College of Lake County board spent $110,000 on travel, food over two years
It wasn't the $1,198.73 the College of Lake County reimbursed Trustee Barb Oilschlager to drive to Boston and back.
It wasn't the $600 in airfare to fly Trustee Bill Griffin to Springfield twice.
It wasn't even the $40,000-plus the seven-member board spent in two years for hotels, including stays in Chicago, Lombard, St. Charles and Schaumburg.
What prompted tighter spending policies for the elected board at the Grayslake community college was a $128.87 bill for late-night snacks at a downtown Chicago hotel.
"That was the first item I refused to sign off on and a stalemate went on for two months," said Chairman Amanda Howland, who joined the board in 2009 and ascended to the leadership post last year.
While the College of Lake County board has racked up nearly $110,000 in expenses over the past two years, it was Trustee Rich Anderson's "appetizers" receipt from the Coq d'Or at Chicago's Drake Hotel at 10:15 p.m. June 7, 2013, on Anderson's wife's credit card that caused Howland's consternation.
"Since I've been a board member, I've felt certain board members have forgotten we're on taxpayers' dollars and writing off more things than they should," she said. "I was having a little bit of trouble justifying some of the expenses."
The board chairman has sole discretion over board reimbursements.
Anderson defended the expense, saying he and his wife were meeting with officials from the state community college trustees association. However, the receipt doesn't list who was at the meeting, as required by the board's policies. Anderson said he was only following state law regarding expense reimbursements allowed to unpaid community college board members.
"I spend money and I'm out working on behalf of the college," he said. "Some of these places are expensive. Should we only eat at McDonald's?"
Eventually, Howland relented and approved the expense, but with the understanding that the board's expense policies would be revisited.
In the wake of that battle, the board approved new spending protocols earlier this year. Among the new guidelines are requirements for itemized receipts for all spending over $15 and no reimbursement for travel costs that fall "outside the attendance dates for conventions." It's the second time since 2008 that the board's expense reimbursement policies have been tightened.
"The attempt of the guidelines was to match what the (college's) employees have to do," said CLC President Jerry Weber.
But Howland said it's also an attempt to rein in spending of some of the trustees.
"I don't think it's fair for Rich Anderson to claim all of the expenses he's been claiming without an itemized receipt," she said. "I think you'll see costs coming down and more accountability in terms of receipts now."
Howland also took issue with Oilschlager's $27,374 in reimbursements covered by taxpayers over the past two years, according to expense reports from the college obtained by the Daily Herald through an open records request. It's the most of any board member during that time and $6,240 more than Anderson, who spent the second-highest amount at $21,134.
Oilschlager did not respond to numerous requests for comment about her expenditures.
Her expenses include $1,198.73 in mileage and toll reimbursements for driving from Chicago to a national conference in Boston and back in 2012. Oilschlager's trip began Oct. 2, although the conference didn't start until Oct. 10, according to the Association of Community College Trustees' website. Even though the conference concluded Oct. 13, Oilschlager didn't leave Boston until Oct. 16, according to the I-PASS records she submitted. She returned to the Chicago area the next day. Howland said those expenses were paid before she became chairman of the board.
"I would not have approved that," she said. "And that's exactly why I had the guidelines changed."
Oilschlager charged taxpayers for six hotel nights in Boston costing $1,847 on that trip. She also spent $283 in the past two years on tips to hotel maids, bellmen, valets and airport porters, according to her expense reports. None of those expenses were documented with receipts. Critics contend all reimbursed expenses should have receipts.
"The IRS isn't very happy when people submit expenses without receipts and we should hold elected officials to the same standard," said Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative organization that tracks and analyzes government spending. "When taxpayers are forced to give elected officials an all-expenses-paid trip, the officials on those trips could at least pick up their own tip. Here's an idea: Carry your own bag."
Howland noted that Oilschlager has missed board meetings because she spends much of the winter at a home in Florida when she isn't traveling on behalf of the CLC board.
"I am concerned about Barb spending most of her time in Florida," Howland said. "She misses meetings and it's difficult when weather conditions are bad for her to get back and forth."
Howland -- who was elected to her first term in 2009 and ascended to the chairmanship in 2013 amid an internal power struggle -- cost taxpayers $16,738 over the past two years. That includes roughly $500 for mileage reimbursements for in-district travel, occasionally including trips to and from board meetings, a practice the Illinois Policy Institute also criticizes.
"That's something that's always been provided," Howland said. "We have a number of campuses and we all come from such distant places."
However, much of the board's expense to taxpayers comes from lobbying efforts. More than a quarter of all the board's costs stem from trips to Washington and Springfield to lobby lawmakers for increased funding, greater autonomy from municipal zoning requirements and better credit flexibility for students within the state university system. Anderson believes it's more effective for lawmakers to hear from trustees directly.
"We are able to talk with legislators on a different level," he said. "When we're in Washington and Springfield and a group of us come in to talk to a legislator, it has an effect on them."
Despite the college having actual lobbyists on the payroll, Weber agrees that trustee visits with legislators are valuable.
"Our trustees tend to be more involved in professional associations and lobbying efforts," he said. "There is value in that."
While Howland also believes that lobbying efforts by the board provide value to the district, she also believes much of the travel costs could be scaled back.
"I would like to see more accountability for when people attend various functions," she said. "Because we're working with taxpayer dollars, we need to be accountable."