College of DuPage trustees pledge to continue boycott
Three trustees say they will continue boycotting College of DuPage board meetings until a new chairperson is elected -- effectively ensuring a lack of a quorum and making it impossible for the increasingly dysfunctional board to conduct business.
The boycott by Erin Birt, Dianne McGuire and Joseph Wozniak began Thursday when they refused to attend the first scheduled meeting since Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton unexpectedly stepped down on Dec. 13, leaving a 3-3 split on what already had been a deeply divided seven-member panel.
The move came one day after the state's largest community college announced it has been placed on two years' probation by the Higher Learning Commission. The accreditation agency issued a scathing report that, among other things, blasted the COD board for its inability to work together.
If the board doesn't have a quorum for future meetings, it won't be able to address finding Hamilton's replacement; naming a new board chairperson; moving forward with its search to find a president to replace Robert Breuder; or other key tasks such as entering into contracts and paying large bills.
Meanwhile, McGuire acknowledged Friday that the meeting her faction wants to elect a new chairperson likely would be fruitless with the current divisions on the board.
"I think it would be doubtful today," McGuire said when asked if she believes board members could come to an agreement on who should lead them.
Instead, the three boycotting trustees appear to be banking on the fact the next board meeting isn't scheduled until Jan. 21.
"We have time to consider what goes forward," McGuire said.
McGuire said she's awaiting a response from members of the other board faction -- Vice Chairman Deanne Mazzochi, Frank Napolitano and Charles Bernstein. She said she wants to know if "they are willing to discuss the issues that have separated us over the past seven months." Mazzochi, Napolitano and Bernstein were elected together in April as part of the "Clean Slate" and had been closely aligned with Hamilton.
On Monday, McGuire sent a letter to trustees requesting two items be added to the agenda for Thursday night's board meeting:
• A vote to terminate the appointments of three law firms representing the college -- Rathje & Woodward, Schiff Hardin, and Schuyler, Roche & Crisham.
• A vote to restart the search for a new college president even though a search committee already had hosted a pair of public forums.
"If they (Mazzochi, Napolitano and Bernstein) are willing to work with us, those issues need to be addressed," McGuire said.
But neither of those items appeared on the agenda.
Tensions then escalated on Tuesday when McGuire and Birt said Mazzochi wanted to have them arrested because they took copies of legal invoices off campus.
"Why would she (Mazzochi) attempt to order the arrest of two trustees reviewing legal invoices in preparation of an upcoming meeting?" Birt said in a statement Friday. She said the incident was "one of many reasons" why Thursday's meeting should have been canceled and rescheduled.
"If the formerly called 'Clean Slate' wants civility and to talk and work together, a written agenda must be reflective of those statements," Birt said. "What we learned, however, is that it appears Mazzochi's definition of 'civility' is to order the arrest of two trustees, which is absurd, and stonewall half of a board from placing items on an agenda."
In an email sent Saturday to the Daily Herald, Mazzochi strongly denied there was any threat of an arrest.
"At no time did I direct, advise or suggest to anyone that trustees be arrested, detained or otherwise encumbered in their persons," she said.
COD's acting interim President Joseph Collins, who witnessed what happened Tuesday, released a statement Saturday saying, "I certainly don't remember Vice Chairman Mazzochi ordering me to have the other two trustees arrested."
As for items not appearing on Thursday night's agenda, Mazzochi said she previously asked Birt to limit that meeting to "essential, but noncontroversial, nuts-and-bolts items we routinely see." Mazzochi proposed that "disputed issues" be addressed during the January meeting.
"Trustee Birt instead proposed new controversial demands," Mazzochi said Saturday. "While that is her prerogative, problematically she refused to submit -- despite my request she do so -- the specific proposed resolution and action language that is part and parcel of the legal agenda and meeting notice we give the public."
The two sides have vastly differing views on whether Mazzochi, as vice chairman of the board, should assume the chairman's role vacated by Hamilton or if an organizational meeting should be held to allow the six trustees to try to come to a consensus on who should lead them.
COD attorney Tim Elliott said there's no provision -- either in state law or in school policy -- that provides for an organizational meeting to occur at any point other than in April of each year.
"It is my opinion as the college's general counsel that until April the vice chairman, Deanne Mazzochi, fulfills the duties of the Chairman Kathy Hamilton in her absence," Elliott said Thursday night. "And that in April, there will be a new organizational meeting at which point the then, hopefully, seven trustees will elect new officers."
McGuire, Birt and Wozniak disagree.
On Thursday, they sent a letter to Collins saying they refuse to attend any meetings until an organizational meeting is held to elect a new chairperson. They want the organizational meeting to be held "as soon as possible."
"I take my role very seriously at the college and have always performed my due diligence," McGuire said Friday. "This was a very difficult step to take, but one that we felt had to be done."
But members of the other faction said it's difficult to move ahead if McGuire, Birt and Wozniak don't attend meetings.
"Speaking directly to the three (absent) trustees, I have tried to reach out to you and I will continue to try to reach out to you for the sake of the college," Bernstein said at Thursday's meeting, where he and Mazzochi and Napolitano took public comment. "I want to work with you. I will do my best to work with you. But I can't work with you if you're not here. Please don't hold the college hostage."
On Saturday, Mazzochi renewed her call for the entire board to "recommit to civility and constructive actions."
"We cannot be cavalier with our students' education or employees' livelihoods; they've already paid a steep price for being collateral damage to these immaterial arguments," she said.
She said there's no time to waste.
Indeed, the board has until Feb. 11 to appoint a trustee to replace Hamilton. The new trustee would serve until the next consolidated election in April 2017 -- and likely wind up serving as the tiebreaking vote on many issues.
If the six remaining trustees can't agree on someone by the February deadline, the chairman of the Illinois Community College Board -- Lazaro Lopez -- will pick the new trustee.
But the COD board can't find a new trustee -- or perform other key tasks -- unless a majority of members agree to have meetings and provide the necessary quorum.
If the board doesn't meet, acting interim President Collins said the college can't approve academic programs, enter into contracts or pay bills of more than $25,000.
In the meantime, Collins said he is tackling issues he has the authority to address.
On Wednesday, for example, he notified members of his senior management team that the college is returning to its standard practice of communicating with the board. Any contact from a trustee asking or directing an administrator to do something, "or provide any information of consequence," should be redirected to him, Collins wrote.
"Under Chairman Hamilton, Chairman Hamilton's board was overly involved in the operations," Collins said Friday. "Now that Chairman Hamilton has resigned, I thought it would be a great opportunity to begin a best practice for board governance and community college operations."
Collins also has posted openings for both an interim chief financial officer and interim controller.
Currently, the responsibilities of those financial positions are being handled by Alix Partners, a firm brought in to replace the former CFO and controller -- Thomas Glaser and Lynn Sapyta -- who were both fired this fall.
Collins said part of the president's job is to hire all the other administrators. So he's going to hire the interim CFO and the interim controller, even though the board hired a search firm to find a permanent CFO and controller.
"It's what I wanted to do even when Kathy Hamilton was the chair, but Kathy didn't want to do that," Collins said. "As soon as Kathy resigned, I just thought, 'Let's go ahead and do it.'"
Collins stressed that the board shouldn't be involved in hiring any employee at the college other than the president. "The basic rule of all community college boards is they only have one employee," he said.