JCCC Intimidating Whistleblower Trustee
Over the past few weeks here at Kaw & Border, we’ve discussed many of the issues surrounding local elections — from turnout to the control liberals have over most local elections, particularly here in Johnson County. From turnout to simple apathy on the part of the electorate at large, particularly conservatives, Johnson County is operated by what is essentially the “Johnson County Oligarchy” — a small band of elite people from one part of the political spectrum — basically, the Johnson County “moderate” wine and cheese crowd.
This last election, we did see some popular uprisings in Fairway, Merriam, and Roeland Park. However, vast areas of the county remain controlled by the oligarchy, and turning this problem around will be difficult simply because conservatives have always trouble recruiting candidates for city councils, school boards, or other local governing boards. Some of it is because some of the issues don’t fire the conservative base up as much.
Another one is a personal one for the candidate — who wants to be 1 of 7 or 1 of 8, which is the likelihood on many of these local boards? You’re likely to not be treated favorably in the press, you’re likely to be ostracized by your colleagues on the board, and given the widespread apathy by conservatives to these local boards, the grassroots backup for your efforts is likely to be thin. So why even try?
No where is this possibility more evident than on the JCCC Board of Trustees, where recently-defeated Trustee Ben Hodge has been ripped apart by his fellow board members and Steve Rose, simply for being what amounts to a whistleblower to “absolute power” tactics that often occur when a board is controlled nearly unanimously by one political party — in this case, the Johnson County Oligarchy.
So what has Hodge done that has so annoyed his fellow Trustees?
Way back in February, the Board of Trustees held an executive session, presumably to discuss personnel issues — specifically an evaulation of Dr. Calaway. During that session, the budget was discussed including possible cuts. According to Hodge, the information that Calaway distributed contained about 50 items that were under consideration for upcoming budget cuts. The list contained only two “partial” employee names (like “B. Hodge”), which was the justification Calaway and the rest of the Board used in having a closed meeting. This is most likely a violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Ben Hodge brought this to light and was even praised for it in the Kansas City Star by columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah.
Also, in a previous letter responding to Hodge (regarding tax increases), four of the board members wrote a letter to the Star criticizing Hodge. They apparently did not realize — or care — that this in itself was a violation of the open meetings act.
One would think that the issue would be resolved then, that the Board of Trustees, who even received a letter from The Kansas City Star informing them of the violation in regards to the budget meeting (which Ben describes here, including a text of the letter), would have apologized for the mishap and backed off. Hodge said it best in this post on RedCounty.com:
My view is this: Calaway and JCCC Board Chair Shirley Brown-VanArsdale should commit to changing their future behavior, and then let’s all move on. That’s what should have been done weeks ago. But Chair Brown-VanArsdale will not say anything. And Calaway unfortunately decided to embark on a fight against the media and the open meetings laws, and he will not back down. He has rudely criticized a veteran member of the press for writing an article in the way that Calaway disapproved, and he continues to remind everybody — employees, voters, the press — that he does not agree with a traditional interpretation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
Rather than this “above board” approach allowing everyone to cool down and move on, essetnially Calaway, with presumably the full cooperation of the majority of the Board of Trustees, has decided to manufacture a crisis over what could have been a simple acknowledged mistake.
Instead, they dug in their heels and still claim no violation ever occurred. JCCC President Terry Calaway sent an e-mail to employees criticizing Hodge and Jim Sullinger, the reporter who discussed the KOMA violation (and budget discussions) with Hodge. Ben Hodge was essentially a whistleblower — not just on the original KOMA violations but on the subsequent misinformation Calaway (and, through him, three other board members) has given the public.
Simply put, Hodge is not one of them and is calling them out on their shaningans. He is the classic definition of a whistleblower. And you know what elite oligarchs due to whistleblowers — intimidation.
Calaway’s actions and defense of violating KOMA are bizarre in themselves. Arguing that because the budget effects employees, that therefore the budget can be discussed in executive session, is perhaps the most ridiculous argument ever hatched out of a local board. Calaway has essentially dug himself an intellectual hole by basically saying that they will willingly violate the law. If you judge him by his ever-changing arguments, soon he will have dug himself to China. You can read about the entire saga in this post on RedCounty by Hodge. Folks, Calaway is actually even claiming that KOMA only applies to verbal statements.
Of course, this ignores the fact that Calaway said, in an e-mail to employees at JCCC, that budget issues were in fact discussed at the meeting:
“The irresponsible nature of this reporting is exacerbated by the fact that the process under consideration had taken place as part of a board of trustees executive session, during which time a brainstormed list of potential cost-saving measures was discussed.”
Yet, then in a Gardner News article, he said this:
“We’re very careful about discussion in executive session,” Calaway said. “We have an exceptionally experienced board, most particularly our chair and vice chair. They truly understand the (KOMA) criteria. We’re very careful about it, which was why there wasn’t any discussion about this material.”
Huh?? Which is it, Terry?
First of all, the argument that because two employee names were discussed, that therefore the discussion must be held in executive session, violates the spirit of KOMA. To buy into the argument Calaway is using, anytime a budget is discussed, because it could potentially involve cutting someone’s job, all budget discussions must be held in private.
Secondly, the fact that the issue was clearly discussed but now they’re saying it wasn’t is particualrly silly. It’s pretty clear it was — otherwise, this whole “manufactured crisis” wouldn’t have occurred anyway. It’s just nonsensical to claim otherwise.
But what’s even more odd and well, frightening, is not merely the ever-changing stories from Calaway or the fact he is even defending the KOMA violation — it’s what he’s attempting to do to Hodge via the media and now, legal means.
He started out by sending two separate e-mails to employees — of which Ben was unable to respond to due to the fact he was up for election on April 7. This is ridiculous in our view — as it’s not like Ben’s responsiblity as a Trustee – and rights to respond – go away simply because he’s running for office. That is rather worrisome in itself.
Next, Calaway continues to discuss his own evaluation by Hodge in public — as if he’s somehow offended (he obviously is) that Hodge gave him a less than perfect review. As Hodge describes,
“Early on in this debate, Calaway openly informed the press that his evaluation was the main purpose of the closed meeting. And it was Calaway — not me — that released the rating that he received from me on one part of the evaluation (fiscal responsibility, where I ranked him as a 3 out of 5).”
It’s troubling that the College President would stoop to such levels, rather than allowing cooler heads to prevail and simply admitting his error — or even saying something simple like:
“Trustee Hodge and I have a disagreement over KOMA and over wider budget and tax issues. However, in the interest of the public, we will refrain from future executive session discussions over the budget, as long as no specific employees are discussed.”
Easy, right? Not if you’re part of the oligarchy, and you feel you have absolute, unchecked power because five (and soon to be seven) of the trustee members will side with you, and not with the public at large.
Finally, he is not resorting to both personal and legal threats over the mere fact that Ben is bringing these issues to the public’s attention. Hodge brought these threats to light in this post on RedCounty.com.
First, Hodge says that not too long after the February meeting that this whole “crisis” originated from, during a phone conversation, that “Calaway threatened me. The threats were implied, but they were clear: you will never work at JCCC, and I will sue you for slander/defamation.”
Second, in a letter from board attorney Mark Ferguson, the following was stated:
I want to caution you against making any public criticism or attacks of fellow board members or the College president, which may be defamatory in nature. Not only is it simply unnecessary and embarrassing, but more significantly, it might subject you to personal liability.
He goes on to say this:
I just reviewed your public redcounty blog. You outright accuse Dr. Calaway and the Board leadership of “unethical behavior.” You also state that there is a “recent violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act” and refer to a “cover-up.” In prior emails and web blog postings, you have accused Dr. Calaway and others of lying and engaging in dishonesty. While you may have a difference of opinion about certain events or the application of KOMA, it is not only inappropriate, but defamatory to state these difference of opinions as fact. To continue with these kinds of baseless allegations, your labels are not only false, but are made in reckless disregard of the truth and appear on their face to be made with the intent to injure the reputation of others. Your pattern of public comments and anticipated public retaliation in tonight’s board meeting serves no legitimate purpose and is construed to be malicious.
So according to this lawyer, Hodge stating his own views is now subject to defamatory and malicious? Seriously folks, we linked to nearly everyone of Hodge’s posts in this blog. Are any of these posts anything more than political disagreements? Just unbelievable.
Finally, there is the “punch”:
Please be forewarned that any comments that you make which are attacking of your fellow board members, the college president, the college administration or the faculty must be based on fact and must not be false. Out an abundance of caution and to make sure that you are warned in advance of your actions, any personal attacks waged in the public will not be tolerated and will likely be met with legal claims against you. As attorney to the Board, it is within the scope of my responsibility to protect the Board from legal liability and represent the Board as a legal entity, when legal matters arise. This is one of those occasions.
Based on whose interpretation of fact, Mr. Ferguson? Yours? Calaway’s? Other board members’? The answer is yes to all, obviously — collectively, the oligarchy which keeps Calaway and Ferguson employed and the rest of the board in power.
The claim that Hodge is making personal attacks or false statements — or potentially legally liable statements — is so far beyond the pale it can mean nothing more than intimidation pure and simple.
What’s ironic here is that it is Hodge — not Calaway or the Board members — who could have potential legal claims of defamation. In some ways, this is an attempt to buy his silence through implied and real threats.
Now, should Hodge be worried? No. The Board knows it’s legal claims are frivelous.
The real problem here is that the course of action is even being taken and the potential chilling effect it could have on any kind of dissent on a board which is controlled primarily by the oligarchy. Is this really no different than a CEO of a corporation threatning the job of a whistleblower?
Consider these questions:
Can an elected official who feels other board members have willingly violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act not speak up about that for fear of a lawsuit? Will they have to choose between staying quiet about potential violations or threats from the board’s lawyer, including personal lawsuits of which they’d have to pay to defend?
Can an elected official such as Hodge not personally reveal conversations he’s had with public employees about budgetary matters that deal with taxpayer dollars and public employees?
Can an elected official not state facts (as he sees them) to the public without fear of intimidation and threats, whether in the media or real?
Can an elected official on a board speak up about any issue or raise any concern or even publicly criticize the actions of a fellow board member or a public employee (such as a city manager, college president, etc) about public matters, without fear of intimidation or lawsuit?
If you are a citizen concerned about this and you might want to run, why would you, if the above questions are even remotely possible? Even absent the ridiculous legal threats, who would want to be ostracized by their fellow board members — and folks like Steve Rose — by simply standing up for what you feel is right, both legally and policy-wise?
Make no mistake, the JCCC Board of Trustees is no different in makeup than city councils across our region. They are all predominantly controlled by the elite of Johnson County, due to the complicit nature of the voting public who refuses to pay attention — let alone vote — to what’s going on under their noses. That’s not say every board or council would do as the JCCC Board is doing — we certainly hope not — but the possibility certainly exists given that most of these folks are from the same country club cloth where conservatives are crazy.
The final ironic twist to this?
On the very day Calaway — through Ferguson — was sending a letter of intimidation and legal threats to Ben Hodge over his whistleblowing over actions taken by the Board of Trustees — a “tea party” attended by 10,000 people was taking place right on the JCCC campus itself. Yet, sadly, if it were not for Hodge speaking to this group about his battle, most of those in attendance would be ignorant about the outright affronts to the taxpayer taking place at the very school they were protesting at.
For the sake of Ben Hodge — but more so, for the sake of the taxpayers of Johnson County, here is hoping that the energy from the tea parties turns into real action — and that in two years, the all-oligarchy board is given a shot in the arm by the victory of three brave candidates — backed by legions of tea partiers — who will in their own way, issue a “cease and desist” order for this ugly chapter in the JCCC Board of Trustee’s history.