An anonymous email posing questions about transparency and oversight of Johnson County Community College has gone off like a bombshell among the college trustees, resulting in calls for censure of Trustee Angeliina Lawson, who has been accused of writing it.
At its December meeting, the governing board of the college set into motion a fact-finding exercise that could result in a rare censure and removal of Lawson from committees and liaison positions. Censure would not mean she is removed from office. Trustees are elected by voters. Lawson is in the third year of her first four-year term.
Lawson, meanwhile, calls the issue a “witch hunt.” She says the message in her private email — outlining questions about how the school handles its art holdings among other things – was never meant to be shared publicly but instead should have been taken up in executive session. She said the email was a mixture of issues brought up by constituents plus some of her own thoughts, and that she was not the one who sent it to the Kansas Board of Regents.
“There seems to be a lot of pushback in the sense that I just wanted to follow up with constituents and get answers to the questions that they had asked me about. And that seems perfectly within my right,” Lawson said.
“The way they’re going about this right now it doesn’t feel like they care about the answer. They just wanted to hear if I’m a witch. If I drown I’m a witch and if I float I’m a witch. They’re just kind of burning me at the stake because they could.”
The controversy started on Oct. 15, when Kansas Board of Regents President Blake Flanders alerted JCCC President Joe Sopcich to the email, which was then passed along to the Trustee Chairman Jerry Cook.
The letter is written in first person and its introduction says the writer is an elected JCCC Trustee. However the place where there might have been a name is just a series of X’s.
It goes on to call for more transparency in the community college system and asks for legislation “that opens up the way in which our community colleges are run.”
“Too often, community college trustees are seen as decorative add-ons to a college and their ability to provide effective oversight ins radically limited….If we believe in transparency, we have to advocate for a better process,” the letter says.
The message then goes on at length about the storage arrangements and appraisals and policies on the art collection of the school’s Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. The writer refers to a fact-finding tour at a limestone cave where they are stored.
The letter also questions school policy on disposal of excess items, the bidding process and general transparency and oversight. And it calls for a state auditor to provide some oversight.
“The purpose of this email is to ask for change,” it says. “We can fix our community college system by providing protection for elected officials if admin and boards collude. We can prevent boards from blocking information and controlling access of other board members.” The writer also alleges being shut out of the college information loop to the point that reports were only furnished after repeated open records requests.
The college responded with a point-by-point rebuttal to the issues raised in the letter. But officials went further by saying some of the allegations were “reckless” and implying sour grapes over board votes.
“Being outvoted on a governance issue during a board meeting does not justify these allegations against JCCC and its employees. Being outvoted also does not equate to harassment, required a subsequent (open records) request, nor imply unethical behavior by those on the other side of the issue,” said a letter signed by Cook.
Concerns about impact during search for new president
The issue arises at a delicate time as the college seeks to find a replacement for Sopcich, who is stepping down next year. The application deadline for that position is Jan. 15, and Cook said in an email to the Post that he’s concerned about the possible negative impact of the letter.
“While this action could have a negative perception placed on the Presidential search, action taken by the board shows we take matters seriously and will act to ensure the integrity of JCCC when necessary,” he wrote. At a board meeting, Cook said the apparent disharmony may scare off potential candidates.
The idea of Regents or legislative oversight is also a prickly question. Community colleges are governed by their locally-elected trustees, not the Kansas Board of Regents, and community college officials have said they want to keep it that way.
The Kansas Association of Community College Trustees has weighed in. The group, “strongly opposes the view expressed in the anonymous letter,” their statement said, pointing out that community college trustees operate within a statutory framework to guide each board.
JCCC Trustee Lee Cross said trustees “take tremendous pride in local control,” and that when issues arise, the trustees have been able to deal with them. “I’m not a fan of creating layers of government when it’s completely unnecessary,” he said.
The college has had its share of controversies lately, too. Fans of the track program objected to the school’s decision to discontinue it and demolish the field in 2018. The college has also been in hot water with neighbors suspicious of a proposal to allow emergency access through an adjacent park and a tuition increase last year (none is planned for the upcoming year, though) paired with a rollback of the tax rate.
And in February, Democratic National Committee member Chris Reeves overheard and tweeted Sopcich comments doubting the financial need of the majority of JCCC students. He later said his remarks were hyperbole and that his record supports students in need.
That episode, too, involved Lawson, because the remarks were overheard during a heated disagreement with her.
Sopcich reflected on the college’s recent past during remarks to the December board meeting. “I can never remember when the college was falsely attacked and smeared repeatedly over such a lengthy period of time or even a short period of time for that matter,” he said.
Although the letter was anonymous, Lawson was immediately suspected because she’s the only board member to have signed in to visit the caves. Suspicions deepened during a tense November board meeting, as each trustee in turn denied having written it. Lawson and Cross were attending remotely by phone and did not answer. Cross later said he was late to the call and denied writing it.
Lawson, however, has never directly denied being the letter writer, though she did send board members an affidavit swearing she never sent it to the Regents.
“I think this is where things get very complicated,” she said in an interview with the Post after being asked if she wrote it. She said she had asked to explore these questions in executive session, and that it somehow made its way to the Regents and into the board packet for public discussion. She did not rule out that it could have been sent by a third party, but said she didn’t want to have to reveal names of constituents who have been asking the questions outlined in the letter.
Lawson said she’s had difficulty in getting information from the college to answer some constituent questions. The school could have avoided the damage by keeping the email private and having the questions addressed in closed session, she said.
Now that it’s public, “it seems as though the world has stopped and we are going to embark on a multi-month trial that harms not only my personal life but also the college. I just don’t understand this vendetta.”
Lawson says ‘public censure has already happened’
Lawson said she hadn’t been contacted about the censure investigation, nor had anyone talked to her about issues raised in the email. Yet the other board members talked openly about censuring her and removing her from committees.
That amounts to a censure already, she said. “There is a public censure that has already happened because they have stated my name in public. They have punished me,” she said.
Lawson said she’s agreed with the board about 80% of the time on issues, but feels the board has sometimes been partisan. Board members should be able to disagree and air difficult topics, she said.
“The feeling is that from the moment you are elected you are now protecting the college,” she said. “There seems to be a kind of reckoning at the college now that the 40 plus years that they’ve had where they don’t accept questions is coming to an end. People want to know where are things going. It’s not okay anymore to just say we have a department about that and that’s all you get to ask.”
Other board members don’t share that view. Cross said he respects her commitment to education, but can’t support the way things unfolded. Cross cast the seconding vote to begin censure inquiry, calling the whole thing a “dramatic embarrassment.”
“I hate to see anybody so committed and involved make such dramatic missteps,” he said of Lawson.
Trustee Greg Musil, who will take over as chairman next year, offered Lawson a possible out during the December meeting. “I would be pleased to hear some contrition and willingness to move on,” he said. “The longer we drag this on the more damaging it is for the college.”
But Lawson, again attending remotely, did not offer admission, denial or apology.
She said later that posing questions shouldn’t be misinterpreted as accusations. “I do not believe there is anything wrong or untoward about finances or other issues at JCCC. However, constituents have the right to ask about the process and understand it, and asking questions even from many viewpoints, prevents problems. Transparency isn’t partisan. It is letting people get rid of suspicion whether it is reasonable or not and get answers,” she said.
Cook said Lawson violated the board code of conduct calling for collaboration amongst the trustees. “This is not a moment to be proud of,” he said in supporting the censure move.
The fact finding phase is expected to be finished in one or two months, Cook said.
The original email and the copy with Cook’s comments are embedded below: