FraserJune 25, 2012
Fraser council votes to sue non-accredited ‘university’
By Nico Rubello
C & G Staff Writer
FRASER — The Fraser City Council reaffirmed its decision to halt payments for non-accredited online degrees during a June 19 special session, but also rescinded its vote to try to recover money from the dozen police officers who used them.
The seven-member City Council did vote to retain the law firm of Foley & Mansfield PLLP to look into suing the institutions that issued the unqualified degrees, in particular the Caribbean-based company Almeda University.
Almeda is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, and several states, including Michigan, have banned the use of its degrees for job-related purposes.
A Michigan law passed in 2005, known as the “authentic credentials in education act,” prohibits an individual from knowingly using a “false academic credential” to obtain higher compensation, among other things.
City Attorney Jack Dolan said the law could allow the city to make a case that Almeda had wrongly sold degrees in Michigan in violation of the state law, which states that violators may be held to civil action.
Almeda University does not require any classes or coursework, but rather issues the “life experience” degrees based on past training. Officers reportedly paid upwards of $600 for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice.
Fraser Public Safety Director George Rouhib defended the officers at the June 19 meeting, saying it was the duty of city administrators to review the degrees for legitimacy. Rouhib said he had nothing to do with the approval process.
The officers, he said, saw the city accepting the Almeda degrees and thought using them was OK.
“Certainly, the officers didn’t know anything about (the 2005 state law),” said Rouhib, who does not have an Almeda degree.
And, he said, other officers who have earned legitimate degrees from accredited Michigan universities do not qualify for the educational allowances because the degrees are not related to the field of criminal justice.
“The whole issue of educational compensation in Fraser is somewhat of a complicated issue,” Dolan said.
Fraser Public Safety officers must have at least an associate degree, but may qualify for additional allowances of between $1,500 and $3,000 for obtaining additional degrees. All told, the dozen officers collected about $100,000 in educational allowances during the last six years, said City Manager Rich Haberman.
Haberman, who took over as city manager in June 2010, said he was informed about the non-accredited degrees in late April amid contract bargaining negotiations.
Rouhib said he brought the issue to the attention of two past city managers. He had mentioned the issue at least three times in the past, as early as 2004, he said.
Up until 2009, the officers’ union contract was silent as to whether the degrees had to be from an accredited institution in order to qualify for the educational allowance. In fact, the specification that the degrees come from an accredited college or university in Michigan wasn’t enacted until the contract that took effect July 2009.
At that point, Rouhib said, the understanding was that the issue had been addressed.
“The million-dollar question is why did the city continue paying 12 officers a benefit that was allegedly illegal, and nobody knew about this public act (the “authentic credentials in education act”), including myself,” he said. “The officers weren’t attorneys.”
In fact, the amended contract states that officers who were already collecting the educational allowances were grandfathered in and allowed to keep do so.
Councilwoman Barb Jennings said the city could stop making the payments for Almeda degrees because state law supersedes any union contracts. The council voted 6-1 to do so.
Mayor Doug Hagerty, the sole “no” vote, maintained his stance that an outside investigation by an independent, third-party entity was needed before any action should be taken.
Under an additional motion, which ultimately failed to muster the majority’s support, council members discussed hiring Foley & Mansfield to conduct a fact-finding mission into why the officers were allowed to use the degrees. Jennings said she wanted to know “who knew what when.” The review would have presumably meant interviewing former city officials and union representatives.
Council members Dan Accavitti and Bill Morelli also supported the idea.
Morelli added that he doubted that there was any malevolent intent on the part of the Public Safety officers.
Councilwoman Kathy Blanke, however, opposed the measure, questioning its end result.
“I do not want to go on a witch hunt from 10 years ago,” she said. “It is what it is. Mistakes were made. … At the end of the day, I think it’s more important that we move on.”
City Councilman Paul Cilluffo agreed that the review would be a waste of time. He likened the issue to the city having walked down the street with money falling out of its pocket and then claiming it had been robbed.
“I think there was just a lot of people who didn’t do their job,” he said.
Some Fraser residents also spoke out against the fact-finding mission at the meeting, suggesting that hiring the firm would be “throwing good money after bad.”
Rouhib said it would likely be difficult to get past city administrators and union officials to comply with such a review because the law firm wouldn’t have subpoena powers.
“The question,” he said, “is how do we move forward.”
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