Angeliina Lawson was censured Thursday night by her fellow members of the Johnson County Community College board of trustees after they criticized her approach to three state lawmakers about oversight of college resources.
The seven-member trustee board voted 5-1 for the censure, with Lawson the only no vote. Trustee Laura Smith-Everett abstained, noting she was not on the board when the issue arose last fall.
A censure – the first ever for the community college board – is a public rebuke of Lawson that will be published on the leadership and governance page of the JCCC website for 60 days. In a previous meeting there was discussion of removing her from committee and liaison positions, but that was not a part of the censure resolution approved Thursday. It does not remove her from office.
“This is not the college’s finest hour and I hope everybody here takes it as an opportunity to find better ways to find common ground in the future,” said Trustee Chairman Greg Musil.
Trustees pushing for the censure argued that Lawson violated parts of the trustee board code of conduct. Their displeasure stems from a letter she wrote to state legislators questioning how the college handles its art collection and surplus equipment and suggesting that more state oversight is needed.
Board members expressed outrage at previous meetings that the letter contained fact errors, saying it implied the college’s assets were being mishandled. They were especially upset that the letter came back to them in redacted form via the Kansas Board of Regents, a body that does not have direct oversight of community colleges. When the letter was first discussed, some board members said it was an embarrassment that damaged the college’s reputation.
Lawson argued that she was seeking advice from the lawmakers, did not ever intend for the letter to be made public and she was willing to discuss her concerns in executive session. However Musil turned that argument around Thursday saying she sent the letter in secret while asking for transparency.
“It’s about sending secret emails and then telling the press and telling this board it’s about transparency,” Musil said. He added that Lawson misled the board by not immediately admitting she wrote the email when it was brought up at the November and December meetings.
The approach to the legislators goes against the college’s support of local control, he said. “The goal of this was that the public and this board and this staff would never know it was sent. We would get a piece of legislation introduced that says, ‘Hey Topeka come put your thumb on Johnson County Community College.’ We wouldn’t know where it came from.”
Musil also said that being mentioned in the letter was intimidating to staffers who have done a good job for the school.
Meeting gets tense as members trade accusations
The meeting was tense at times, with arguments and accusations back and forth. At one point Trustee Nancy Ingram accused Lawson of asking the search team for information about finalists for a replacement of President Joe Sopcich, when names are not planned to be announced until next week. Lawson said she did not ask for any names and asked Ingram for proof.
Lawson said board members were pushing a “false narrative,” noting that she did not send the letter anonymously but that her name was redacted and a JCCC footer added somewhere along the line.
She has also said she did not send the email to the state Board of Regents. Allan Hallquist, the lawyer hired by the board as fact finder, did not establish how the email ended up there, but noted in his findings that she did sign a sworn oath she did not send it to that board. No explanation was given for why the email history was redacted from the board packet.
When asked, Hallquist said he could not determine Lawson’s intent in writing the letter.
Lawson said she supports the staff and did nothing out of malice for them or the school. “It’s important in transparency that we have the ability to seek information,” she said. “I do love our staff. I love the people and the students and the faculty here.”
“I ask questions because if I don’t know I ask questions,” she said. “That is what I grew up doing is asking questions and it’s not meant to be seen as an accusation, it’s not meant to be seen as an attack.”
Trustees faced pushback from many in audience
The board did not specify which parts of the code of conduct Lawson violated. Musil asked board members to consider that matter privately, saying they could vote against the censure if they believe she did not err.
Visitors to the meeting left no doubt about where they stood. Several stood up during the public comment time at the beginning to blister the board’s ears about transparency and the upcoming censure vote.
Lori Slettehaugh of Lenexa noted that Lawson was elected by a large margin in 2017. “She won in such a decisive way because the voters trust her,” she said. “With a budget of over $150 million an important question for taxpayers to consider is, do we really want only yes men on the board that oversees one of the largest taxpayer funded budgets in our county or do we want someone who asks the difficult questions that no one else is willing to ask?”
Jae Moyer of Overland Park said the censure of Lawson feels like “gaslighting,” a type of mental manipulation of the truth. “Trust is a hard thing to earn and you have certainly not earned mine. Back off of Angeliina. Stop spewing mistruths to the public. And cancel this revolting censure vote.”
Said Neisha Benson of Olathe, “I believe you owe Trustee Lawson a public apology,” and Val Ball, formerly a candidate for the trustee board, called the board a “rubber stamp” that stifles dissent.