State Court Judge Jackie Glass Monday overturned decisions made by the Nevada Board of Regents last November, leaving a state community college in the awkward and unprecedented situation of having three presidents.
Compounding the situation, the aftermath of the controversy could leave Nevadans electing fewer of their regents.
In a stormy 17-hour, two-day meeting that began Nov. 20, the regents fired Southern Nevada Community College President Ron Remington and his advisor/lobbyist John Cummings (RN&R, Nov. 25, 2003). An effort to fire a third college employee, Chris Giunchigliani, failed. The two removed men weren’t given hearings or permitted to hear the charges against them. Remington and Cummings remained under contract as university employees and have been serving as instructors. (Although Remington was fired as president, three of the regents have argued that the proper term for their action should be “demoted.”)
The firings came after a closed session of the regents, during which various lawyers employed by the university system assured the regents that they were on firm legal ground. Five open-meeting complaints were quickly filed against the regents, however, and Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval sued them.
This week, Judge Glass agreed that violations of the open-meeting law had occurred and declared the regents’ actions void, effectively reinstating both Remington and Cummings.
That creates an awkward situation for the state, since the regents had appointed an interim president, Paul Gianini, to replace Remington. They had also quickly conducted a search for a permanent replacement, appointing Paul Carpenter of Wisconsin at their June 3 meeting.
As a result, the college now has three presidents: an interim president (Gianini), an appointed president (Carpenter) and a reinstated president (Remington). Gianini’s contract ends June 30.
Northern Regent Howard Rosenberg foresaw the dilemma. He initially voted against Carpenter’s appointment on grounds that now seem clairvoyant:
“The courts could tell us that President Remington is reinstalled, and then what do we do?”
But Rosenberg finally changed his vote, saying he wanted any president lured to Nevada to “be brought on with the unanimous support of all of the board.” Rosenberg had voted against the firings in November and has been harshly critical of board tactics.
How the dispute will now be sorted out is uncertain. Another northern regent who did vote for the firings, attorney Doug Hill of Reno, said he has no idea what the board will do now.
“Oh, jeez,” he said. “Beats me. There are probably as many theories about what should happen as there are people involved.”
He was reluctant to comment and referred inquiries to acting university system Chancellor James Rogers. Rogers did not become chancellor until four months after the firings.
The appointments of the second and third CCSN presidents now appear to be void, since there was no vacancy for the regents to fill. But the regents could go back and fire Remington again after observing the required open-meeting niceties.
Hill said it’s possible he and his fellow regents have appointed a president to a nonexistent vacancy. “Another possibility is we could have another meeting and do it all over again.”
What is clear is that the embarrassing clash has made the regents look less than competent—and, as it happens, one of their targets is a longtime advocate of changing the way regents are selected.
Giunchiliani, who is also a member of the Nevada Legislature, has for several years been pushing a constitutional amendment to change the board to mostly appointive positions. She says the way the regents have acted in the last year has given new life to her proposal.
“That type of behavior that they’ve engaged in will lend itself to getting my measure approved.”
At the 2003 Nevada Legislature, Giunchigliani proposed Assembly Joint Resolution 11, amending the Nevada Constitution to reduce the board of regents from 13 members to nine and making six of them appointed by the governor. The remaining three elected members would run from the state’s three U.S. House of Representatives districts. (If Nevada gained another seat in the House, one of the six appointed members would move to being elected from the new district.)
AJR 11 was approved by the Legislature last year. It must be voted on by the lawmakers again in 2005 and, if approved, will go on the ballot in 2006. Gov. Kenny Guinn, a former UNLV president, supports appointive regents and has said the clash over the regents’ conduct has helped generate support for a change. In fact, there has been widespread perplexity at the regents’ behavior during the last year, since they seemed to be trying to do themselves out of their jobs.
Giunchigliani concedes that running for the Board of Regents from a congressional district would be expensive, but she says that has become true anyway under the present system.
“It was the easiest, cleanest way to do it because it provided some geographical sense in the system.”
Giunchigliani says there is no guarantee that appointed regents would be more respectful of open-meeting laws or employee rights than elected regents.
“That’s not a given. I think the whole issue of a blended board of elected and appointed regents will call for some changes in the way they do business to protect people. I think the board should be required to have a parliamentarian to run their meetings properly. And their use of private lawyers should be stopped, and they should use deputies from the Attorney General’s Office rather than outside counsel.”
Giunchigliani says that, although she was a target of some of the regents, she will not hand the constitutional amendment off to another legislator to sponsor.
“It’s legislation I introduced long before I ever worked here [at CCSN]. I think I have enough independence of judgment and people will understand that.”
The regents have also been involved in other damaging controversies recently. Earlier this month, they accepted a free ride to and from Elko in the private plane of wealthy businessman Rogers, who they had recently appinted acting chancellor. The action raised more open meeting questions, since a quorum of the board was in the plane and out of sight of the public.
And when the regents selected a search firm to conduct a hunt for a new CCSN president, only one firm was listed on the agenda.