Controversy Over An Altered Contract

Chancellor of Calif. 2-year-college district is under fire for removing buyout clause without clearance from his board.
November 7, 2006

It has been anything but a typical election season for the Board of Trustees at Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, in Southern California.

A trustee is among a group that is calling for the resignation of Omero Suarez, the district chancellor, who has admitted to not following proper procedure when he had his contract altered without board approval.

This summer, the board approved a contract extension for Suarez that includes a buyout clause, which sets a 12 month limit on severance pay that the chancellor can receive if released early from his contract. Suarez removed that clause from the contract, which meant that he could potentially take a total of 18 months of severance pay -- the state's maximum.

Suarez said he took out the clause to align his contract with those of other top district officials whose contracts do not include the buyout clauses. Multiple board members said the president is eligible for the extra severance regardless, because of the 18-month maximum that is part of state law.

But Timothy Caruthers, the trustee who is calling for Suarez's ouster, said the chancellor had deleted the clause for financial gain. After a group that represents mid-level district administrators brought the contract changes to his attention earlier this year, Caruthers said he made a public information request. He noticed that on one version of the contract, the buyout clause was missing. On the version he received days after the information request, the section had been added back.

In a statement released late last month, Suarez admitted to having made a mistake. "The Governing Board president was not alerted to the changes in the contract and a changed contract should not have been presented to the Board president except as part of a Board agenda item," he said in the statement.

"It was my responsibility to point out the deletion of a section and its re-insertion. I did not do that. I take full responsibility for the way this was handled and I am putting in place a new procedure to ensure that this cannot happen in the future. "

United Faculty, the union that represents the district’s faculty, is demanding resignations by Suarez; the board’s president, who signed off on the altered contract; a vice chancellor who allegedly helped facilitate the contract change; and two trustees whom the group says have not supported a special board session to discuss the situation.

Suarez has not indicated any plans to step down, and one of the accused trustees is calling both Caruthers's and the union group's effort a political ploy -- Caruthers is the only current board member not up for re-election today.

At an October 17 board meeting, Caruthers attempted to bring up the contract clause removal but was told by Deanna Weeks, the board's president, that he was out of order. Weeks said the allegations concerned personnel and legal issues, and that discussing the matter at that meeting would go against California's Brown Act regulations, which mandate that meetings of public bodies must be open and that the public must be notified of agenda items days in advance. Caruthers said that he had received the contract information from public document requests, and that the information wasn't private.

Caruthers's request for a closed-door board session to discuss the matter was denied. Instead, he held a news conference to air allegations of falsified documents.

"The chancellor has admitted to changing the contract," Caruthers said in a phone interview. "This has to do with honesty and the integrity of our entire district."

Weeks responded by issuing a statement saying that she is "appalled" by the actions taken by Suarez, and demanding an independent investigation. A district vice chancellor is overseeing the investigation, which is intended to be completed by the next board meeting.

Weeks said that she remains "angry with the chancellor at the way [the process] was handled," but that Suarez's changes weren't criminal in nature.

Caruthers said that Weeks signed a version of the chancellor's contract on three different occasions, and that it's unlikely that she didn't notice the change. But Weeks said she didn't notice that the clause had been removed in the second version or that it had been put back in the third that she signed.

"I sign more than one original copy every day of the week," she said. "No alarm bells went off; it's standard procedure."

Weeks said that Caruthers never approached her or other board members before bringing the matter up during the open board session. "It was high political drama," she said.

Meanwhile, protesters stood outside Suarez's office on Friday demanding that the chancellor resign.

Trustee Rick Alexander said there's no reason for a rush to judgment. "There’s a due process to follow," he said. "You don’t hang someone in a public square a week before an election just because an angry mob calls for his resignation."

Caruthers said he does not have confidence that the board will take any action against Suarez. Mel Amov, a United Faculty past president who represents the district's mid-level managers in collective bargaining, said the board's inaction in the case of the chancellor's contract change is indicative of its general unresponsiveness to faculty and administrative concerns. 

United Faculty has sent a message to the chancellor of the California Community Colleges asking for a further investigation.

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Elia Powers

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