Mazzochi and Napolitano talk board boycott

Kelly Wynne, Editor-In-Chief

“Clean Slate” board members Deanne Mazzochi, chairwoman, Frank Napolitano and Charles Bernstein have been the only trustees in attendance at the last seven meetings. Courier Editor-In-Chief Kelly Wynne sat down with Mazzochi and Napolitano on Jan. 28 to discuss the continuing lack of quorum, the appointment of a new trustee and the possibility of moving backward. The Courier has inquired about interviews with Trustees Erin Birt, Dianne McGuire and Joseph Wozniak, the three who have not been in attendance. As of print, the Courier has received no response.

Kelly Wynne: I’d like to start, just by talking about where your heads are at.

Deanne Mazzochi: I think in terms of where we are today, we need to think about where we were a year ago. Today [Jan. 28] is actually the one year anniversary of the second Breuder buyout vote, and I think back then we had a scenario where a wide range of members of the public showed up to express their concern and frustration. In particular, that the board was not being adequately responsive to their concerns. In terms of where we are today, I actually think we’ve made a lot of progress, notwithstanding the outcome from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), which for the most part dealt with issues that occurred in 2013 and 2014. In terms of where we are, we’ve already put a considerable amount of reform measures in place. Do we still have work to do? Of course we do, but I think there’s a fairly clear pathway forward for us. The Higher Learning Commission was clear in the things they were particularly concerned about. Some of them we’ve addressed. Some, we as a board need to work on. Some, the administration needs to work on. I was very gratified that [ Acting Interim President Joseph Collins] announced earlier this week that he was going to designate a task force through Shared Governance to address some of those issues that are internal to the college, which is rightly where that analysis belongs. In terms of additional things that we as a board [can do], it’s unfortunate, but a lot of those things are currently on hold, simply because we can’t take action because we don’t have a quorum. But, I’m fairly confident that there will be a seventh trustee seated in the very near future, and I’m certainly doing everything I can to be prepared for us to move forward and catch up, so that we can get a lot of things done, moved on and out of the way by the time the seventh trustee is seated.

KW: That sounds like a really positive outlook.

DM: Yeah. There’s no point in being bitter. The other thing too is, I think it’s also a testament to the people who are here as a general rule on a day to day basis, who are getting their work done, who are teaching the classes, who are making sure that things run smoothly. It’s not as though the Higher Learning Commission was criticizing what they did. Even today at the senior management level, we have an incredible amount of talent here. I think, separate, apart from some of the things the board should have passed to get moving over the past few months, that we haven’t been able to because of the lack of quorum, it’s not like the lights are being turned off. Faculty is still showing up to teach classes, so things are still going forward. The work of the college is still getting done. It’s just an unfortunate fact that we have a backlog, which is the fault of the board. The administration and the faculty, through Shared Governance, are going to look at some of the other issues. Most importantly, we’re still very much on track to get the new college president selected in the near future. So I think, while it may seem for the moment we’re in a bit of stasis, for the near future, we’re still very much on an upward trajectory. I’m very happy about that.

KW: What do you think is the biggest concern with the ongoing board boycott?

DM: To me, the biggest ongoing concern is that there are many items that both sides have, at one point or another, proposed to put on an agenda, that relate to what I call all of the ‘nuts and bolts’ activities of the college; that we could, and should have, passed, but which, unfortunately, are not progressing because of the boycott. In essence, they should be uncontroversial things. That, to me, is what’s most frustrating. We have people that we’ve wanted to hire. We have teacher tenure decisions that need to get made. We have vendors that need to get paid. We have decisions on hiring the orchestra conductor; making sure the anatomy and physiology classes get new models. Those are the things where there really isn’t any just cause for delay. That to me is the most disappointing thing at this stage. That [ Birt, McGuire and Wozniak] were unwilling to come forward even just to discuss things that really weren’t controversial.

KW: You mentioned concern about the finances of the college. Is there any larger concern about bills getting paid?

DM: You know, the college is fiscally sound. What I’m concerned about is that Illinois has what’s called the ‘Prompt Payment Act.’ If the college doesn’t pay it’s bills on time, vendors, under the terms of that act, do have the right to seek additional compensation from the college. That to me is really money that shouldn’t have to be spent if [Birt, McGuire and Wozniak] would just show up to vote. They wouldn’t even have to vote. All we would need is for one of them to show up, they could sit in a corner with a sign of protest and we could still vote and get business done. It’s because we don’t have a quorum that we can’t take final action. It is frustrating but, if there’s a principle they’re acting on and that’s the course of action they’ve chosen to take, you know, we’re all elected officials and they have to exercise their trustee duties the way they see fit, just as I have to try to exercise mine. Again, that doesn’t mean I agree with what they’re doing, or that I think it’s appropriate, but that’s the choice they’ve chosen to make. What I’m trying to do is just identify ways to move forward so that by the time the seventh trustee is seated, we can play catch-up pretty quickly.

KW: What do you think needs to be done in order to move forward? Do you have any kind of idea or game plan?

DM: It’s unfortunate that [Birt, McGuire and Wozniak] have really shut down the communication pathways. I think a lot of their issues could simply be resolved if they showed up. If they showed up, and there’s something proposed before the board that they don’t like, if three votes vote against it, it doesn’t happen. From that perspective, there’s nothing to be gained by not appearing. In terms of how I’ve tried to reach out, I’ve tried to reach out by phone. I’ve tried to reach out by email. I ran into Trustee Wozniak at the MLK breakfast and tried to encourage him to come and asked him to identify issues he wanted to prioritize. Even with regard to this particular meeting [Jan. 28,] I’ve sent multiple forms of communication and said, ‘Look, we have teacher tenure issues. We have a collective bargaining agreement. It’s important that these issues get decided. If it’s a question of which day or time we’ll work with you on that.’ Unfortunately, we received no response. It’s unfortunate that they chose to write to Lazaro Lopez, chairman of the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), to state that they were not going to show up to do any work until a seventh trustee was seated, but they didn’t have the courtesy of ccing any of the other board members or Dr. Collins.

Frank Napolitano: I think [the boycott] is definitely having a negative impact on the college. We can’t approve things as simple as bills and the consent agenda without having other board members here. At some point, we need to come together and work through this; put our political differences aside and have a meeting and conduct the college’s business.

DM: Actually, you don’t even need to put your political differences aside.

FN: That’s true! We can just duke it out here! But with the consent agenda, there shouldn’t be debate about the consent agenda. We certainly can remove certain items from the consent agenda, but just to show up and approve that would be a minimum for moving forward. The easiest answer is for the three who are not showing up to show up. That would probably be the easiest way for us to move forward. It’s hard for us to do anything else if they’re not here. Whatever the differences are, we can talk through them in an open session. If not appropriate, we can talk through them in a closed session. But we can’t even go into closed session without a fourth member.

DM: Four voting members.

FN: Right. Gloria’s attendance is fine, however she doesn’t count as a voting member. Although she votes, legally it doesn’t make the quorum.

KW: What are you hoping to see in a new trustee? Do you have any candidate in mind, or any specific qualities?

DM: I tried to not take a position in favor of any one person, for or against, because I was, and still do, want to try and keep the door open, for as long as possible, for one or more of the other trustees to show up and change their mind or express a preference. When I had initially spoken with Trustee McGuire a couple weeks ago about the process, she had indicated that she didn’t think it would be a good thing for the ICCB to pick a seventh trustee, and that we should meet in closed session and see if we could work something out. Shortly thereafter, she and Trustee Birt sent a letter to Laz Lopez, ICCB chairman, saying they didn’t think the board would be able to agree on a seventh trustee. To me, I think it’s important for the other board members to show up and at least try. We may not be successful and if we’re not, that’s one thing. But to not even want to try, that’s what I think is truly disappointing and it’s somewhat disrespectful to the people to whom we are ultimately responsible. Effectively, they’re losing their vote and their voice because the person isn’t going to be chosen by us. But the law is what it is, and it’s there to cover precisely these scenarios. In terms of the type of person I’d be looking for, someone who hopefully has high energy, because we have a lot of issues to discuss. Someone who understands issues of ethics and compliance because that, obviously, is one of the key issues that the Higher Learning Commission highlighted. Someone who is ultimately going to be willing to put the interest of the students and the college first.

FN: This is going to sound like I’m beating a dead horse, but attendance would be ideal.

DM: A warm body [laughs.]

FN: Yeah, right? But just somebody who’s open minded and willing to listen to the debate. Somebody who’s in it for the right reason. I think it’s very important to find someone who has the students, taxpayers and faculty’s best interest, not their own personal interest. I’m open minded. Again, if we went into closed session, we could talk about any of those candidates that applied. There are some who are very qualified; some who may not agree with me on everything and some that may agree with me on some things. I’d be open to discussing any of those candidates if we could simply get together. As far as if it goes to an appointment, although I’m still hopeful we can pull it off in the next 12 days, or whatever’s left now, but if not, it’s in someone else’s hands, and I have no opinion on who that person should be. I just hope it’s somebody who will attend meetings and hopefully, bring all seven of us together.

DM: Someone who will do what’s in the best interest of the college.

KW: At this point in the process, do you think there’s any way to encourage the board to work together before the decision?

DM: I actually think the better people to ask on that are the three trustees who aren’t showing up. If there is a particular thing that would intrigue them to come up and do their job, they should let me know [laughs.] One of the things I heard floating around was that there were somehow things I had refused to put on the agenda. I published the agenda that [Birt, McGuire and Wozniak] had proposed exactly how they had presented it and was prepared to discuss every item. They chose not to appear. I’m certainly not afraid of having any debate or discussion on any issue.

FN: There’s almost no time left. We’d have to get together and decide who we want to interview, then set up interviews. Then we’d need a board meeting scheduled to approve the appointment. I still like to think that one of them shows up tonight and we can go into closed session and do just that. Failing to come tonight, there’s almost no time left. It’s a multi-step process. I’m still open to it, but time is not on our side.

KW: Do you think the state taking action will do any good or have any effect?

DM: Oh, it’s absolutely going to have an effect. If the ICCB chairman chooses the seventh trustee, then, I’m assuming that the chairman won’t choose someone who’s going to boycott meetings [laughs.] We’ll be able to show up and get work done, so I’m very much looking forward to that.

KW: It sounds like there will be a pretty quick turnaround after Feb. 11.

DM: Yeah, and that’s the thing. It’s unfortunate that we’ve kind of had this stasis for a couple of months, but the law is there to cover this kind of scenario. It will come into effect. We’ll get trustee number seven if we can’t agree on our own, and we’ll continue business. That’s why I’m just trying to create the circumstances so that when that seventh person is selected, we’ll be able to move quickly on getting a lot of things done. We’ll probably have yet another board meeting that goes past midnight [laughs.]

KW: It seems the agenda length gets longer and longer every time.

DM: Yeah. A lot of the things that are currently on the consent agenda, again, you know, these are things that really shouldn’t be controversial. At the very least, if you don’t like them, just give them an up or down vote. Again, as of right now, if the other trustees showed up and they didn’t like a particular item, it wouldn’t pass. There’s really no downside to showing up, but yeah, unfortunately, it will be a lot of items to clear. Although we haven’t had a quorum, we still have been able to ask management about the issues and been able to get clarity. I’m optimistic that once we do have a quorum, and we need to vote on them, it’s not like each item is going to necessitate a lot of discussion time. Even a consent agenda, if it’s got 30, 40 things on it, I feel pretty comfortable knowing where myself, Trustee Bernstein and Trustee Napolitano stand on those items. Then it’s just gonna be a question of trustee number seven doing his or her due diligence to vote with whatever they feel comfortable with; whatever decision needs to be made. I think those will get cleared fairly quickly.

KW: Do you see the boycott extending past the initiation of a new trustee?

DM: Again, I think the people who are best positioned to answer that are the individuals who are participating in it. Originally, their position was they were just boycotting the first meeting. Then the position was they were boycotting the second meeting. Then it became ‘we’re gonna boycott the regular meeting in January and we’ll show up on the 28th.’ That’s one of the reasons why I noticed today’s agenda on the 28th, on the off chance that one of them shows up as they originally had promised. I don’t really want to guess whether they will or won’t. I do think they have a duty to show up. And if, they believe that what the board is doing is so drastically on the wrong path, they really should show up to explain their reasons why, and try and persuade us to follow a different path. That’s the marketplace of ideas. That’s what these meetings are supposed to be held for.

KW: What do you think of the possibility that Trustee McGuire may be campaigning for chairwoman? There have been some things thrown around saying she may be hoping to reinstate [former President Robert Breuder.] Do you have any feelings about that?

DM: I think that the board is going to be best served by looking forward, not backward. I am aware that Trustee McGuire had that conversation with Trustee Napolitano. He informed me of that conversation shortly after it had happened. Out of respect for Trustee McGuire and Trustee Napolitano, because he had hoped she might make some different choices… we had hoped she might take a different pathway, maybe one that we could all work towards positively [laughs.] I would say this. Even before I decided to run for the board, having observed prior board meetings, it was clear to me that the board could stand to improve in terms of how if operated and in terms of how it was handling its oversight responsibilities over Dr. Breuder and a variety of other things. Since becoming a member of the board, I think that we’ve made the decisions we have based on quality information that was available to us. I don’t, at this stage, have any reason to regret or reverse any of the decisions made. If someone wants to put new evidence in front of me and argue for a particular position, I will definitely consider it. I don’t think that a forward looking agenda is one that looks to reverse prior board decisions; one that wants to not cooperate with the federal investigations. I think there were instances where the board may have received some bad advice in the past and I certainly don’t want to go back to the personnel who may have contributed to the board making decisions that I personally would have done differently. I think that we have, as a board, have been getting better advice.

FN: Well, I told her when we spoke on Dec. 15, the day before our December meeting (at that point I thought that they would be attending the meeting,) I’m happy to discuss any of this with you, some of it that may need to be discussed in closed session. You know, she wanted to talk about the attorneys and Breuder. I said nothing is off the table for a conversation. Clearly, there are a lot of things that I wouldn’t support, but I’m still happy to talk about it. Just because I’m not in support of something doesn’t mean I’m not willing to have a conversation and hear her out, which I was willing to do. We have yet to have a meeting since then though. I don’t know if [McGuire] responded to [The Courier], but there’s a Daily Herald article saying that conversation never happened and we never spoke via phone. I then sent [The Daily Herald] a copy of my phone bill which had an incoming call from her phone number. It’s not public but, it showed them that it was an incoming phone call. It was a 25-minute phone call; I don’t talk to many people for 25 minutes [laughs.] Usually that’s the length of a conference call. We talked for a while, which was fine. I wasn’t angry about the call. If I was, I would have cut it short. But I don’t know how you forget that. It was only a month ago. It wasn’t 10 years ago.

DM: And you obviously kept me apprised on the conversation as well, which was why I was aware that that was a position she had taken.

KW: Is there anything else either of you would like to add? Anything you think students and faculty should know?

DM: I think that, again, I try to think a little bit longer term. Compared to where we were last year versus this year, versus where I think we’re going to be in another year, I think we’re going to see consistent improvement. I think every one of us on the board has some work to do. I just wish we could do it all together at a board meeting [laughs.]

FN: The only thing that I would add is that none of what’s gone on here in the past few years at College of DuPage, nothing that’s gone on since the election or these three board members have decided not to come to meetings and nothing that’s gone on with the HLC has reflected the great education and quality of education in the classroom. I think it’s important to reiterate that. I think most of the students know that, but I think it’s important to remind everyone of that. The board has to do it’s thing. We have to set policy; that’s what the board does. We have to approve budgets and bills and spending and tenure for teachers. We have to do all of that stuff, but that’s all on the administration side. On the academic side, in the classroom, everything here is just as it has been. It’s a great institution and that continues. That won’t change.

DM: If there’s been one thing that’s come out of this recent controversy, or boycott, or what-have-you, it’s that I’ve received a tremendous amount of support. People have really used it as an opportunity to say ‘this is why I’m here. This is what I think is great about the College of DuPage. Here’s all of the things I think are really working.’ The incredible dedication that people have to this institution and the work they want to do for our students, from everyone on down: that to me has been an incredibly rewarding thing to see. Even in the community, the reason why these issues have remained newsworthy is precisely because the community so much wants to see College of DuPage succeed.