Speck, the other finalist, was interviewed and eventually hired.

In re-reading the stories I filed, I can see where Monday-morning quarterbacks can point out certain decisions as key plays, such as the unwillingness to hire a headhunting firm, the decision to name only two finalists and the lack of replacement for Wiley.

But two red flags are largely left out of that discussion: two apparent violations of Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

Twice the university’s Board of Governors stretched the intent of the law and used it to keep certain details of the search away from public view.

On Aug. 17, 2007, the Board of Governors went into closed session to name the members of the presidential search committee.

Then-chairman Dwight Douglas argued that because there was a need for a frank discussion about the members, board members could discuss prospects, inform them of their selection and confirm their participation before being publicly named.

He and the board’s counsel, attorney Jon Dermott, believed then that the personnel exemption of the Sunshine Law applied.

The only problem is that none of those people on the search committee were paid employees of the university. The law allows meeting closure only to discuss hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting employees.

Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association, and Charles Davis, of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, both noted the straightforward language of the personnel provision and how it clearly didn’t apply to people who volunteered for an ad hoc committee.

I can understand how choosing committee members would be loaded with political and personal ramifications.

But it raises the question: Why did committee members need to be cherry-picked in this manner?

They all served as volunteers out of their devotion for the university.

Anyone willing to go through the long, detailed process of analyzing so many candidates should be welcomed aboard, instead of vetted in a secret meeting.

In January 2008, the board apparently violated the law again. During a news conference on Jan. 9, Douglas announced that the board had discussed on Oct. 19, 2007, the hiring of a background-checking firm in closed session.

Again, the board used a flimsy connection to the entire presidential search in order to justify the closed-door, privately made decision. Douglas said that because the board was talking about the whole procedure, they had the right to be secretive about which firm would perform background checks on finalists for the position.

However, the law is specific — both Maneke and Davis said then that hiring a firm is not a personnel matter, it’s a purchasing matter.

Those firms aren’t employees of the university, they are contracted service providers. And those are generally up for discussion, and subject to bidding procedures.

The mystifying thing about this apparent violation is that there was no real need for MSSU to be so secretive about this matter.

It’s easy to cast judgment on that search process when we know how the story unfolded. That old maxim about hindsight is certainly true.

Missouri’s Sunshine Law is a guiding light for the next search committee.

The board needs to follow the spirit of the law: Pull back the curtains, open the windows and illuminate every aspect of the upcoming search.

Joe Hadsall is features editor for the Globe.

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