A New Jersey county executive wants to decide which items may go on meeting agendas for the local community college’s board of trustees and warns that, without such oversight of the board's actions, the institution’s county funding may be in jeopardy. Local and statewide community college officials counter that the county executive is overstepping her bounds and endangering the institution’s autonomy.
While some governors and other political officials serve as ex officio members of public college boards, and such officials may appoint a board's members, an underlying principle of public higher education in the United States is that those boards have real authority and that politicians cannot control their agendas.
Kathleen A. Donovan, a Republican and the recently elected  Bergen County executive, has been seeking more authority  over the Bergen Community College’s Board of Trustees since taking office last month. Jeanne Baratta, Donovan’s chief of staff, said the county executive initially sought permission to veto the board’s minutes, a move that would have given her the ability to annul its decisions.
But critics cried foul, arguing that the county executive did not have the legal authority for such veto power.
Lawrence A. Nespoli, president of the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges, cited a 1978 case  decided by the appeals division of New Jersey Superior Court. The court determined that Mercer County freeholders (county legislators) did not exercise proper authority when they passed a new administrative code giving themselves control over Mercer County Community College’s budgeting, personnel and purchasing operations. The college had sued them to maintain its independence. When the state’s Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the case, it affirmed the legal definition that community colleges are “separate political subdivisions which serve a separate purpose and operate apart from the governing bodies of the counties in which they are situated.”
New Jersey community college boards of trustees have 10 members, eight of which are appointed by the county executive and two of which are appointed by the governor. In the case of Bergen’s board, currently every local appointment was made by a Democrat. Donovan and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, both Republicans, will have the ability to appoint their own trustees to the board. They, however, must wait for the chance to do so, as terms are purposely staggered.
Now that she has conceded to critics that veto power over board minutes is beyond her authority, Donovan has a new request. Baratta said the county executive would like to see the board’s agenda at least 10 days in advance of an upcoming meeting and have the authority to pull and hold items as she sees fit.
“If there’s something that’s problematic [on the agenda], we’d like to be able to discuss it with the board,” Baratta said. “The college receives $23 million from the County of Bergen; that’s about 20 percent of their budget. We’d like to be able to have some oversight.”
The county executive’s office believes that, unlike the prior attempt to control the minutes, a move to alter the agendas would be legal. Baratta noted that this issue is scheduled to be discussed at the board’s next meeting on March 2. And should the board decide that the county executive does not deserve such a voice in setting the agenda, Baratta said the county executive could have a corresponding fiscal response.
“If [the college’s board] wants to be autonomous, [it] can be autonomous without $23 million from the county,” Baratta said. “It’s the county executive who has the purse strings to Bergen County’s money."
The college’s board members have slightly different responses to the county executive’s request but, by and large, oppose giving her direct control.
E. Carter Corriston, board chairman, said he believes the board and the county executive “will be able to resolve this thing in a matter in which everyone will be satisfied.” He is open to giving the county executive the chance to offer input.
“I have no objection whatsoever in providing [Donovan] and the board of freeholders and the general public with the entire agenda, setting forth what will take place at the meeting and giving them notice,” Corriston said. “I think giving the executive an opportunity to discuss the agenda with us beforehand is a good thing. I’m willing to be transparent.”
The point of contention among all parties at the moment seems to be whether Donovan should have “pocket veto” authority to take items off the agenda itself, unchecked.
“We’re working on a resolution to the problem and finding the mechanical way to avoid a pocket veto,” Corriston said. “It’s just not something we’ve fully discussed yet.… I’m not for a so-called pocket veto, but I think there are other ways to handle it.”
Cid D. Wilson, vice chairman of the board, has a different take from his colleague's. Though he is for board transparency and further collaboration with the county executive, he does not see the need for a resolution, to say nothing of a pocket veto, to give her a chance to provide input.
“Most if not all of the trustees want to work with our elected officials,” Wilson said. “To give this ultimatum, if you can call it that — ‘give us power to manipulate the agenda or we’ll completely defund your college’ — I think that’s a very disingenuous way to work and collaborate. I think there are many better ways we can collaborate.”
Wilson said he likes the idea of making agendas public before board meetings — something the board already does.
“Whether you live in Hackensack or in the Himalayas, you can see our agenda in advance online,” Wilson said. “Given that, you see monthly financials, any personnel changes, etc.… But to say, ‘we want to pull this, this, this and that, and we’ll get back to you next week and we’ll tell you why.’ That’s different from just getting the agenda.”
Nespoli and the state’s Council of Community Colleges back Wilson’s absolute opposition to the idea of giving agenda manipulation authority to the county executive.
“I think there’s not much difference between vetoing minutes after board actions occur or having county government involved on the front end,” Nespoli said. “There are any number of constituents that fund a county college — families do, students do, the state does, the county does, the feds do. Why would you give that one all the authority to basically run the college? That’s why we have trustees.”
Nespoli also said he worries, if the Bergen County executive is successful in this case, that other community colleges in New Jersey might see similar pushes for more authority from their local governments.
G. Jeremiah Ryan, president of Bergen Community College, said he felt his college's autonomy had become a cause célèbre when he was in Washington this week for the 2011 Community College National Legislative Summit . Presidents and trustees from around the county stopped to ask him about the situation with his board.
“For us to give in on this would be a horrible mistake, especially for a big community college like Bergen,” Ryan said. “Every college president would be watching their county executive to see if this would happen to them. I think our board ought to say up front that they’re opposed to this. I mean, we received no complaints about last month’s agenda. We’ve been nothing but transparent. To threaten taking away budget funding is just an overreaction that would put the onus of a public policy debate on the backs of students and families.”
Ryan added that since Donovan has gone public with what he called “her threat to defund the college,” many students have asked about whether this would mean an increase in their tuition. He noted that faculty members have also expressed concern about the impact.
Representatives of the local faculty union did not respond to request for comment. Ryan, however, expressed optimism that this situation would be resolved swiftly at the board’s next meeting.
“The board knows I’ve been vocal that I think the [county executive’s] resolution , as crafted, is a nothing more than a pocket veto and is illegal,” Ryan said. “This is just the wrong fight at the wrong time. We’ve worked with all the three prior county executives and had good relationships. We should be concentrating on having our 18,000 students get a good education so that the workforce and economic development of county can be improved.”