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Judge grants Swayne request for permanent reinstatement as NIC president

North Idaho College President Nick Swayne.
North Idaho College
North Idaho College President Nick Swayne.

A Kootenai County judge granted North Idaho College President Nick Swayne’s request for summary judgment, restoring him to office permanently and forgoing a civil trial that had been scheduled for October. NIC will also have to pay Swayne’s attorneys’ fees.

In an oral ruling delivered Friday, District Court Judge Cynthia Meyer also granted additional requests contained in Swayne’s legal filings: That his employment contract with NIC is valid and extant; that neither party can violate that agreement; that Swayne has not waived his right to pursue action; and that any attempts to void his contract are invalid.

Attorney Kelly Drew, representing NIC, questioned the additional measures because they were not mentioned in Swayne’s initial request for relief. Drew told Meyer the trustees agreed not to oppose the original request, which asked for reinstatement and attorneys’ fees. But the other items surprised her, she said, because they had not been discussed in court. Drew argued that Swayne, having obtained an agreement not to oppose the motion, asked for more. She called the situation “absurd.”

Tara Malek, a lawyer representing Swayne, countered that the eight additional requests for relief were direct responses to affirmative defenses NIC listed in its reply to the original motion. The burden of proof rested on NIC to back up those affirmative defenses, she argued. The language in the notice of non-opposition was vague, Malek said, raising concerns about how NIC would interpret Swayne’s contract and employment status.

Friday’s ruling is the latest development in a story that began nearly a year ago. Swayne was hired to be NIC’s president in July 2022. Two of the board’s current members, Todd Banducci and Greg McKenzie, disagreed at the time with the hiring and the circumstances under which it was made, which they later claimed violated Idaho open meetings laws. The claim has not been proven, and Meyer ruled earlier this year that the window to challenge Swayne’s hire on those grounds was closed.

In early December 2022, when new trustee Mike Waggoner gave Banducci and McKenzie the majority on the five-person board, the trio voted to suspend Swayne for no disciplinary reason. Swayne fought the indefinite suspension in court, and in early March, Meyer ordered Swayne returned to office as his civil suit against the college unfolded.

Last month, Swayne asked Meyer to restore him to the presidency permanently. NIC’s Board of Trustees voted not to oppose Swayne’s motion, though in court documents, the majority trio maintained they had the authority to suspend Swayne. Their May 19 response also says the trustees disagreed with Meyer’s preliminary injunction and with “other aspects” of the orders issued in the case.

Those words sowed concern in Malek’s mind. She told Meyer the trustees’ history of what she called “gamesmanship” indicated the board majority would try to find another way to undermine or oust Swayne. She pointed to an April 24 vote that declared Swayne’s contract “null and void,” while retaining him as president at the board’s pleasure.

Referring to the trustees’ notice of non-opposition, Malek said, “At first blush, it seemed that NIC conceded [Swayne] has valid, existing contract, [but] the language is suspect. The concern is that even if the court grants summary judgment, depending on what the court says, that we’ll be right back before the court on a very similar issue.”

Malek’s argument attempted to set the dispute in the context of a broader power struggle between Swayne and the board. Once the trustees backed by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee regained a majority in last November’s elections, Malek said, they decided to pick a different president for the community college and “concoct a way to do so” while circumventing Swayne’s three-year contract.

Friday’s decision may not be the final word on the summary judgment. Meyer asked Malek to prepare a draft that puts the oral order into writing. But she also ordered that the draft be sent to Drew for review and approval. If she doesn’t approve the document, the two sides will return to court to hammer out the wording.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.