WHITTIER — The Rio Hondo Community College Board of Trustees campaign has barely started, and already a dispute over the recent hiring of a college president threatens to dominate the battle of two incumbents for re-election.
One board member has questioned whether incumbents Hilda Solis and Isabelle Gonthier paid attention to what area residents wanted when they voted to hire Alex Sanchez, a former vice president at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, as college president.
"When I was talking to our community, the constituents said it would be nice if we could have someone who knows our community," board member Ralph Pacheco said. "I listened to my community."
The two, however, defend their decision, saying they chose Sanchez because he was the best person for the job.
Solis said that Pacheco's comments are unwarranted and that she fears that the race will be marred by mudslinging and back-stabbing, with the disagreement over Sanchez at the center of debate.
"It is a distasteful situation," Solis said.
Eight people in addition to Solis and Gonthier are also running in the Nov. 7 election. Five of the candidates are vying for a seat being vacated by Marilee Morgan, who is retiring after 14 years on the board. Solis, board president, has two challengers. Gonthier, a two-term member, has one.
The dispute over Sanchez started last Spring when Solis, Gonthier and Morgan found themselves at odds with Pacheco and one other board member.
The three wanted to hire Sanchez, but Pacheco and Bill E. Hernandez favored Los Angeles Community College District administrator Frank Alderete.
According to Pacheco, the two felt that Alderete was a better choice for the heavily Latino college because he grew up in California and understood the Latino community.
Sanchez, on the other hand, was a native of New Mexico and would need to learn the area, Pacheco said.
The trustees voted 3 to 2 to hire Sanchez, who was described as an excellent administrator.
"Alex Sanchez was by far the best candidate," Solis said. "That was the overriding reason for hiring him.
"It's not a personal decision," she said. "In my mind it was a decision that was best for the community."
The three board members also felt that Sanchez could serve as a "healer."
Morgan said at the time that Sanchez was "someone with a great deal of community outreach, a lot of integrity and sincerity."
The two incumbents said they want to put the dispute behind them and deal with other issues.
Negotiations with the college's teachers also could become a campaign issue.
The teachers' contract expired June 30, and although administrators have been talking with union representatives to draw up a new agreement, nothing has been completed. Sanchez said he hopes agreement can be reached in early September, when both sides will meet formally.
Pacheco said the incumbents' performance during the negotiations will be closely watched. "I'm optimistic that we will come to an agreement (with teachers), but someone is going to have to give."
The negotiations "will test my colleagues' leadership," he added.
The following people have filed papers to run in the Rio Hondo Community College Board of Trustees election:
David Flores, Hilda Solis (incumbent), and Elizabeth Van Note.
Isabelle Gonthier (incumbent) and Ceci Medina.
Clair Buchholz, Louis Edward Caldera, Denos (Gus) Carras, Herb Griffith and Barbara Stone.