By ALICIA LEONARD
During a special May 26 meeting of the Northwest Florida State College Board of Trustee’s, board members voted 5-2 to go the route of mediation in response to an administrative hearing request by embattled former college president Bob Richburg. The decision did not come easy to the board during the 90-minute meeting. Trustee legal counsel Joe Lorenz told the Board that they had the ability to enter mediation before requesting and assignment to an administrative law judge. In the notification of the request for an administrative hearing, Richburg’s attorney, Christopher M. Kise, stated that he believed Richburg’s termination for “good cause” had not been met by the Board. Richburg’s contract states that he may either quit his position or he could be fired for “failing or refusing to faithfully perform or diligently execute his duties of his employment.”
Richburg is requesting reinstatement, back pay, and expenses from the date of termination until the date of reinstatement. Lorenz told the board that he could not find any downside in mediation, “you’re not required to agree to anything.” The Board would also have more control over timing regarding meeting and agreements if they requested to enter into mediation with Richburg. “The law judge controls the time line if we involve him. He is not involved if we move to mediation first,” said Lorenze, who also reminded the Board that Richburg’s legal counsel would have to agree to their request for mediation or it would move forward to an administrative judge. “We have entered into the administrative process,” Lorenz told the Board and that the clock was ticking with the notification.
Richburg had 21 days from his dismissal date to request the hearing and the board had 10 to respond with an offer of mediation or 14 days to request the judicial route, according to Lorenz’s estimations. Lorenz also said that prior administrative hearings involving the college had been handled by him but, in this particular case, “I think any lawyer has to be concerned if they are going to be called as a witness in a case or not and, in this particular case, there is the possibility that one or both sides may call me as a witness. I can’t inject myself in the case, but in mediation I could still participate on behalf of the Board.” Lorenz also suggested that the Board consider hiring a public employee/ labor law attorney if the case proceeded to a judicial hearing. Lorenz said that the administrative law judge would hear the arguments laid out as if it was a court case, “He will make a recommendation after he hears the facts and from the witnesses. In a small number of cases, the decision of the Board or agency went against the recommendation and most of those were overturned on appeal.Very few have held up against the judge’s recommendation.”
Chairman Wesley Wilkerson stated that Lorenez was their attorney and, “I think, personally, we need to heed his advice. I think mediation is something we need to consider.”
Brian Pennington said, “I agree with Joe that it is an option, but I have been through mediation and it is not a good route, I have found. Both parties end up settling, but not in a place that satisfies either of them. I’m not convinced that that’s the right route for us.”
Board member Sandy Sims expressed concern over mediation in that she did not know if a mediator would totally side with one side or the other. “I think we did what we did because we thought it was right, but I don’t know if there is a chance a mediator will view it that way, because choosing to enter into mediation sounds like we are negotiating something,” she said.
Lorenz said, “That’s actually a sign of a good settlement, when neither side is very happy about it. Most judges will tell you, if neither one of you are happy about it, it must be a good settlement because nobody got everything they wanted.”
Interm President Jill White said she was not swaying the Board one way or another but, if they chose to enter into mediation, they could always walk away if they did not agree since it was not binding. Lorenz agreed with White’s assessment.
Sims asked if there was any way the Board could escrow the disputed dollar amounts and await the outcome of the indictment against Richburg. Lorenz responded that if both sides agreed to mediation, it would extend the time period by at least 60 days or longer. Lorenze also told the Board that there was an expectation of entering into mediation in good faith.
Wilkerson asked Board member Dale Rice Jr. what he thought about the request and Rice responded, “I don’t think I can really say what I think about this out loud. I think mediation is probably the best route for slowing the ball down, but I’ll go with whatever the board’s recommendation is.”
Vercell Vance and Elizabeth Campbell both agreed that mediation was the route they would option first. Brian Pennigton and Esteena Wells voting against mediation, in favor of an administrative judicial hearing on Richburg’s dismissal. The other five Board members voted to move toward mediation. The board voted unanimously to give White the authority to hire an attorney to deal with the administrative hearing if Richburg’s attorney did not respond to their request for mediation. A few days after this Trustee meeting, the Trustees met again for a special meeting on Tuesday, June 2, to discuss the Board’s options. In the interim, Lorenz was notified by attorney Christopher Kise that Dr. Richburg had agreed to mediation, so the mediation process has now begun in earnest.