A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dragged Through the Mud

When Brookdale Community College blamed the Monmouth County Freeholders for a huge planned increase in tuition earlier this year, the Freeholders unleashed their venom against now former Brookdale President Peter Burnham, according to the Huff Post. They took his compensation package to the media and sent his expense vouchers to Trenton for investigative scrutiny, expressing their surprise at his outrageous pay and benefits, prompting a public frenzy against Mr Burnham.

The typical resident of Monmouth County isn't a corporate CEO or university president, so Burnham's high salary and benefits, touted in article after article in our newspapers as if evidence of a crime, naturally tended to rub the man on the street the wrong way. And close scrutiny of expense vouchers at this level is bound to dredge up some dirt -- maybe enough to have someone reprimanded or even fired but not a criminal act. Yet his credit card receipts have been "being reviewed by the Attorney General" for quite some time now.

The Freeholders and their delegates to the county's Board of School Estimate should have known about Burnham's compensation arrangement, and if they didn't they weren't doing their job. If they'd bothered to ask they would have learned that Mr Burnham had a glittery compensation package because the trustees had to match a compensation package offered to him by a much larger institution. The trustees could have let him leave, and upon reflection that probably would have been the wisest course, but they decided to pay him to stay. And that involved a club membership, a fancy vehicle, and costs for his kids to attend college. It was a negotiated compensation package. Presidents of colleges make obscene amounts of money these days. Compare it to how much your local school superintendent makes. Not that much different, actually.

So why didn't the Board of School Estimate object to the deal long ago if it was so outrageous? Because they didn't conduct proper oversight. Freeholder John Curley is trying to make up for lost time and will eventually overstep. But for now he's pressing his advantage and making some headway.

You probably aren't aware that no official charges have been leveled against Mr Burnham and he didn't resign, he retired. After all, it isn't a crime to get paid. There is the matter of disputed credit card reimbursements, but those aren't sexy enough to be rehashed in countless news articles. No, it is his compensation and benefits that keep getting brought up. And those issues aren't a crime.

Mr Burnham's lawyer addressed the vouchers in brief comments to The News Transcript. The paper's 4 May 2011 edition said Mr Burnham and the county simply disagreed over which expenses were part of the current contract. But the media hype has resulted in coverage like that seen in The Gloucester County Times, which equated Mr Burnham's dispute over reimbursed credit card expenses with forgery charges being brought against a local community college president in southern Jersey.

This whole shock and outrage act we've heard from the Freeholders in the past two months has been disingenuous. The Board of School Estimate and, by extension, the Freeholders, were as much a part of the problem as anyone. And let's not forget Governor Christie's cuts in state aid to education, which were the root cause of BCC's planned tuition spike this year, not Mr Burnham's salary and benefits.

I agree that reform is needed, but that shouldn't require Mr Burnham's reputation to be dragged through the mud. Mr Curley and the Freeholders ought to cease and desist against Mr Burnham, accept their share of the blame, and get on with the county's business.


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