Nearly $500,000 in payouts granted to Sierra College employees

Agreements brought before public up to 4 years after
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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Sierra College paid out nearly half of a million dollars to four former employees beginning in 2008 and only brought the agreements before the Board of Trustees publically in November. Among the payouts was one to the District’s former Assistant Superintendant and Vice President of Finance for $328,095.35. Another, in the amount of $5,000, was granted to an administrative services technician who received a less than satisfactory performance evaluation and exhausted all of her sick pay. Current administrators said while the agreements were settled under the past administration, they felt it was necessary to bring the items before the board to set a precedence for transparency. Board of Trustees members say the former president had the authority to enter into contracts on behalf of the District and there was no wrongdoing. New President wanted board to publically approve Sierra College President Willy Duncan said upon taking over in July of 2011 he asked to review all of the employee settlement contracts. Through that internal review he found four agreements that had already been settled, but never brought publically before the Board of Trustees. “Coming in new this is one of the things that I asked to look at. I recommended to the board, and took this to the board president and other members of the board, and said that these four particular agreements I thought that the board should take some action on in order to be 100 percent and completely transparent in our actions,” Duncan said. “It’s just something that I believe in. I think whenever we are faced with choices on how we do things we should be as transparent as possible.” The first one dates back to 2008. Sierra College agreed to pay $56,226 to Morris “Woody” Wilson, the former Director of District Planning, after he retired from the District. In 2010, Lynn Roath, the former Environmental Health and Safety Specialist, was granted a settlement of $69,844.54 when he opted to retire from the District rather than take a lay-off. In January of 2011, Doug Smith, the Assistant Superintendant and Vice President of Finance received the largest payout for $328,095.35. His agreement also had a clause asking for the return of electronic equipment including cell phones, computers and Palm Pilots. Duncan said in Smith’s employment agreement the District agreed to pay an amount equivalent to 18 months of salary, plus the value of medical and dental benefits the District would have paid, if the board elected to terminate the agreement. A copy of the agreement confirmed that to be true. The last agreement in question, paid in June of 2011, was a $5,000 settlement to Jennifer Dupuis. Dupuis resigned as an administrative services technician. Prior to that Dupuis had received a less than satisfactory performance evaluation, had exhausted her sick leave and was on extended sick leave. All are still eligible for benefits through the Restated Retiree Medical Expense Reimbursement Plan of the Community College Employees Benefit Trust, Restated Effective January 2010. Employees had a property interest in their job Duncan said as a long-time administrator in community colleges, he knows that it is often cheaper for districts to settle with employees than to go through litigation. “Even if I think I have an iron clad case as administrator, many times litigation is five, 10, 20 times more expensive,” Duncan said. Aaron Klein, Board of Trustees President, said there are different regulations for community college employees because they have a property-interest in their job. Unlike most private businesses, community colleges are not “at-will” employers and the regulations for parting with employees are stricter. “The State of California has decided these are the rules. At-will employment doesn’t exist,” Klein said. “People have a property interest in their job, so as a result it creates the opportunity for litigation that there wouldn’t be otherwise.” Klein said the board is always trying to consider the best option to save taxpayers’ money, which sometimes means reaching a settlement is cheaper than litigation. Reason for some amounts unknown Duncan said in his experience the amount of money granted to the exiting employee has to be reasonable, but since he was not on staff at the time, he couldn’t speculate as to why certain amounts were settled upon in contracts with Roath, Wilson and Dupuis. Doug Smith, Lynn Roath, Morris “Woody” Wilson and Jennifer Dupuis declined to comment. Klein said with former President Dr. Leo Chavez and Ron Martinez, Vice President of Human Resources both retired, he couldn’t say either why the specific amounts were granted. Requests for records of the negotiations were denied on the basis of Attorney-Client privilege. “The challenge is those people don’t work at Sierra College anymore,” Klein said. “It’s usually a matter of the employee that said, “I want to separate from the district, but all of these discussions are protected under attorney-client privilege and I don’t want the district talking about that.” Efforts to contact Dr. Leo Chavez and Ron Martinez were unsuccessful. Board President says Sierra has record of transparency Klein added that while the agreements were never discussed at a public board meeting there is nothing that the board or administration has ever wanted to keep a secret. Having these types of agreements go on board agendas now is just one way the college is demonstrating the commitment to transparency it has always had, he said. “In closed session at board meetings we will at times hear reports that we’ve got a problem, we’ve got to deal with it and here is how we are approaching the problem,” Klein said. “I’ve never heard anything that would indicate to me that we cared about keeping a secret — never.” When it comes to employment agreements and settlements, Klein said the Board has delegated the authority to handle those to the President. The board is informed and can more closely look at an issue if it raises concerns, he added. On average, one to two of these type of settlement agreements occur a year, according to Klein. He and Duncan agree they are hoping for none this year. “We set policy. We hire a CEO to implement policy. We did that with Leo. He was fantastic for five years. He decided to retire. He was of retirement age,” Klein said. “It’s an organization of 1,200 employees. If the board got involved in every single personnel action, we wouldn’t do anything about education.” Reach Sara Seyydin at ______________________________________________________ How did we get this information? The Journal was notified of this story through a forwarded e-mail of the Sierra College Joint Community College Board of Trustees Meeting Agenda from Nov. 8, 2011. The agenda listed four separation of employment and release agreements, along with the dollar amount given to former Sierra College employees, execution date and employee number. When asked for copies of the agreements and specific information within them, including the names of the employees, The Journal was told to fill out a California Public Records Act Request. Sierra College cooperated in releasing the documents. Information within this article is from the 42 pages of documents The Journal obtained from Sierra College. ______________________________________________________ Sierra College Student Body President reacts to payouts By Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer Sierra College’s Student Body President, Andrew Nelson shared his reaction to the nearly $500,000 in funds granted to former employees. Nelson said while he doesn’t have any opinions on the specific situations involved, he does believe there are some issues with the way that citizens are made of aware of how public funds are spent. “There is some reaction on the process. I can’t speak to say I have an opinion one way or another (on the payouts). I think with my short tenure I just don’t know a lot of the details,” Nelson said. “Whether it’s a question of payouts for people that have left or that process, not as a student body president, but as a citizen, I think that is something that should be remedied — that citizens can know how public funds can be spent.” Nelson said if decisions are made through legal counsel he is curious about the role citizens should play in the process when public funds are being spent. ______________________________________________________ Property-Interest of Public Employees Definition: The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects a public employee’s right to both a property and liberty interest in employment. The California Constitution also provides a similar protection. The California Supreme Court has stated that “when a person has a legally enforceable right to receive a government benefit, provided certain facts exist, this right constitutes a property interest protected by due process.” Hence, under the court’s interpretation, the job is actually characterized as the employee’s property. This was articulated in 1975 by the California Supreme Court in the now famous case called Skelly v. State Personnel Bd., 15 Cal. 3d 194. Source: ______________________________________________________ By the Numbers The following four Sierra College employees received settlements totaling nearly $500,000 from 2008-2011. $328,095.35-Doug Smith, former Assistant Superintendant/Vice President of Finance $69,844.56-Lynn Roath, former Environmental Health and Safety Specialist $56,226-Morris “Woody” Wilson , former Director of District Planning $5,000-Jennifer Dupuis, former Administrative Services Technician $459,165.91- Total of payouts