ROCKFORD (WREX) — A week after 13 Investigates reported the firing of the chief operating officer at Rock Valley College, the head of the development corporation at the center of his firing is speaking out, defending the former COO and calling out the college for misinformation.
Jim Ryan was fired from Rock Valley College in November, with the college citing three reasons for his termination, including his alleged failure to disclose his position on the board at the Rockford Local Development Corporation.
John Phelps, the executive director at the RLDC, is accusing the college of knowing for years that Ryan sat on the board there.
In the termination letter sent to Ryan by RVC and obtained by 13 Investigates through a Freedom of Information Act request, the college said:
"You failed to properly represent the interests of the College by failing to disclose, at any time, your membership on the Board of Directors of Rockford Local Development Corporations ("RLDC") at the time you advocated for the College to enter into a development agreement to which RLDC was a party. You further took actions adverse to the interests of the College when negotiating the terms of that agreement."
However, in a letter released to 13 Investigates on Tuesday, Phelps says that is not true. And that in 2017, he personally had a conversation with Dr. Doug Jensen, the president of the college, about Ryan's election to the board.
"Dr. Jensen was laudatory to Jim's election and involvement describing him as knowledgeable and competent. No concerns were expressed about a potential conflict of interest.
In the letter, Phelps writes that in 2017, he traveled on a 3-day trip to eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania to tour advanced training centers that could be useful models for the planned ATC planned for development at the old Barber Colman site in Rockford.
Phelps says Jensen, Rockford's city administrator Todd Cagnoni, Region 1 Planning Council executive director Mike Dunn, along with Ryan took off for the trip in a RVC van in the early morning hours of Sept. 19, 2017. Phelps says it was during this trip Jensen learned of Ryan's role at RLDC.
"After piling into an RVC van with Dr. Jensen at the wheel, Jim Ryan in the front passenger seat, Todd Cagnoni and me in the rear seat and Michael Dunn in the 3rd seat, I tried to break the ice by introducing myself to Dr. Jensen by describing who the RLDC was and its mission. I felt it was important that he recognize RLDC was a capable developer and reliable and trustworthy partner to complete this project. I told him soon after we left the RVC parking lot that Jim Ryan had been nominated to the RLDC Board of Directors at a meeting of our Executive Committee the prior month and that he would be formally elected at our annual meeting in early October."
13 Investigates twice reached out to RVC regarding Jim Ryan's termination, but were told Dr. Jensen did not wish to comment. We also have attempted to reach out to Ryan, but have been unsuccessful in reaching him.
The Barber Colman ATC
The turmoil over Ryan's firing comes on the heels of Rock Valley College exiting a partnership with the city of Rockford to build an advanced technology center on the city's southwest side.
In October of 2018, Rockford's City Council approved a development agreement between the city, RVC, and RLDC to move ahead with creating what was coined Colman Village. The goal was to essentially transform the abandoned Barber Colman factory into a state of the art ATC.
When WREX spoke with the city in 2018, leaders said the slow progress was due to issues with federal grants.
Progress continued to stall, and in August of 2019, 13 Investigates reported that some RVC board members had concerns about the status of the project.
Phelps and Cagnoni, who is also a board member at the RLDC, contended they were confident the project was attractive to investors and were optimistic about its future.
However, that wasn't enough for many RVC board of trustees members.
"We can't train the workforce of tomorrow on a maybe," said trustee Jared Funderburg. "The board has thought that maybe it's a good time to consider a Plan B. The board is concerned that the project at Colman Village will take too long for us to fulfill our promise to the constituents, the voters. That RVC would bring an advanced technical center to the core of the city."
That uncertainty continued in the following months until RVC ultimately announced on Oct. 11 it planned to move its ATC to the Rockford Register Star News Tower, essentially ending the Colman Village project and its development agreement with the city.
"Baseless charge" over insinuation of conflict of interest
Ryan was involved in overseeing many of the details concerning RVC and the city's partnership for the ATC.
In Phelps' letter he details why he can't accept RVC did not know of Ryan's involvement on the RLDC Board of Directors. Phelps says over 2 years Ryan attended at least 20 RLDC board and/or committee meetings. According to Phelps, these meetings typically happened at noon or 4 p.m., during the working day.
"I find it unfathomable that Dr. Jensen who was directly responsible for Mr. Ryan's activities at the college was not aware of his role on the RLDC board. Moreover, during any deliberations at RLDC concerning the ATC, Mr. Ryan and Mr Cagnoni always abstained from any vote or action of any kind," Phelps said in his letter.
Phelps says he is offended with the implication that Ryan's role as a board member created an "undisclosed conflict of interest." He says the policy concerning conflicts is regularly audited by independent auditors as well as federal regualtors at the U.S. Small Business Administration.
In his letter, Phelps went on to outline the time and resources his organization spent on pulling together the Barber Colman ATC.
"Perhaps this baseless charge is intended to convey an impression that RLDC would unduly benefit financially from its inolvement as the developer of the ATC. For the record, RLDC has spent considerable resources of time, energy and expertise in planning the ATC the past two year with no remuneration. I estimate I have committed 500 hours of my time alone not including the time of support staff," Phelps said.
Ultimately, Phelps says RLDC acted selflessly in the best interest of its partners.
"It was RVC and the greater Rockford community, especially southwest Rockford, that stood to gain from the ATC at Colman Village. To RLDC, it was a commitment of resources and investment of opportunity costs towards this end which would never be recovered through the fees being charged. RLDC's interests were aligned with our development partners, and consistently acted selflessly in their best interests. To presume otherwise is insulting."
Rockford's Future ATC
As was announced in the Oct. 11 news conference, RVC has its sights set on bringing the city an ATC at the Rockford Register Star building.
The college plans to expand its footprint at the building from 15,000 to 100,000 square feet. During the press conference, Jensen said RVC has been working hard over the past years to prepare itself for the future ATC and continuously hears from manufacturing employers the facility is desperately needed to fill the skills gap.
The college says it will roll out classes in different phases but believes it can start holding classes in the Rockford Register Star building starting in the fall of 2020.
RVC Board President Patrick Murphy says the college is currently doing its due diligence to make sure the news tower site is structurally sound and meets programming needs.