Editorial: Are trustees under a gag order?

WCC campus

In November 2004, the St. Clair County Community College board of trustees passed a new code of ethics, barring its own members from visiting campus and talking to students, faculty and staff without then-President Rose Bellanca’s permission.

Since Bellanca was hired as Washtenaw Community College’s president in 2011, many have expressed fear that history was doomed to repeat itself. These fears, it seems, are now being realized, and board Chair Richard Landau has taken the role as enforcer of silence.

For three years, the WCC trustees and Bellanca got along famously – until three new trustees joined the board this January and started asking too many questions.

Dave DeVarti, Christina Fleming and Ruth Hatcher were elected to the board after running on campaign promises of increased transparency and collaboration with the college’s employees.  The votes delivered a clear message: Taxpayers want change at WCC.

And yet, at every turn, Landau has been clear that he will not tolerate any disruptions to the status quo. Most recent and most concerning is Landau’s interference in DeVarti’s efforts to avoid a fall tuition increase for WCC students.

As DeVarti pushes, in a seemingly pure desire to serve the college’s students and taxpayers, Landau has thwarted him at every opportunity, with outright mockery, dismissal and hopelessly dragging feet.

Landau’s boardroom antics range from red-faced yelling to glib under-his-breath remarks.

During the board’s February meeting, Landau’s repetitious, “Let’s talk about it at the retreat,” and an eyebrow-raising, “Let’s talk about it offline,” responses to every concern raised by DeVarti betrayed what seemed to be the chair’s primary motivation – to make it home on time.

Yet when the March retreat came, DeVarti’s concerns, including a discussion of the college’s living wage policy, hadn’t made the agenda. Those concerns that were deemed worthy of the board’s time, including DeVarti’s plea on behalf of community members to televise board meetings, were met with dismissive postponement.

Landau called the idea of broadcasting meetings on Ann Arbor’s Community Television Network “silly” and questioned why DeVarti was pushing for the broadcast.

“Essentially, we are trying to sell a product no one has ever said they want,” Landau said.

DeVarti asked how many letters from community members the other trustees needed to see.

“Don’t antagonize people,” Landau said, insisting that DeVarti already had the board’s support.  As a lawyer, Landau shared some wisdom from his time in court.

“There’s a point where we say ‘Sit down and shut up,’ because the judge is ruling in your favor. I think this is probably one of those times where I’d say that.”

The trustees decided to put off further discussion of filming the meetings until the summer, with the possibility of beginning next fall.

Despite Landau’s suggestion, DeVarti appears unwilling to “Sit down and shut up.”

Following WCC Chief Financial Officer Bill Johnson’s presentation at the retreat about several scenarios for tuition increases, DeVarti emailed Johnson asking if they could meet in person so DeVarti could ask a few questions. His hope, he said, was to better prepare himself for the March 24 board meeting where the tuition conversation is expected to continue.

While Johnson’s secretary responded, unquestioningly, with times that the two could meet, Landau stepped in to put a stop to it.

“If you have specific questions to direct to Bill, please forward them to me,” Landau said in an email to DeVarti. Landau offered to ask Johnson to present answers to the board at its next meeting. In the past, Landau explained, it has not been typical for trustees to meet individually with the college’s staff.

In bigger font, he continued, “As a strong proponent of the OMA (Open Meetings Act), I am sure you can appreciate the problems raised by such meetings.”

DeVarti responded, explaining that he is a strong proponent of the OMA and in fact helped to achieve its passage into law.

“I am in full awareness that it in no way puts in place obstacles for a single elected policy maker to meet with staff to understand budgetary issues that are expected to come before the full body,” DeVarti said in the email.

The OMA states that a quorum of a public body – four of seven trustees in WCC’s case – cannot meet in a closed meeting, except in certain circumstances. It says nothing about elected officials meeting with staff of the institution they serve.

“In over 20 years of serving on public bodies, both elected and appointed, I have never before had anyone raise an objection to my meeting with a staff person to look at and better understand an issue,” DeVarti said, adding that despite “general operating procedure,” he intends to spend time delving into understanding the operations of the college so that he can best serve the taxpayers and voters.

In another email, Landau continued to insist that DeVarti’s meeting with the CFO would be a “run around” of the OMA – something the board was criticized for long before DeVarti’s election.

Landau also suggested that trustees requesting meetings with the college’s staff was “potentially coercive and intimidating,” a point that the new and continuing trustees butted heads over in their November retreat.

The ban on communication between trustees and college staff gained some legitimacy when it was defended by the retreat’s speaker Association of Community College Trustees Vice President Narcissa Polonio as a national “best practice” … until Bellanca referred to Polonio as a “good friend for a really long time.”

Soon after the “gag order,” as many called it, was put in place at St. Clair, 34-year board member Thomas Hamilton filed a lawsuit against the rest of the board. Backed by the ACLU, he insisted that the policy was put in place solely to stop his criticisms of Bellanca and the board’s lack of oversight of her.

WCC’s move toward a similar policy, if unofficial, is just one more eerie similarity between Bellanca’s tenure at WCC and St. Clair. And now, DeVarti said in an email to The Voice, he is seeking counsel from two public interest lawyers on how to proceed in dealings with the board.

DeVarti is continuing to push for permission to meet with the college’s CFO, taking the issue straight to Bellanca. In an email he wrote to the president, he asked to discuss Landau’s interference in his efforts.

Trustee DeVarti, we’re not sure Bellanca is the right person to solve the problem.



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