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Ken Hare In Depth: Who is really in charge at ASU?

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

When a federal appeals court recently ruled against Alabama State University for sexual harassment involving some top officials, it had some harsh words for the leadership at ASU. In scathing comments in its ruling, the federal panel went so far as to write: "We are left to speculate who is in charge at ASU."

After a heated meeting of the ASU board of trustees called this week by Gov. Robert Bentley, Alabamians who foot much of the bill for the operation of ASU can only speculate along with the federal judges about who is really running ASU.

ASU's failure to provide complete public records in a timely fashion to the governor's office -- or to the public -- underscores the question of who is actually running ASU. Despite claims by key administrators and several trustees that they believe in "transparency" in the operation of ASU, the university's actions show that just the opposite is happening.

By hiring a retired federal judge and paying him $375 per hour to serve as a gatekeeper to prevent unfettered access to public records involving how ASU conducts public business and handles public money, the ASU trustees essentially have tried to wash their hands of the issue and let their lawyer make the decisions.

Which again raises the question of who is in charge. Does attorney U.W. Clemon work for the board, or does the board work for Clemon? Or does Clemon work for a few board members and administrators intent on blocking public access instead of the board as a whole?

At the board meeting this week, attorney Clemon took the floor to claim both that he has not blocked access to records, but also that he did so based on attorney-client privilege.

Clemon's claims were skewered by the governor's chief legal adviser, David Byrne, who underscored a point I made in an earlier column when he said: "Let's please keep in mind that we're talking about public records. The public and the press have a right to those records."

That is the key point in this whole debate: These records don't belong to ASU administrators, nor do they belong to the ASU trustees, and they certainly don't belong to Clemon. They belong to the people of Alabama.

There has been criticism of Gov. Bentley for losing control of the ASU board meeting, and it is true that he stumbled on occasion. But in the end, he succeeded in focusing public attention on the considerable issues at ASU.

Thanks to wall-to-wall coverage of the board meeting by WSFA, the public got a rare glimpse of such a meeting in progress, and what they saw wasn't pretty. The first half-hour of the meeting was especially painful, taking almost all that time just to amend and approve an agenda -- which wasn't followed anyway.

But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the meeting was something that didn't happen. Despite all the rhetoric about transparency, not a single board member had the courage to make a motion to instruct their attorney to make all records requested by the governor available completely and immediately.

Such a motion, seconded and approved by the board, would have made it clear that a majority of the board truly believes in transparency and in the public's right to know how its business is being conducted and how its money is being handled. Anything less than that is just empty talk.

Such a motion, approved by the board, also would have made it clear who is running ASU. But without such board action, the question posed by the federal appeals court remains unanswered: Who is in charge at ASU?

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

Copyright 2013 WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.

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