Three incumbent Cowley College trustees discussed campaign topics last month with the college’s lobbyist at a pre-arranged meeting at the Arkansas City campus.
The meeting was described as informal, short and personal, but it has raised questions about whether it was appropriate, because only candidates who are sitting trustees were invited and the meeting involved a college-paid consultant on college property.
JoLynn Foster, one of the incumbents, said this week that Nancy Burger, one of the other incumbents, arranged the Sept. 4 visit with Jessica Lucas, the college’s governmental affairs liaison.
Lucas operates J-Squared Communications and is contracted with the college to represent the school’s interests in Topeka. She frequently makes presentations to the board of trustees, and she led the college’s successful sales tax campaign to build a satellite campus in Wellington.
Foster said Burger has known Lucas for a long time and that Burger nervous about being a candidate and was seeking guidance. (Burger was appointed to fill a vacant seat). Foster and board chair Jill Long agreed to go with Burger to consult with Lucas.
The meeting took place on campus because the three incumbents were scheduled to be there at a finance subcommittee meeting about the same Lucas was scheduled for a meeting about technical education, Foster explained.
Foster said the meeting lasted about 20 minutes. She recalled that it included talk about an upcoming candidates’ forum and about using Facebook in campaigns.
The discussion with Lucas had nothing to do with college business, Foster added, and Lucas did not charge the college for her time. “She was off the clock as far as the college was concerned.”
Burger and Long did not reply to emails or phone calls seeking comment.
All three candidates challenging the incumbents in the Nov. 5 election questioned the meeting.
“Seems inappropriate to me that they would be using a person who is obviously a contractor with the college to try to benefit the incumbents,” said Harold “Doc” Arnett, a former vice president at the college. “I don’t know if it is legal or not. It certainly strikes me as something that’s inappropriate.”
Mark Skoglund, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, said that the state’s Campaign Finance Act, which addresses the use of public resources for political purposes, does not apply to school boards except the Wichita K-12 district because of its size.
There doesn’t appear to be anything specifically against the meeting — as described by participants — in the college’s Board of Trustee code of ethics.
The code does state that trustees should resist temptation and outside pressure to use their position to “benefit myself of any other individual or agency apart from the interest of the community college district.”
Mike Bergagnini, another candidate for office, called the meeting improper because it involved the college’s paid lobbyist to provide assistance only to incumbents.
Candidate Jonathan Hansen said he doesn’t know the full details, but the optics don’t look good. Some people think the college board isn’t as transparent as it could be, he added.
“It’s things like this that have people raise eyebrows and has people questioning,” Hansen said.
But Foster said it never occurred to her that the meeting with Lucas was problematic. She heard of complaints about it afterward, she said, but thinks the issue has been overblown.
Foster said the meeting could have been held anywhere, and candidate could contact Lucas for input.
“She was not in the position as a lobbyist when we were talking to her,” Foster said.
Cowley pays Lucas $12,000 per year for her work as governmental affairs liaison, Foster said. That figure was not confirmed by deadline Friday.
Lucas said her talk with the incumbents was more of a brief conversation than a meeting.
“We visited a little bit about the upcoming forum,” Lucas said. “I wouldn’t say that I imparted any advice. It was just a meeting to find out what the format of the forum was — you know, would they have opening remarks? If they were to give opening remarks, how much time was each candidate going to be allotted.”
Lucas estimate the discussion lasted 15 minutes.
“Other than that, we just talked about things that were happening at the college that are good things to highlight in any conversation,” Lucas said.