Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval said last week that the University of Nevada regents are in a precarious legal position because of a historically casual attitude toward the Nevada Open Meeting Law. Other legal experts say the regents’ denial of due process to two employees could cost taxpayers millions if litigation goes against the university.
During a closed meeting, the regents recently fired a community college president and his adviser without first permitting the two men to hear the charges against them or to respond to the charges.
Five open-meeting complaints have been filed against the regents, which may be a Nevada record.
Earlier this year questions were raised about the conduct of state legislator Wendall Williams (D-Vegas) and his assistant, Topazia Bridgit Jones. Jones acted as an aide to the Williams during the 2003 Nevada Legislature, a time when she was also a Community College of Southern Nevada employee.
After the session, regents hired a former IRS agent to investigate the matter. Investigator Jeffrey Cohen produced a report more than a foot thick that appears the equivalent of a raw investigative police file, full of information of varying reliability including rumors, unsworn interviews and speculation. According to a confidential Dec. 18 internal legal memo obtained by the Reno News & Review, some of the information came from a former university employee convicted in March 2000 of misapplication of student loan funds. That’s something the regents were not told before the vote to fire.
In law enforcement, such files are the start of an investigation, but the regents treated the report as final and reliable. During the two-day closed meeting, CCSN President Ron Remington, a 30-year veteran of Nevada higher education, was demoted to a faculty position along with Remington adviser John Cummings. Neither man was given a hearing to address accusations leveled against them.
A vote to fire a third university worker, state legislator Chris Giunchigliani, also without a hearing, was defeated. The votes to fire, held in an open meeting after the closed session, were 7 to 6 against Remington and 9 to 4 against Cummings.
Of Northern Nevada’s regents, Doug Hill of Washoe County, Marcia Bandera of Elko County and Jill Talbot Derby of Douglas voted to fire. Washoe County’s Howard Rosenberg voted against the action.
After the vote, questions rose about lack of due process. It appears unlikely that any of the regents read the Cohen report in its entirety before voting. The regents were each given a copy of the report, but they weren’t permitted to remove the copies from the meeting room. The regents’ access to the report was limited to the fewer than 20 hours during the meetings or for short periods before or after the meetings. Some claim the portions of the report read aloud during the meetings featured only information unfavorable to the men.
The Board of Regents has often been the target of open-meeting complaints, some of which have been upheld. In May, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the regents violated the law in discussing a drug-related incident at UNLV without listing the subject on the meeting agenda. The court found similar misconduct by a regents committee.
In an appearance on the Reno television program Nevada Newsmakers, Sandoval said, “Certainly the regents are on the precipice here because there has been … a history of violations of the open-meeting law.”
Sandoval said his office will review the recording of 17 hours of the three-day regents’ meeting, scrutinize the Cohen report and interview all the players.
The firings have further polarized the Board of Regents. This is illustrated by two northern Nevada regents, Derby and Rosenberg.
Rosenberg, an art professor, was elected in 1996. The election of a faculty member seemingly terrified administrative academicians. UNR President Joe Crowley and university lawyer Don Klasic unsuccessfully challenged his taking of office. Rosenberg proved more conservative than his critics expected, winning wide respect within the system and the business community. But the firings clearly pushed his buttons, and he has been caustic in his criticism of tactics used.
“Both of them should have been in the room while this was being gone through, the same way the chancellor was,” Rosenberg said. “Both of them should be accorded the right to listen to the charges against them and be able to talk to us. This business of just firing someone—it’s legal, I’m told. Doesn’t make it right. This is wrong. What has happened to two men is wrong. We’ve thrown away two lives. Nobody has the right to do that.”
Derby, elected in 1988, has a history of activism for women’s rights. Thought to be a civil libertarian, Derby’s vote to fire without a hearing was a shock to admirers (including Rosenberg). She describes it as a matter of institutional efficiency.
“My effectiveness in being a regent requires that I have complete confidence in a president, and if I lose that confidence and that trust, then I have to go around the campus and ask people how things are,” she said. “In those 17 hours, I had lost confidence in that president.”
When asked if hearing Remington’s defense might have restored her trust, she said: “That didn’t occur to me. … If conduct rises to the level of egregious, then we have the right to act as we did.”
Other regents have similarly said that hearing both sides would not have changed their votes. (In an e-mail response to a Nevada resident who complained about her vote, Derby claimed that Remington and Cummings had blocked release of the regents’ meeting transcript. Cummings has denied this.)
Many public figures have questioned the performance of the university’s lawyers. During the closed meeting, there were five attorneys present in the room. Three were the regents’ official counsels—Tom Ray and his deputies, Mary Dugan and Walter Ayres. They reportedly counseled the regents that their actions were legal. Two of the regents themselves, Doug Hill and Brent Whipple, are attorneys. While they would not ordinarily be considered legal advisers with an expertise in open-meeting issues, sources who heard the discussion say the two men offered their own opinions that the board was in compliance with the law because it was discussing merely “procedural” matters.
Numerous outside lawyers, such as former Assembly Speaker Byron Bilyeu, have argued that the state is now extremely vulnerable to litigation by the two fired men because of the denial of due process. Remington, formerly president of Elko’s Great Basin Community College, filed suit on Dec. 3.
In a titillating twist of fate, Remington’s official evaluation as president, conducted by a group of six academic leaders, is going to be delivered at the January regents’ meeting, though he is no longer employed in that post by the university system. The evaluation is reportedly highly favorable.
CCSN was thrown into turmoil by the firings. Chancellor Jane Nichols has undertaken fence-mending meetings on the campus, criticizing the regents’ failure to give the employees a hearing. (During the regents’ meeting, however, Nichols did not speak up for such a hearing.) Though urged by many to do so at another meeting two weeks ago, the regents refused to reinstate the men.
The dispute has attracted national attention. Also, university officials report that they are hearing from campus fundraisers who are troubled by what is going on. Some worry the gains made by Nevada’s higher-education system during the legislative session could be lost.
Former state Human Resources Director Scott Craigie said: “The university system is one of the most important components for feeding our economy and putting professionals into it. They had the best [legislative] session they’ve ever had—49 other states did less than they did. What’s this going to do to the long-term status and funding for the university system?”