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Who's the Boss?
Illinois attorney general’s opinion on ethics issues has community college officials ready for legal battle.
Community college leaders in Illinois and the state’s attorney general, Lisa Madigan, can’t see eye-to eye on how ethical guidelines should be enforced regarding the 39 two-year institutions in the Land of Lincoln. If the power struggle can’t be sorted out soon, several education officials are prepared to go to court to defeat what some are calling a slippery – and unlawful – slope toward state control over local community college affairs.
Last fall, Madigan issued an opinion called “ Applicability of the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act to Community College Districts,” in response to an inquiry from the Illinois Community College Board, the state's coordinating agency for community colleges. Steve Morse, a spokeman for the board, says the original reasoning for that initial request from the board is not clear, but that many members of the board were new at the time of the request.
Madigan indicated in her opinion that the same ethics guidelines that apply to state agencies should apply to community colleges. The state's Inspector General Office would thus have jurisdiction over how ethical issues were to be measured and how violations were to be punished at the two–year institutions.
Immediately, many community college officials were confused. Since the 1960s, it’s been universally agreed that community colleges in the state are “units of local government.” And all community colleges in Illinois have already been complying with the 2003 state ethics act -- under the local government provisions of the law, whereby each community college has its own ethics officers and its own ethics commission.
There have been no signs to date that community colleges have had problems carrying out their own ethics investigations. Some community college officials argue that Madigan’s ruling makes it appear as though community college leaders are somehow having ethics problems, which, they say, is far from true.
Officials with Richland Community College have already gone to court regarding their belief that the Inspector General should not have the power to investigate their institution, which the office began doing last November.
“We don’t know why the attorney general did this,” says Michael Monaghan, executive director of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, an advocacy organization. “State employees and state agencies are very different than units of local government.”
Monaghan says that the state’s Inspector General Office should have no role in overseeing local community college issues. “Why should that entity have any jurisdiction over us?” he asks.
Press officials with the Attorney General’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on how and why Madigan came to her opinion.
Brian Kleemann, a College of DuPage spokesman, says that the opinion is a bad fit for the institution and provides less flexibility for community college officials in terms of collecting ethics materials from employees.
“We’re certainly in favor of ethics,” says Kleemann. “But nothing is broken – we already comply with all of the local rules on ethics.”
On Thursday, the Board of Trustees of DuPage voted to pursue litigation against Illinois to challenge Madigan’s application of the ethics code.
Monaghan and other community college officials think that the state’s ethics guidelines are clearly important. “Ethics tests are a good idea and we embrace them,” says Monaghan. But he says that local control over the application of ethics guidelines allows for easier ways for part-timers and vacationing faculty members to get their ethics tests complete.
The state would require the testing to be completed during July each year, which would be exceptionally difficult for community college officials, according to Monaghan.
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