Higher education chief ‘mistakenly’ ordered 21 executive raises without board approval

The state’s merged public college system backpedaled Tuesday as its top executive announced that 21 raises he “mistakenly” authorized during the past 10 months would be reassessed by its governing board.

That includes the $49,000 increase granted recently to Michael P. Meotti, the executive vice president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education. Meotti announced earlier Tuesday he would forfeit the increase and return his annual salary to $183,339.

The 21 pay hikes ordered between Dec. 20, 2011, and Sept. 21 by Robert A. Kennedy, president of the regents’ system, included nine double-digit percentage increases, in connection with an administrative reorganization.

Kennedy also reduced pay for one central office administrator.

“I approved them mistakenly thinking I had the authority to do so,” Kennedy told The Mirror in a late afternoon telephone interview, noting that these raises will stay in place until the board has a chance to review if they are appropriate.

“If they felt they were inappropriate, they can rescind them.”

State law and the appointed board’s bylaws state that compensation is the board’s responsibility.

Kennedy Robinson

Robert A. Kennedy (left), president of the Board of Regents, and Lewis Robinson Jr., chairman of the board.

And while Kennedy called his actions a mistake, the regents’ central office issued a statement that explained his role in ordering the increases.

“The president employs staff, and the board fixes the compensation of such personnel,” read a written statement the system’s central office issued late Tuesday afternoon.

“In many cases, those duties are delegated to the chief executive officer. In this case, President Kennedy approved the salary adjustments and the Board of Regents … will review and determine the appropriateness of all personnel salary adjustments that were made on the basis of additional duties, responsibilities, and roles assigned resulting from the consolidation.”

The statement continued, “as the Board of Regents is a new entity, it will establish a formal process to ensure that these and other actions taken are within the context of the existing personnel policies of the former boards.”

Kennedy also stood by the increases.

“I would defend the raises,” he said. “I do apologize for the process in which they were approved.”

Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said in a statement that, “It’s clear there is a process in place, and that process was not followed.  They are taking steps to address it.”

Meotti’s pay hike, which represented a 27 percent increase, was one of the largest in the group, which added a net total of $262,206 in total compensation to the individuals involved.

Other large increases included:

  • $25,000 for Elaine Clark, from $150,000 to $175,000, who would remain as vice president of facilities;
  • $24,000 for director of policy and research Braden Hosch, from $124,999 to $148,999, who also took on the role of director of academic affairs;
  • $20,000 for Public Affairs Director Colleen Flanagan Johnson, whose pay would rise from $130,000 to $150,000 as she also assumed the role of system chief of staff.
  • $48,000 extra each for Eastern Connecticut State University President Elsa Nunez and Norwalk Community College President David Levinson, who would maintain their current jobs and perform new administrative duties in the central office. Nunez earns $299,460 as the president of Eastern, and Levinson earns $204,188 as Norwalk’s president. A spokeswoman for the system said that state law requires the two new positions in the system offce, and “Had David and Elsa not accepted double breasted roles at $48,000 each, 2 [vice presidents] would have cost roughly 200,000 each.”

The raises, first disclosed Monday by The Mirror, drew strong criticism from the co-chairwomen of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, who said members of the regents’ board had indicated they never voted on those pay hikes.

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, also charged that the increases were inappropriate given the state’s fiscal challenges, as well as sacrifices recently imposed on both college students and state employees.

The co-chairwomen said that all savings from the reorganization should be redirected to support academic programs, and that even those administrators asked to take on new responsibilities shouldn’t be receiving pay hikes right now.

“The legislative intent was for those savings to go to the campuses,” Bye said, adding she understood this to be Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s intent as well. “That was his stated goal. It was our stated goal. Whoever was responsible for this was not respecting those goals.”

Bye added after Tuesday’s announcement by the system office, “I expect that President Kennedy — and especially the Board of Regents — will review these raises in the same manner that they reviewed Mr. Meotti’s salary and that they will take into account the context of these economic times for the state of Connecticut.”

Willis said any increased reimbursement these employees have already received should be returned immediately.

“I think they violated the law. They are going to have to return the money,” she said. “There’s a process. This was handled very shoddily… I just don’t know how you could raise salaries like this and not run it by anyone. It’s not like [President Kennedy] is new to this.”

The Board of Regents increased tuition by 3.1 percent this year at the community colleges and by 3.8 percent at the four-year state colleges. That tuition increase is expected to bring in an additional $12.8 million in revenue this year.

State fiscal challenges

State government finished the 2011-12 fiscal year with a $143 million general fund deficit, and Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo certified a $27 million shortfall on Oct. 1 for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

Most state employees are in the second year of a two-year wage freeze ordered by the concessions agreement negotiated by Malloy and state worker union leaders.

And Malloy urged all agency heads, including Kennedy, during a Sept. 25 meeting to look for opportunities to trim costs because he expects another difficult fiscal year.

Bye had refused Tuesday to rule out holding a legislative hearing to probe how the raises were ordered after the regents’ central office had been silent about the increases Friday, Monday and most of Tuesday.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, issued his own call for a legislative inquiry late Tuesday.

“What exactly is going on here?” he wrote in a letter to Bye asking she hold a public hearing this month on the matter. “I do not believe the legislature envisioned these developments when it approved higher education ‘reforms’ more than a year ago. The apparent breakdown in support of higher education and the lack of transparency in running these systems are perhaps more disturbing.”

Malloy told WTIC 1080-AM during an event in Plainville this morning that he was not involved in the raises, and he does not know who approved them.

“The Regents’ system needs to run itself, but it needs to run itself well and be accountable to the public. And I think this thing is going to turn out OK,” Malloy said. “That is a decision to be made within that system.”

On Meotti’s decision to forfeit the raise, Malloy said, “I think that that’s probably the right thing.”

Vice Chairwoman Yvette Melendez said, “These were a mistake, clearly. These are decisions that need to be made by the board.

“There is no question in my mind that this is somehing that requires immediate review,” Melendez said.

Lewis Robinson Jr., board chairman, could not be reached for comment late Tuesday afternoon.

The board is slated to meet at 2:30 p.m. Friday.