Western Courier

Questions surround Western’s Board of Trustees

Bill Welt

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 WIU sees no conflict of interest

Western Illinois University found no conflict of interest with its Board of Trustees chair, J. Michael Houston, prior to his inauguration as mayor of Springfield, Ill.

The Dirty Western blog raised questions over Houston and the possible conflict of interest after Houston was inaugurated in late April.

The blog believed the conflict of interest may exist because as mayor of Springfield, he may be promoting the interests of University of Illinois-Springfield against the interests of Western Illinois.

“A ‘conflict of interest’ is a legal term.  It is not what someone thinks,” Houston said. “I have never been on the blog, but if someone thinks I have conflict of interest, they need to have an attorney document exactly what it is. I checked it out prior to be sworn in as mayor.  I believed that I have demonstrated my commitment to WIU during my 14 years of service on the board.”

According to the University’s trustee bylaws, a conflict of interest exists when there is an activity hampering a trustee’s ability to carry out his/her duties and responsibilities as a board member.

Houston said he took the necessary steps prior to his inauguration.

“Prior to being sworn in as mayor on April 29th, I had an attorney look at my position as a member of the Board of Trustees of WIU as well as another board that I chair to determine if there was a conflict of interest,” he said.  “The attorney looked at and researched the situation, including making contacts with WIU and the Office of the Illinois Attorney General.  There was a determination that there were no conflicts or incapability between my position of mayor and my service on the WIU Board of Trustees.”

Houston has been on the board since 1997. He served as chairman, president and C.E.O. of Town & Country Bank of Springfield throughout most of his board service. He decided to run for mayor in Nov. 2010 after retiring from the bank in Feb. 2009.

Houston chaired two other major organization boards with St. John’s Hospital and the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce before becoming mayor.

“I believe my record speaks for itself and my capabilities,” he said.

Houston previously served as Springfield’s mayor throughout most of the 1980s (1979-1987).

Western lobbyist Dave Steelman said the possible conflict of interest is not as big a deal as people portray it.

“As mayor, he’ll obviously need to be there as supporter of Springfield, Ill. and the things that go on in Springfield, but I don’t believe that detracts from his existing support for Western.”

Trustees await legislative process

The Board of Trustees has four members with terms expired, as well as two vacant positions.

Houston is the only non-student trustee on Western’s board to not have an expired term.

Carolyn Fuller, William Epperly, Donald Griffin and Steve Nelson have reapplied to remain on the board and await the state of Illinois to conclude the appointment process that has suffered delays.

Steelman said the Illinois Senate had introduced Senate Bill 1 to Governor Pat Quinn last year to expedite the process, but was vetoed by Quinn.

“I believe they were trying to encourage the governor’s office to go ahead and make those appointments,” he said.

Steelman explained the legislative process mostly falls on the governor.

 “We have been in contact with the governor’s office on multiple occasions and certainly requested action for our board appointments,” Steelman said. “During the late part of the session they made appointments to Southern Illinois’ board, to Illinois State’s board and to Northern’s board. I can’t help but think that he’ll be making some more appointments in the very near future. I can’t say that’s a certainty, but certainly we’re hopeful.”

Steelman said the process suffered a major setback following the governor’s veto when the House did not act on the veto.

“The Senate acted against his veto, but the House did not; that means it did not complete the process, so the legislation just dies,” he said.

Fortunately, trustees still serve on the board if there has not been a replacement appointed.

Furthermore, the Senate has introduced new legislation that is similar to the bill that would have forced the governor to make appointments.

“The Senate has reintroduced new legislation that’s essentially the same as Senate Bill 1, so that legislation will be hanging over the governor again when they manage to act off that,” Steelman said. “But as it stands right now, we’re back to where we were before the (original) legislation was introduced.”

Houston said the delay has only created frustration for the University and its trustees.

“While it would be nice to have a board with all appointments up-to-date, it has not created problems in the operation of the board or the University,” Houston said. “There is certainly major frustration by those whose appointments have expired and continue to serve.”

Houston added he is optimistic that the current board members will be re-appointed and that the two vacant positions will be filled in the near future.

“I believe that all the current board members will be re-appointed in the relatively near future.”

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Questions surround Western’s Board of Trustees