THE BLOG
12/29/2014 08:49 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

Maybe the Best College Trustee in Illinois

Kathy Hamilton stands four foot eleven, is a mother of two, a classic violinist, and a director at her local ballet. In 2012, she was elected as Trustee of the local community college and won with the most votes in the school's fifty-year history. She has ferociously battled corrupt practices and an imbedded culture of insider trading.

During board meetings at the College of DuPage (COD) in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, IL, Kathy Hamilton is the only Trustee that will stand for the pledge of allegiance. Students, constituents, and taxpayers are literally fenced off from the seven-member board, eleven senior managers and the board lawyer. General public comment is last on the meeting agenda and therefore citizens often wait until midnight for a chance to speak.

Still, she's inspired hundreds of people to attend the meetings.

From the outside, COD looks like it's an impossible environment for systemic reform. It appears that Hamilton is just one mom versus a corrupt machine. But, the fresh faced newbie armed with the mandate from the voters is winning the battle at COD. She's been a driving force to freeze property taxes, reverse a February student tuition hike with an August freeze, open $100 million in hidden "Imprest" spending, and helped stop a corrupted $20 million state construction grant.

Hamilton's leadership has generated national media attention while uniting the teacher's union, tea party, good government groups, prominent business leaders, student organizations, and the citizens-at-large. These are unprecedented alliances in Illinois and a model that could be useful statewide for reformers.

"Thanks to the professors, College of DuPage is one of the nation's top community colleges. But the lack of administrative executive ethics has been troubling. Ethical business practices haven't been a part of COD governance for a very long time," Hamilton said recently. "Therefore, all the groups are helping to squeeze out corrupt practices."

A case in point was when our organization, OpenTheBooks.com, unearthed the college president's unethical strategy to procure $20 million in state construction grant funding. President Robert Breuder outlined a political strategy to the board to bring support to then-incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn. After three front page news stories and a Chicago Tribune editorial, the governor stopped payment.

Hamilton was the only board member to battle this corruption. Her reward? The other six board members censured her. The Chicago Tribune editorial board rightly opined that this was a "badge of honor." For the first time in the six-year tenure of President Dr. Breuder, the faculty voted "no-confidence." At the next few board meetings, activists gave hours of public comments.

Distinguishing herself from the rest of the board came at a professional cost. COD Board Chairman Erin Birt, violating board policy, retaliated by removing Hamilton (the elected Vice-Chairman) from the mandated monthly board agenda-setting meeting. Birt also unilaterally removed Hamilton (the only CPA on the board) from the board audit committee. In his weekly newsletter, President Breuder frequently takes shots at Hamilton based on hearsay and uses college resources to try in vain efforts to besmirch her clean reputation.

Hamilton's opponents on the board and the college administrators became unhinged by the transparency. The craziness seemed to peak at the October and November board meetings. In October, COD Treasurer Thomas Glaser put his fourteen accountants behind the podium and for 45 minutes declared, "We're clean." Then, the college admitted "possible fraud" within their radio station for amounts up to four times annual revenues. In November, Trustee Dianne McGuire bizarrely compared Hamilton's allies to Nazis. This obscene comparison was strongly answered by American Transparency Deputy Director Matthew Tyrmand who lost family in Poland during the Holocaust.

Why have Hamilton and her allies been so voraciously attacked? Recently released spending records show that the board and administration have "gamed the system for personal gain."

Examples of irregularities seem to be endless: the 2013 Five Days of Christmas party where thousands of dollars in gifts, parties, dinners, and alcohol flowed to trustees, senior managers, and the president; over $27,000 not disclosed to the board in payments and fees to the president's private shooting club; $192 million in college checkbook payments to COD foundation board members with troubling circumvention of competitive procurement on some contracts; allegations of insider trading and admission of "possible fraud" in the radio station; a quarter million dollars of alcohol and accessories for the upscale French restaurant tagged as "educational supplies;" six contract extensions and amendments ("executed" without board votes and even through the mail) creating a president's contract worth nearly $500,000 a year.

So, the one mom versus the machine continues, and Hamilton's critics continue to be welcome foils. Trustee Alison O'Donnell spoke derisively of Hamilton, "Are you really a CPA? Weren't you just a stay at home mom?" Trustee Kim Savage battled transparency to open the books on the hidden "Imprest" accounting scheme saying that reviewing every check would "bog down the board." Trustee Nancy Svoboda has consistently voted to hoard up to $220 million in cash balances, hike tuition, and hike property taxes.

Both Trustees Svoboda and Savage are up for re-election in April. Both seem to be sitting ducks for Hamilton's reform agenda. If the reformers prevail, Hamilton will be just one step away from executing on real, systemic reform at COD:

Her critics would have to call her... Chairman.