A bond measure donation from the Associated Students of Central Oregon Community College has come under scrutiny and the unclear relationship it illustrates has lead Central Oregon Community College into a series of discussions with the ASCOCC to try and define that relationshipCOCC’s student government donated $10,000 in 2009 to the Political Action Committee COCCYes! to help pass a bond measure that allocated $41.6 million to the college. The bond has since passed and construction is underway.
The donation is questionably legal and has contributed to the confusion surrounding the roles, responsibilities and relationship ASCOCC has with COCC.
The question of illegality stems from the fact that COCC is considered a public entity according to Oregon Revised Statutes and is prohibited from donating public money “to or on behalf of a candidate, political committee or measure.”
Public entities are also prohibited from advocating or working for the passing of a bond measure during work hours.
Yet it was COCC that authorized the student fee money transfer into ASCOCC’s account in order for the student government to write the check for the donation.
ASCOCC then donated and worked on the campaign using student fees. To do so legally would mean that they, or the student fees collected on their behalf, must be defined as separate from the college.
The definition of ASCOCC has been unclear, however, especially since the COCC board did not ratify the student fees when they were first instituted, according to public documents, and because of at least one policy’s ambiguous wording.
The lack of clarity worked to the advantage of the PAC members, who asked for the funds, and enabled ASCOCC to push the boundaries of their autonomy in a series of actions and expenditures.
Both COCC and ASCOCC have hired lawyers to aid in defining their relationship. ASCOCC has spent over $10,000 in student fees on both a lawyer and a PR consultant.
The relationship between COCC and ASCOCC
In interviews about a month apart during fall 2010, Jim Middleton, COCC’s president, and Terry Link, ASCOCC’s legislative coordinator, had very different views of where ASCOCC and COCC stood in relation to one another.
“ASCOCC is a separate entity … Are we or are we not subject to college policies and procedures, the college being a government entity … It says specifically that ASCOCC has elected to have student fees withheld from the students thereby those fees are not part of the college fund and are not subject to the college’s policies and procedure,” said Link in a Sept. 22, 2010 issue of The Broadside.
Middleton, however, believes the issue is more complex.
“ASCOCC is not independent of the college to the same extent as the chamber of commerce is independent of the college. It’s a range. It’s not a black and white, you’re autonomous or you’re not autonomous,” said Middleton in October, 2010.
How the donation came about
The COCCYes! campaign worked toward passing bond measure 9-73 in November, 2009. The measure passed resulting in $41.58 million in construction funds for COCC.
The chair of the PAC was Charley Miller, COCC’s current board of directors chair. Miller, who was already a board member at the time of the proposal, looked into fundraising for the PAC.
“In that time in 2009, the economy was really a scary time for business people,” said Miller in an October 2010 interview. “It was interesting. People who donated $2,500 the last campaign came back with $500. People with $1000 came back with $200. It’s a tough nut to ask people to donate when you are wondering if you’re going to be in business and at that particular point in time I think we all felt like the sky was falling … the economy was brutal.”
ASCOCC was approached for a donation to aid the PAC in the passing of the bond during tough economic times. However, no one was certain at the time whether the donation should be allowed.
“With the autonomy that that group had, making their own decisions at the time, we actually did not accept it [the donation] until we got an okay saying it was okay,” said Miller.
It was COCC’s lawyers that delivered the legal opinion as to whether ASCOCC could donate. In the email that outlines the legality of the decision there is no mention of COCCYes! paying for legal counsel.
The PAC was hoping to raise $18,326 and ASCOCC members approved a donation of $10,000, according to ASCOCC meeting minutes.
“We asked for their support; we did not mandate it; they concurred with support,” said Middleton in an Oct.14,2010 email to Alicia Moore , COCC’s dean of student and enrollment services.
ORS 260 states that public employees may not be “coerced commanded or required” to support a campaign during working hours.
Ron Paradis, COCC’s director of college relations, explained that Middleton used the term “we” because “some of us (college employees) did some work on the campaign on our own time.”
Although Middleton worked on COCCYes! off college time, as COCC’s president, he made the final decision to follow legal opinion and allow ASCOCC to donate $10,000 in student fees to COCCYes, said Paradis.
The legal opinion
An email dated Sept. 2, 2009 by Sharla Andresen, from the chief financial officer’s office, was sent to Link, COCC’s lawyer Ron Bryant and various members of the administration. Bryant gave the legal opinion that the donation was legal. This does not mean that it was, indeed, legal.
Andresen’s email states that after consulting with Byrant, Link and Gordon Price, the ASCOCC’s advisor at the time, “students may give any amount of funds to the COCCYes! Advocacy group supporting the bond campaign.”
The email cited sections of the ASCOCC’s constitution as information to use should the action be questioned. The student government has since reworked their constitution and it was voted on and passed in April 2010.
Andresen’s email also said Dave Dona and Lisa Bloyer, from COCC’s fiscal services, confirmed that “COCC is simply a clearing house for these funds (student fees) as they are paid when the students pay their tuition.”
“They (Paradis and Middleton) asked for a legal opinion and I responded,” said Andresen.
There was then a decision to act on that legal opinion.
The question that came to the college asked “‘was it legal to produce that check?’” said Paradis. “We determined that it was.”
“And we still think it was. We’re not as clear as we were then because we have seen different sorts of opinions,” he said.
“They [the lawyers] need to speak to what their legal aspect of it was,” said Middleton in October 2010.
Bryant is now on vacation until early March and repeated calls to the firm were not answered.
“They don’t intend to (call you back),” said Paradis. “There is nothing to clarify from their standpoint.”
Legality not black and white
A document request revealed a draft copy of a summary of legal issues and questions made in counsel with Meg Kieran, an attorney hired by COCC “to assist in clarifying various issues surrounding student government and student fees.” The draft is part of an email from Moore to various members of the COCC administration. The email is dated September 24, 2010.
“Student fees are considered public funds and as such must be expended in a manner consistent with applicable laws. Supported by ORS,” stated the draft. “As per well established case law, student fees may only be used for content neutral activity. The contribution to the COCCYes campaign falls outside of this scope. The college (or other entity) may need to rectify this contribution.”
ASCOCC also worked on the campaign advocating for the measure’s adoption and, according to minutes, planned to hire 15-20 students to work on committees.
Kieran did not return phone calls or respond to emails.
“The law is very debatable,” said Moore.
Paradis agreed with Moore.
“When we discussed it in 2009, we had nobody telling us that it was illegal,” said Paradis. “I can see, now, anybody being able to make a clear argument in either direction on this one.”
Rectifying the situation
“I learned yesterday that the donation that ASCOCC made to COCCYes! during the bond campaign may be in violation of some rule or statute,” said Charley Miller in an email dating Oct.14,2010.
Miller states his recollection that the issue was run past legal counsel before being accepted.
“I’m not sure what the correct course of action is,” Miller says. “I’m willing to help rectify the situation if it needs to be.”
ASCOCC and COCC have entered into a series of conversations that are expected to reach points of understanding by mid-March, according to Moore.