GETTING $500,000: Ana “Cha” Guzman is receiving a $500,000 buyout as president of Santa Fe Community College.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. – A bitter fight between the board of the Santa Fe Community College and its former president is about to be resolved, but the agreement will cost the school — and city taxpayers — $500,000.
What’s more, a critic of the settlement says the board could have removed ousted school president Ana “Cha” Guzmán for just $196,000, rather than a cool half-million dollars.
“I don’t know how you can sit on the board and be that irresponsible,” said Gerald Hotchkiss, a retired magazine publisher and Santa Fe County resident, upon hearing about the mediated settlement.
According to the agreement, the SFCC board said only, ”All Parties care deeply about the College and believe that a mediated settlement is the best way to end this dispute rather than continuing with protracted litigation. The College has agreed to pay Dr. Guzmán $500,00.00 in exchange for a release to settle all claims. All parties look forward to putting this dispute behind them.”
Guzmán and the SFCC board have been fighting since November, when the board put her on administrative leave and then fired her in December. In each case, a divided board voted 3-2 against Guzmán. The board let Guzmán go for “just cause.”
Guzmán responded by hiring lawyers and, citing the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act, accused the board of trying to get rid of her because she was making needed changes to the college’s administration and faculty.
Critics of the former president said she had created a climate of fear among faculty and staff and claimed Guzmán instituted changes without consulting faculty and stakeholders.
Both sides and their lawyers met last week to hammer out an agreement. Details of mediation were disclosed late Tuesday afternoon.
But a look at the contract Guzmán signed upon her hiring in 2012 shows that if the board had decided to fire her for “convenience without cause,” it would have been liable to pay Guzmán just one year’s salary — which was $196,000:
Hotchkiss, an 87-year-old retiree and county taxpayer, points out that the difference between $500,000 and $196,000 is $304,000.
“They didn’t have to put ’cause’ in,” Hotchkiss told New Mexico Watchdog. “I can’t believe the board didn’t talk to some lawyer or some other legal professionals. I can’t believe these people can sit on the board after wasting $300,000 … When they come out and mention ’cause’ — that’s a serious thing. That’s another example of a lot of taxpayer money being wasted.”
“You can’t say that,” said Janet Wise, Executive Director for Marketing and Public Relations at SFCC. “Who knows what would have happened? Who’s to say? Anyone could bring a lawsuit. A person who feels — generally — they’ve been wronged, they have a number of avenues of redress … Who knows what the court would have decided? It’s such a speculative field.”
All four current board members contacted by New Mexico Watchdog declined to talk about the case, citing a non-disparagement clause in the settlement agreement.
But at the time of the firing, board chairman Chris Abeyta — who voted against getting rid of Guzmán — said, “The repercussions will take taxpayer money that has better uses than paying lawyers and lawsuits. Not only will it hurt students, it will hurt the community.”
Click here to see the employment contract Guzmán signed in 2012.
Guzmán has 21 days to sign the buyout and one of her attorneys, Kate Ferlic, told New Mexico Watchdog on Wednesday morning that “Dr. Guzmán has committed to sign the agreement.”
The Guzmán settlement recalls another taxpayer-supported buyout paid to an ousted college president in the state.
In October 2012, Barbara Couture left New Mexico State University after receiving a $453,000 agreement. The university’s board of regents met behind closed doors for two hours before announcing the move and never publicly explained why Couture was placed on administrative leave in the first place, which prompted open meetings advocates across the state to complain bitterly.
“Transparency is a core value of New Mexico State and we remain committed to it,” NMSU Regent Javier Gonzales told the Las Cruces Sun-News at the time. “But these are sensitive negotiations — people’s livelihoods and reputations are at stake.”
In November, the CEO of the New Mexico Lottery was fired by the group’s board without any explanation given to the public. “It’s a personnel item, period,” the head of the board said.
That didn’t wash with state Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, who told New Mexico Watchdog, “I think they need to go back and look at the contracts they’re requiring these people to sign. I think that’s part of problem — the way these contracts are structured. I think oftentimes they tie their own hands as to what can be disclosed and revealed.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski