It's possible to live in Bend and never set foot on the Central Oregon Community College campus. The college sits on the far west side of the city, closer to the National Forest than downtown. Perched atop one of the city's steepest inclines in an area that gets little through traffic, it's nearly invisible to most of the community. In a way, it can be a world unto itself - a place where more than 9,000 students are enrolled and a few thousand more are taking enrichment courses.
But this year has been different; the college - and its student government - has found itself mired in controversy after the school's student government, the Associated Students of Central Oregon Community College (ASCOCC), came under scrutiny from the college's student newspaper, The Broadside. Among the stories published by the paper were allegations that student government members may have steered lucrative work to their friends and that student leaders partied at a leadership conference on the coast, using student-fee dollars to upgrade their accommodations at the event. At one point last fall, internal discussions between administrators indicated that the school had considered disbanding ASCOCC entirely. Over the past few months, college administrators and ASCOCC's executive board members have sat down to formalize the student governments relationship with the school, including its ability to use student fees. In the meantime, ASCOCC has taken the step of hiring its own lawyer to represent it in its dealings with the college brass.
The meetings between administration and ASCOCC continue, but to understand the background for these sit downs, one must know about the almost soap-opera-like series of events that brought into question the limits of student government and the college's ability to regulate its students.
Beginning near the end of the fall 2010 term, ASCOCC members met with college administrators, including college president Jim Middleton, to begin talks to clarify the student government's relationship with the college and the organization's future at COCC. Neither representatives from the student government nor the college administration would comment on what was discussed or decided, agreeing to wait until the meetings are concluded - which will likely be sometime this winter term, or soon after.
"If there was more clarification of student government and how it relates to the college, we probably wouldn't be having these meetings," says ASCOCC Marketing and Advertising Coordinator Brenda Pierce, who is in her third year with ASCOCC (second as an elected member) and is studying with the hope of eventually attending law school.
The hazy understanding of the student government's role may have opened the door for the other events of the past term. During that time, there was also an effort by one group of students to recall the ASCOCC members, and a move by another to pull funding from The Broadside, even as the newspaper was critically reporting on the student organization. It was during that time, that ASCOCC hired attorney Greg Lynch, who says that the students were the ones eager to define their relationship with COCC and that the college didn't charge in looking to accuse ASCOCC of wrongdoing.
"COCC is not the Lone Ranger here... No one's taken the time to lay out the guidelines in which [the student government] functions," says Lynch
Currently, ASCOCC oversees a budget that includes a $1.50-per-credit student fee (up to 12 hours per student) for each term. According to the 2010-2011 budget posted on the ASCOCC website, this totals about $260,000 in student fees for the school year. The money is used to hold events, fund clubs and college programs - including The Broadside - and, among other uses, pays the organization's operating expenses. The funds are also used to cover the council members' salaries. Council members earn about $800 per month. ASCOCC also pays honorary members to attend meetings and perform other work for the organization, at least one honorary member has earned more than the executive members.
While little has been said about what's been discussed at the ongoing meetings between the two entities, Lynch did say that ASCOCC hoped to establish a budget committee comprised of administrators and students that would agree on the organization's budgetary restrictions. From there, the student government would be free to spend its funds autonomously, as long as they operated within the guidelines established by the committee's budget. Dean of Students and Enrollment Services, Alicia Moore, said that the idea of a budget committee was just one of the items on the table during the meetings.
Ron Paradis, the director of college relations for COCC, confirmed that it was ASCOCC who approached the college about the issue.
"At the beginning of this year, the student government approached the administration to see about the [ratification of the] student fees. We realized the board had never formally done that," says Paradis.
E-mails from administrators and ASCOCC members released to the media, including the Source Weekly, through public records requests show ASCOCC asked the college in early September for some historical background pertaining to its ability to use student fees. By October 12, ASCOCC, in a memorandum to its faculty advisor, announced that they had hired Lynch to assist the student government in clarifying "ASCOCC's autonomy" and to "solidify ASCOCC's authority to allocate student fees within the structure of ASCOCC's constitution and bylaws." The document also indicates that they would hire a consultant for public relations training. The PR specialist, India Simmons, has advocated for ASCOCC since her hiring in October and had worked with some of the current ASCOCC members on the 2009 bond campaign for the college. Both Lynch and Simmons are paid with student fees.
Another point in the memorandum says that they sought legal counsel to "ensure that COCC cannot dissolve or alter ASCOCC as this definitive process progresses."
A few weeks before that memorandum was sent out, Moore had provided administrators, including college president Middleton, with a draft proposal suggesting the college had two options for dealing with ASCOCC. The first was a list of steps the student government could take to create a "more productive, less combative relationship" with the college that included complying with public meeting and public record laws and drafting a fiscal policy. The second option would have had COCC's board no longer recognize ASCOCC, thus setting into motion a process of developing a new student government.
"Controversy is a Myth"
Since February of 2010 when then-Broadside editor in chief Don Iler wrote an editorial in which he criticized ASCOCC for hiring Pierce's boyfriend, Robert Walker, to make videos for the organization's social marketing projects, the student-run newspaper had been reporting on ASCOCC's practices, especially in terms of how the group spent student funds. In return, the paper received plenty of pushback from the organization.
Lynch said he believes that The Broadside, by way of erroneous reporting, has been the cause of much of the perceived conflict between the college and ASCOCC.
"All this business about the conflict - that was all a myth that was created by The Broadside," says Lynch, who wrote a letter to the editor in the November 17 issue of The Broadside in which he asserted that the newspaper was taking, "great liberty with creating inferences that are simply not true."
The members of The Broadside's staff, including interim editor Kirsteen Wolf, stand by their reporting, saying that any errors they made in the course of their coverage had been corrected in subsequent issues.
"The Broadside is a micro-local publication, so it's our responsibility to report on events involving our campus. Who else is going to cover the ASCOCC meetings?" says Wolf, "The Broadside reported what was found in document requests, research and interviews."
E-mails between ASCOCC and college administrators indicate that there were some disagreements between the two bodies, most of which pertained to public records requests filed by The Broadside seeking financial records, among other documents, from ASCOCC.
In early October, The Broadside began filing requests to ASCOCC for their payroll reports and documentation of other expenditures. There was a delay in response from ASCOCC and eventually the college administrators turned over the records. Pierce says that ASCOCC wanted to first review the documents - and need time to clarify the organization's legal responsibilities.
"There've been times when we weren't sure if we are or if we're not supposed to do something. Do we release the information or does the college? Is there a specific process?" says Pierce.
The Broadside staff eventually contacted the Deschutes County district attorney's office for assistance in obtaining the records. Within days, the records were turned over by the college administrators, who had received the same records request from The Broadside and The Bulletin. About two weeks later, The Broadside ran a story that used information from the college's payroll documents to report that Pierce's boyfriend, Walker, had been paid almost $20,000 during a roughly one-year period for making short Web videos and performing other services.
Simmons, the PR professional hired on behalf of ASCOCC, defends ASCOCC's choice to pay Walker for the video work, some of which can be seen on the group's Facebook page.
"Student funds that go to student training are not a bad thing," she says, adding that there are several other programs on the campus that pay students as they gain experience.
That article wasn't the end of the controversy. In the first week of November, a member of the Oregon State University, Cascade Campus student government, mounted a recall effort, charging that the campus needed to "clean house" within ASCOCC.
The college and the student government will continue meeting this term and Moore says the relationship between the school and ASCOCC is hardly contentious. However, there's been no resolution yet as to how the two entities will interact on a campus that has seen its enrollment surge in recent years. The college is entering a period when the increased class size will mean increased funds and more responsibility for student government than it's seen in the 60-plus-year history of the college.
"Hopefully, this will get us to the point where both the student government and the college believe the relationship [between the two] is clear," says Paradis.