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HomeArchives$27,000 Is it a fair use of your student fees?

$27,000 Is it a fair use of your student fees?

In the past six months, the Associated Students of Central Oregon Community College spent more than $27,000 in student fees on a lawyer and a public relations consultant.

Tobey Veenstra
The Broadside

Editors note: The following story is the result of a month-long examination by The Broadside of COCC and its student government relating to the matter in which student fees are being used. Based on e-mails, budget documents, campaign contributions and expenditures, along with interviews, this is our analysis.

When you write a check for tuition at COCC, part of that money goes to ASCOCC. If you are a full-time student, you paid $18 this term. Those fees are considered public funds according to the Oregon Attorney General’s Office.

However, an investigation by The Broadside reveals that tens of thousands of dollars have been spent in a manner that appears more private than public. For example:

• $2,218 for a student leadership retreat in Vernonia. Some of ASCOCC’s members paid for hotel rooms even though lodging was provided. Some also skipped conference sessions to go to the coast.

• $19,357 paid to the boyfriend of an ASCOCC member to create Facebook videos and other social media-related work over a 12-month period.

• $10,000 to COCC Yes, a political campaign advocating passage of a measure for new buildings and classrooms on campus.

• $27,000 for an attorney who charges nearly $300 an hour and a PR consultant who charges nearly $200 an hour.

Because student government members do not regularly post written records, or minutes, of their meetings, it is difficult to tell whether additional public funds were
spent questionably. Meeting minutes of governing bodies must be accessible to the public, according to ORS 192.650. The minutes ASCOCC does post lack information
required by the state law. Their last minutes post was more than a year ago, on Feb. 5, 2010.

There is a side of ASCOCC that acts like a student government. The group allocates student fees to fund programs, clubs and campus events such as the culinary program, intramural sports, the Brew Club and free bowling nights. Members set budgets and vote on allocations at their Friday meetings, which are open to the public.

But there is also the side that acts more like a private organization, as demonstrated by a pattern of questionable spending, a failure to post meeting minutes and a resistance to turn over their expense documents.

Resisting document requests
Last term, ASCOCC resisted providing financial records after The Broadside requested them. Correspondence reveals that this prompted discussion among COCC administrators.

“As a public body ASCOCC should follow the public records laws just as the school does,” wrote COCC’s student life director and former ASCOCC advisor Gordon Price in an e-mail to several college administrators on Sept. 30, 2010. “ASCOCC has had the training, it is just a continuation of their unwillingness to be responsive, reasonable and accountable.”

Taran Underdal, ASCOCC’s current advisor, agreed with Price’s statement.

“I … echo Gordon’s statement that it is often times ASCOCC finds ways around these (public record laws) and don’t always follow procedure,” added Underdal in an e-mail to the administrators.

COCC administrators finally provided the records after the District Attorney’s office contacted them.

After COCC provided the records, ASCOCC issued an Oct. 11, 2010 memorandum with concerns over potential “inaccurate interpretation” of their financial documents.
That day Moore requested time with ASCOCC members for her and another administrator to “discuss the relationship between student governments and colleges/universities,” according to an e-mail sent by her on Oct. 11, 2010.

The next day, the student government responded that it would like to postpone that meeting until a later time. More than two hours earlier, ASCOCC voted to hire attorney Lynch and PR consultant Simmons.

A need for counsel?
During the meeting, ASCOCC members didn’t allow the public to question this use of student fees. The reasons for hiring the counsel were also not immediately provided to COCC officials and concerns soon followed.

Around two hours after ASCOCC’s meeting to hire the attorney and the PR consultant, COCC Dean Alicia Moore wrote an e-mail to Dr. Jim Middleton, COCC’s president, saying COCC lawyer Ron Bryant “knows the attorney, believes he is a good attorney, but is one that has a propensity for taking on lawsuits.”

PR consultant Simmons said Lynch was chosen to protect student fees and interests while ensuring procedures remained within college policy and legal structure.
“Greg Lynch is probably one of the best litigators in the state,” said Simmons in a recent interview. “I’d sure hate to have an attorney that’s two years out of law school try to figure out the complications of this [process].”

Moore also told Middleton about the possibility of ASCOCC hiring Simmons for a PR campaign.

“They also met separately with India [Simmons] in a closed door meeting (they literally locked the door and would not allow Taran [Underdal] in the room),” wrote Moore in the email. “The best Taran could glean is that they may be hiring India to do a PR campaign to stress ‘how the College used them [ASCOCC] to win the bond campaign.'”

Simmons’ past work with COCC
During COCC Yes, Simmons and COCC Board member Charley Miller came to ASCOCC proposing that the members make a donation to the bond campaign from their budget, according to ASCOCC meeting minutes dated August 27, 2009.

Since the ethics of donating public money were debatable, COCC officials first asked for legal opinion. COCC’s lawyer gave his opinion that the donation was legal.
Simmons’ firm made $10,909.28 for PR “management services” for the political campaign COCC Yes, according to records on file at ORESTAR, Oregon’s campaign database.

The donation from ASCOCC was closer to $30,000 according to Simmons.

The legality of the donation has since been debated by COCC officials, an editorial in The Bulletin and Meg Kieran, an attorney hired by COCC to clarify the student government’s responsibilities.

Regardless of whether the donation was ethical, COCC President Middleton was appreciative of its donation.

“As far as the bond campaign is concerned, the student support was very positive and is something to be honored,” said Middleton in an Oct. 13, 2010 email to Moore. “The positive value of that support does not mean that they get a pass on other inappropriate actions.”

Simmons’ present work with ASCOCC
Although her hiring was officially announced in October, Simmons began working for ASCOCC on Aug. 23, 2010 and began billing on Sept. 1, according to an invoice sent from her to student government member Terry Link.

Simmons contacted COCC Board member Miller on Sept. 13, 2010, according to e-mails acquired by The Broadside. Simmons informed him that ASCOCC members might be contacting him for a meeting in an e-mail. Miller forwarded this to Middleton, raising concern that she “may be stirring the pot.”

Two days after student government members hired Lynch and Simmons, COCC Board member Miller received an e-mail from Simmons saying she hoped both the student government and the college could come to an agreement.

“It is one of those issues that could turn out really well for everyone – or turn nuclear,” she also wrote.

Middleton responded to Miller that he was concerned about the path ASCOCC was heading down. Additionally, “As a PR person, India [Simmons] is certainly aware how things could blow up in their faces if they head down a path where there is reality or appearance of legal, ethical, or stewardship problems,” he wrote.

Simmons, however, said legal representation and PR counsel was important for the process of clarification and definition.

“ASCOCC…wanted to ensure that all of the students of ASCOCC benefitted from a revised constitution,” said Simmons. “They have a plan that they feel is important for all the students”

Over $27,000 later
Closed-door conversations to define the role and responsibilities of the student government continue, with more than $27,000 spent in student fees so far. ASCOCC has paid that amount to attorney Lynch and PR consultant Simmons to reportedly help them negotiate with COCC administrators.

In the meantime, ASCOCC leaders and COCC officials are quiet about how much progress is being made and why such a large amount of student fees is being used for the process.

“We have all agreed for the integrity of the process to continue, not to speak to the media during our negotiations and about that progress,” wrote ASCOCC member Pierce in a response. “It is difficult to discuss the importance of the services of Miller Nash (Lynch’s firm) or India Simmons without discussing the process and the ongoing discussions with the college.”

COCC’s director of college relations Ron Paradis said both groups agreed to make the meetings private so they would be “free to discuss openly.”

While Lynch and Simmons were not directly involved in the meetings, they did reveal details and expectations of the outcome.

“I think that the … final outcome is going to be remarkable,” said Simmons. “We will see. I could be wrong, but I’d put a dollar on it.”

In an article with The Bulletin, Lynch said the groups discussed establishing a budget overview committee for ASCOCC, increasing the minimum amount of credits ASCOCC members must be enrolled in from one to six and setting term limits.

Simmons said legal representation and PR counsel is an important part of the process.

“ASCOCC…wanted to ensure that all of the students of ASCOCC benefitted from a revised constitution,” said Simmons. “They have a plan that they feel is important for all the students”

With no set resolution date and no knowledge of the process, students will have to wait to see if the plan was worth more than $27,000 in student fees.

Tobey Veenstra may be contacted at tveenstra@cocc.edu

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