A Chicago-based public relations firm has been working this month to help the College of DuPage board respond to controversies at the Glen Ellyn campus.
But college trustees didn't formally sign off on the hiring of Res Publica Group until Thursday night.
And when they did, one trustee criticized the move by the board's legal counsel, Franczek Radelet, to retain Res Publica without first getting board approval.
"They should not be hiring a public relations firm at all," Trustee Kathy Hamilton said. "The public relations firm should be hired by the college, if we feel we need one -- not through the lawyers. So it's absurd. It's just absurd."
Despite Hamilton's opposition, board members voted 6-1 Thursday night to ratify and approve the retention of Res Publica Group by Franczek Radelet. Hamilton is the only trustee who voted "no."
A college spokesman said Franczek Radelet retained Res Publica on March 1. The college will be billed $250 an hour for the public relations firm's services.
Officials justified the need for hiring Res Publica by saying there's been "increased media and public interest on various topics which are related to and/or affect the college's legal matters."
COD has been dealing with a firestorm of controversy over the $762,868 retirement buyout of school President Robert Breuder's contract. That deal has prompted several state legislators to propose new laws to prevent other public institutions from approving similar agreements.
There's also been oversight questions raised since a former COD employee was charged last month with felony theft, accused of stealing from the campus radio station.
"I think it's clear that there is a need for a PR firm to help the public understand what the true facts are," board Chairman Erin Birt said. "And I think under the circumstances that we find ourselves in, that is beneficial for the community so that we don't have those that keep spinning things."
But with Franczek Radelet hiring Res Publica, Hamilton said board members and the public may not be able to find out about the specific work the public relations firm is doing.
"It's a way of us paying for something where the information is not accessible to the people that are paying for it," Hamilton said.
Hamilton already has demanded to see "every piece of paper, such as the contract and all emails" that led to the hiring.
In a March 1 letter to attorney Respicio Vazquez of Franczek Radelet, Res Publica President Guy Chipparoni said the firm will provide the board with "communications counsel including message strategy and media relations."
"Our services may also include efforts on behalf the College of DuPage and its Foundation if there is a crossover and such services are requested by the board of trustees," Chipparoni wrote.
However, it was revealed Thursday that another firm, Chicago-based Mac Strategies Group Inc., has been retained to provide public relations services to the college's foundation, which raises money to increase educational and cultural opportunities for the college community.
Although his firm didn't have a signed contract Thursday night, Matt Butterfield said there's a "verbal agreement" and that the foundation will pay for the services.
"There would be no public dollars that would pay for our services," Butterfield said. "This would be strictly through funds from the foundation."
The main college board voted to hire the public relations firm after hearing some attendees criticize the move. Laura Reigle said it wasn't necessary to hire the firm if the college was still going to employ its current public relations employee, spokesman Joseph Moore.
"You are in essence if you approve this tonight giving a blank check to a PR firm," Reigle said.
Claire Ball, a candidate running for the college board, said hiring a public relations firm would be the wrong move.
"This is the wrong way to handle the problems at COD," Ball said. "When there is a problem, the problem itself needs to be addressed and not just the symptoms. Being honest and forthright with the community from this point on is the best way to recover from the negative images you're facing."
State Rep. Jeanne Ives also criticized the hiring of a public relations firm, saying she found out the firm already was doing work on the board's behalf before trustees approved the hiring.
"That PR firm is already backchanneling information to other folks," Ives said. "I find it outrageous, crazy that you would allow this to happen."