By Jodi S. Cohen and Stacy St. Clair
When College of DuPage trustees meet Wednesday to vote again on President Robert Breuder's controversial buyout package, years of secrecy surrounding Breuder's contract will come to a head.
The unusual do-over, required because of an unspecified "procedural" error, comes less than a week after the board approved a $763,000 severance deal for Breuder, which sparked widespread criticism over the amount of the agreement and the lack of transparency at the publicly funded community college.
Indeed, records show that, over the past six years, trustees repeatedly have granted Breuder contract extensions and additional perks without public notice or discussion, deals that could have been challenged under state open meetings laws if they had been discovered in time.
"There's a culture of trying to hide things from the public there, and it didn't start with this buyout," said state Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton. "I've never seen elected officials so patently arrogant toward taxpayers and their constituents."
To that end, two watchdog groups filed a lawsuit in DuPage County Circuit Court on Tuesday alleging that the board violated the state's open meetings laws last week when it refused to disclose the details of Breuder's severance package before voting on it. The lawsuit also asks the court to order the college to move Wednesday night's meeting to a larger room on the Glen Ellyn campus in anticipation of a crowd.
An emergency hearing on the request has been scheduled for Wednesday morning.
"Breuder's 'voluntary' retirement should not be accompanied by a rubber-stamped $762,868 severance payout," Adam Andrzejewski, founder of For the Good of Illinois, said in a statement. Andrzejewski's group filed suit along with the Edgar County Watchdogs from eastern Illinois.
"Our lawsuit allows the trustees a time out to think this through. The hard-working students and taxpayers deserve better governance."
The college has an enrollment of more than 28,000 students and receives $108 million a year in county property taxes and $57 million in state money.
Breuder's estimated compensation this year is $484,812, including his $304,887 base salary, a $22,000 housing allowance and a $10,200 car allowance. The school also will pay an estimated $2,100 for his cellphone bill and $10,200 for professional development, according to his contract.
The board increased the value of some of those perks outside of the public view.
Board Chairwoman Erin Birt has not responded to numerous interview requests since the buyout vote.
Under the state's open meetings law, public bodies are allowed to discuss matters not on the agenda during regular meetings, but they are prohibited from voting on them. Any vote also must be preceded by "a public recital of the nature of the matter being considered and any other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted," according to the state attorney general's office.
The college did not do that on several occasions, according to its own records. The statute of limitations on any open meetings violations, however, has long passed.
The board hired Breuder in November 2008, giving him a three-year deal that paid an initial base salary of $249,000. Since that time, there have been at least five contract changes that awarded him extensions, more money and additional time off. All the changes were signed by a board chair, but records show that in three instances they were not placed on the agenda ahead of time and were approved without public discussion.
The first change came in April 2009, after Breuder had been on the job for just a few months. Then, trustees extended his contract from 2012 until 2015. The board also agreed to give Breuder at least $6,000 annually in deferred compensation to be paid out when he left the school.
As required by open meetings law, the change appeared on board agendas before the meeting and was adopted in public session.
Three additional contract modifications — those approved in June 2010, January 2011 and July 2011 — never appeared on board agendas, according to school archives. Instead, those agendas have a standard section for "personnel actions" with no reference to Breuder or actions listed underneath.
Those contract changes, however, appear in board minutes made public after the meeting. They are listed in two instances as an approved "addendum to administrator's agreement" and once as an unspecified "personnel action." In none of those cases do the board's minutes specify that the administrator or personnel being affected is Breuder, nor do they include any details of the contract modifications.
Instead, the three contract changes were approved as part of the consent calendar, a portion of the agenda typically reserved for issues not expected to be controversial. Under parliamentary procedure, the items are approved as a bloc and without discussion of each separate issue.
The June 2010 change gave the president 12 days of "respite and renewal leave" between the spring and fall semester to "focus his thinking and energies" on the upcoming school year. The January 2011 addendum boosted his allowances for his car, housing and professional development, while the July 2011 agreement extended his contract until June 2016 and kept an existing provision that gave him an automatic one-year extension each March.
College spokesman Joe Moore could not explain why the minutes did not reflect the details of those contract modifications.
"I do not have an answer for you on this one," Moore said.
The board attempted to modify Breuder's contract for the fifth — and perhaps final — time last week, when it approved a buyout package that will give a severance payment more than twice his base salary and bring his tenure to a premature close in March 2016. The deal was listed on the agenda prior to the meeting, but the college did not disclose the terms of it until after the vote. The agreement disclosed for the first time that his contract would run until 2019.
"When COD has information they want to get out, they have been very forthcoming about releasing it," said Andrea Alvarez, a lawyer with the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, a nonpartisan government accountability organization that has been monitoring the board. "When there is information they don't want out, they hold it very close to their vests. They should be giving out as much information as allowed by law."
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