Washtenaw Community College President Larry Whitworth says he is taking full responsibility for $4,000 spent by the college on a dinner for its board of trustees annual retreat in early March. At a press briefing earlier today at his office on the WCC campus, Whitworth said he planned the retreat and therefore he – not the WCC board members – should take the blame for the expense. It has become an issue in trustee David Rutledge’s bid for the 54th District state House seat.
As first reported by The Chronicle, the board of trustees two-day retreat at the Westin Book Cadillac hotel in Detroit cost a total of $9,910.70, including dinner at the hotel’s 24grille restaurant and $5,887.43 in hotel charges. WCC’s paper The Washtenaw Voice later reported that the dinner bill included $573 worth of wine.
Whitworth said the cost of the meal was higher than anticipated due to the fact that he missed a detail on the menu that 24grille faxed him before the retreat. Specifically, he didn’t read the fine print stating that the restaurant would charge $100 per person for the meal, not including tax and gratuity. Whitworth said he expected to pay about $2,000 and was shocked when he saw the bill.
Whitworth said he wanted to assert his culpability in response to a May 26 AnnArbor.com article, which was based on a press release issued by Lonnie Scott, a Democratic candidate for the 54th District state representative seat. Scott criticized fellow candidate and WCC board of trustees treasurer David Rutledge for attending the retreat dinner, calling the $4,023.87 bill excessive and a waste of taxpayer money.
The board has also received criticism for spending an extravagant amount on a dinner just before its members voted to increase WCC’s tuition by nearly 10% – or $7 per credit hour.
During Wednesday’s briefing, Whitworth stressed that Rutledge and the other board members are in no way responsible for the cost of the meal and were not aware of the expense at the time of the retreat. He called blaming the trustees “wholly and totally inappropriate.”
“I thought it was very, very unfortunate that Lonnie Scott would somehow think David Rutledge was responsible,” Whitworth said. “I want to take full responsibility.”
Whitworth also emphasized that the dinner was business-oriented. He said it’s important to isolate the trustees away from their other obligations once a year for the retreat so that they can concentrate on important matters pertaining to the college. He also defended the tuition increase, saying that it was necessary to maintain the quality of the college’s vocational and technical programs. He noted that the college will lose about $3.5 million in local tax revenue this year and therefore needs to raise tuition rates.
Whitworth said that in order to remedy his mistake, he has personally reimbursed the college for the dinner with a $4,024 check. He said he wasn’t pressured by the board of trustees in any way, and the reimbursement was entirely his idea.
“This is my error,” Whitworth said. “If you’re going to be responsible, there ought to be a consequence.”
The Chronicle initially reported the dinner and other expenses in the context of covering the March 5-6 retreat, where the trustees and staff discussed the possibility of opening a satellite campus in Ann Arbor – possibly in partnership with the Ann Arbor District Library. Other topics included financial updates, a discussion about tuition increases, a briefing on student demographic data, curriculum changes, and building projects.
Following the retreat, The Chronicle submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for expenses related to the two-day event. In addition to the $4,023 dinner tab, the college paid $5,887.43 in hotel charges that included individual guest charges, catering and Internet charges. [.pdf file of receipts from Westin Book Cadillac, in response to a FOIA request]
About the writer: Helen Nevius is a freelance writer for The Ann Arbor Chronicle.