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Erie Community College faces criticism over state audit findings

The usually staid monthly meeting of the Erie Community College trustees included some edge and friction this week in the wake of a recent state audit that criticized them for lax oversight and lack of transparency.

The board met Thursday for the first time since the State Comptroller’s Office audit was released. The meeting featured an immediate change aimed at making the board’s actions more open to public scrutiny: A court reporter recorded the session with verbatim notes, which will be transcribed for the public.

“These transcripts will be available to the general public on the Internet,” said Stephen Boyd, board chairman.

Previously, the board took only rough minutes of its meetings and did not post them on the ECC website.

At least one board member appeared to be irked by the change.

“Are there any other colleges in the state that do this other than us?” asked Susan Schwartz, initiating a brief but testy exchange with Boyd.

Boyd replied by saying he didn’t think the addition of a court reporter was much of an inconvenience. Then he invited Schwartz to introduce a resolution if she had a problem with it.

After the meeting, Boyd said the board ultimately will aim to have its meetings streamed live on the Internet.

The audit concluded that the board allowed President Jack F. Quinn Jr. to make important financial decisions behind closed doors, compromising the transparency of the college’s operations.

Among other findings: senior executive staff at ECC received unauthorized raises and bonuses, the college hired contractors without seeking competitive bids, and the college created 10 senior executive staff positions over a five-year period without providing any written justification for the hires.

The board has until April 14 to come up with a “corrective action plan” to implement 22 recommendations in the audit.

While disputing that the board was lax in its oversight, college officials said they planned to develop a robust plan to correct shortcomings identified in the audit.

Board member Dennis P. Murphy will lead a working group to review the audit and create the corrective plan. Murphy said he was looking to establish a “blue-ribbon” group with a majority of members from outside the board and the college. The board will hire an administrator on a short-term basis to coordinate documents and organize meetings for the group, he said. Outside legal counsel also will be sought, Murphy said.

The newest addition to the board, Timothy Callan, deputy budget director for Erie County, also spiced up Thursday’s meeting, peppering fellow trustees and senior executive staff with questions about how the college operates. At one point, Callan even apologized for asking so many questions in his first meeting.

“Please don’t apologize for that,” Boyd said.

To which Callan responded: “You’ll rue the day you said that.”

At the end of the meeting, Kristin Klein Wheaton announced that she will leave her post as executive vice president for legal affairs to become a partner in a private law firm. Klein Wheaton was heavily involved in negotiations with the State Comptroller’s Office during and after the audit.

Later Thursday, Boyd, Quinn and William Reuter, ECC’s chief financial officer, were called to the chambers of the Erie County Legislature for legislators’ inquiries on the audit.

Legislators in December approved an increase in county funding for the college, where enrollment losses in recent years have squeezed finances. Some of the lawmakers were not pleased with the direction of the college.

“This is starting to become a theme,” said Patrick B. Burke, D-South Buffalo. “It’s always something negative. That’s got to change. It has to stop.”

Peter J. Savage III, D-Buffalo, also was critical of the college, saying the audit demonstrated “systemic issues” at ECC.

“A lot of the findings here were, in my opinion, symptoms of larger problems,” he said.

Boyd acknowledged the audit disrupted recent positive momentum at the college, including the resolution in November of contract negotiations with ECC’s two largest bargaining units. But he also disputed the audit’s contention that the board should have been more involved in making hires at the college.

The college’s Middle States accreditation was jeopardized in the past because board members had meddled too much in the operations, he said.

Quinn also told legislators he never acted without board authorization. He and the board didn’t always document those approvals well, he said.

“I can’t go out and hire people on my own and give raises. The board has to approve it,” he said.

The weak documentation “was never intentional,” he said, “and we aim to do better.”

Savage also questioned why the board needed to hire outside counsel for its corrective action plan. Boyd clarified that the board would seek volunteer legal assistance, rather than hiring a firm. The need for counsel was unrelated to the departure of Klein Wheaton, Boyd said. The working group will look for an outside, independent interpretation of how trustees should fulfill their roles in light of what appear to be conflicts between the comptroller’s findings and the bylaws of the State University of New York and the requirements of Middles States accreditation.

The panel, Boyd added, “should be independent of the college” so that people will feel free to criticize board members or senior executive staff.