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ECC is making a commendable start in responding to scathing state audit

Erie Community College officials have already taken one admirable step following a scathing state audit that identified secretive actions by top officials.

Trustees met last week and started to make good on promises of the heightened level of transparency that the public deserves.

The report by the office of State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found that senior executives received unauthorized raises and bonuses of more than $100,000 between 2012 and 2015, and that contractors were hired without seeking competitive bids and, in some cases, without having written contracts.

The audit pointed to lax oversight by the board of trustees that allowed President Jack F. Quinn Jr. to make important financial decisions behind closed doors.

Trustees are tackling the transparency issue first. Last week’s meeting included a court reporter who recorded the session with verbatim notes. Those will be transcribed, according to Chairman Stephen Boyd, and made available on the Internet for public study.

That is a far cry from the recent past, when the board took only rough minutes of its meetings and did not make even that information available to the public. And Boyd plans to take public access to another level soon by streaming trustee meetings live on the Internet.

This turn of a new leaf is welcome. Although board member Susan Schwartz questioned the necessity of a court reporter, the actions of the board and the college had been questioned. The board had to have an answer, and one designed to erase any doubt.

The lack of transparency was just one problem reported by the Comptroller’s Office. Besides the unauthorized raises and bonuses and the questionable hiring of contractors, 10 senior executive staff positions had been created over a five-year period without any written justification for the hires.

These are serious allegations, and the board has until April 14 to devise a “corrective action plan” to implement 22 recommendations in the audit. College officials remain steadfast in disputing the characterization of the board as lax in its fiduciary oversight. However, they have promised to act on the report’s findings.

The board’s new transparency is part of that. To review the audit and make recommendations for fixes, board member Dennis P. Murphy is looking to establish a “blue-ribbon” group with a majority of members from outside the board and college. The board plans to hire an administrator on a short-term basis to coordinate documents and organize meetings, and outside legal counsel will be sought.

The newest trustee, Timothy Callan, deputy budget director for Erie County, is already making his presence felt. His persistent line of questioning about operations has garnered attention and the encouragement of the board chairman. Such tough questions over the past few years might have kept ECC off the comptroller’s radar.

Officials are taking the right approach by improving transparency and creating a corrective plan.

ECC is beset by declining enrollment and a budget deficit, despite several tuition increases. The necessity of reacting to the audit was a distraction from those fundamental issues.