Months after an investigation questioning a top official’s spending habits, the San Mateo County Community College District Board of Trustees is considering revising regulations on use of district money.
During a meeting Wednesday, March 16, the community college board will discuss reevaluating procedures for domestic conference and travel expenses, as well as protections for whistleblowers.
The discussion comes in the wake of a November investigative report by NBC Bay Area which found Chancellor Ron Galatolo spent hundreds of dollars from an expense account on alcohol during business trips.
Executive Vice Chancellor Kathy Blackwood said the upcoming discussion is a response to the report, and aims to clarify what is considered acceptable use of the district’s tab.
She said the NBC Bay Area report alleged Galatolo’s use of district funds to purchase alcohol was illegal, and the proposed revisions are designed to clear him of any similar concerns in the future.
“We wanted to make it very clear, legal or not, when that was acceptable,” she said, of purchasing alcohol.
Under the proposed revisions, it will be acceptable for employees to use district money to pay for alcohol, within reason, which is a shift from the previous procedure which explicitly disallowed such behavior.
“There are occasions when we felt it would be appropriate,” said Blackwood.
Her sentiments mirror those expressed in an initial response to the report by district officials who claimed it may be occasionally necessary for Galatolo to buy a drink for a colleague with the district credit card during events such as dinners or conferences.
No decision is slated to be made at the meeting, but Trustee Maurice Goodman said he believed further discussion of the issue is merited.
“It’s always a good thing to be able to evaluate our board policies, and how we evaluate decisions that come forward,” he said. “Being able to tweak it to make it more relevant and more conducive to us being more open and transparent with the community is always good.”
Galatolo was found to have racked up hundreds of dollars of alcohol purchases during dinners with school colleagues and fellow educators in lavish locales such as Las Vegas, which cost the district more than $1,000.
In response, former district spokeswoman Barbara Christensen said previously the expenditures were well within the responsibilities and rights of Galatolo as a district representative who frequently needed to pay for meals and drinks to conduct district business.
Under a revised procedure set to be discussed during the upcoming meeting, all restaurant receipts must be provided for a district employee seeking to be reimbursed for purchasing a meal. Solely providing a credit card receipt is insufficient, as a detailed receipt of items ordered must be attached.
The amended policy stresses the obligation of employees to be conscientious when spending district funds.
“When employees dine with business partners, vendors, donors or potential donors, the district will reimburse for alcohol chosen as beverage with a meal,” according to the new procedure. “Employees must, however, use prudence in these circumstances and must not purchase an unreasonable amount of alcohol nor at an unreasonable cost as compared to the overall cost of the meal.”
Employees will not be reimbursed for alcoholic drinks enjoyed between meals, unless they “they qualify as necessary entertainment for donor solicitation, or college or district business promotional events,” according to the revised procedure.
Receipts are required to substantiate requests for reimbursement, and they should include the names of the guests and the nature of the meeting.
District officials contended Galatolo spending $978 on a meal for 15 colleagues, which included 16 alcoholic drinks, was an example of him doing legitimate job-related activities which went outside the scope of employee travel expense policy. The revised policy aims to clarify such behavior is an acceptable use of district funds.
The NBC Bay Area report also raised questions regarding Galatolo’s use and storage of an antique car, citing an anonymous source who requested not to be identified for fear of retribution.
The board will also discuss refining its protections for whistleblowers, by including considerations for those reporting improper conduct. The previous regulations only included those who reported allegations of illegal activity.
Under the revised policy, the district discourages whistleblowers to act anonymously.
“Anonymous reports will not be investigated and employees are strongly encouraged not to report anonymously because doing so impedes the district’s ability to thoroughly investigate the claim and take appropriate remedial measures,” according to the revised procedure.
Employees who fear retribution can request anonymity when presenting a report, and “to the extent possible, that request will be honored,” according to the proposed revision.
Retaliation against employees for reporting improper or illegal behavior will not be tolerated, according to the policy, and those who act as whistleblowers will be protected.
Blackwood though denied the discussion of whistleblowers regulations was a response to the NBC report, and instead said district officials merely felt it was time to clean up an outdated procedure.
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