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Local Elections : 9 Run Hot Race in Rio Hondo

November 05, 1989

While other community college races in the Southeast area are quietly rolling by, a heated battle is being waged for three seats on the Rio Hondo Community College District Board of Trustees.

Campaign signs, all sizes and colors, are everywhere. Candidates can be found in the evenings walking door-to-door asking for support. Many have sent sleek brochures to all the voters in the district.

One candidate raised about $20,000 for his campaign and sent out flyers offering to submit absentee ballots. And two trustees who are not up for reelection have criticized two incumbents seeking new terms.

Nine candidates are running for the three district seats representing Whittier, South El Monte and El Monte, and college officials say the races are the most competitive in recent memory.

A lingering controversy over a change of presidents at the college, which split the five-member board, has fueled the races.

The controversy and strife started more than a year ago, when Trustees Ralph Pacheco, Bill E. Hernandez and Hilda Solis voted not to renew President Herbert Sussman's contract for the 1989-90 school year, even though Sussman had announced that he planned to retire anyway in June, 1989.

They said they did not like his leadership style, that he was too aggressive and abrasive. They stressed the importance of having a Latino president since a large portion of the college's student body is Latino.

Trustees Isabelle Gonthier and Marilee Morgan supported Sussman and defended his style.

Another split developed over the selection of a successor. Pacheco and Hernandez favored Frank Aldrete, an administrator in the Los Angeles Community College District. They said the new president should be an administrator from the Los Angeles area.

But Solis joined Gonthier and Morgan to hire Alex Sanchez, former vice president at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Teacher and student groups favored Sanchez.

Solis and Gonthier are seeking new terms in Tuesday's election. Pacheco and Hernandez, who are not on the ballot this year, are working against the two incumbents. Morgan decided not to run again.

And some candidates are making an issue of the rift.

In Area 5, which includes the east Whittier area where four candidates are vying for Morgan's seat, competitors have questioned the board's decision not to renew the former president's contract.

"It appeared to be done inappropriately," said candidate Barbara Stone, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton.

Candidate Clair Buchholz, a machine and maintenance supervisor at a factory in Whittier, said: "I don't know if he (Sussman) got a fair shake. I want to make sure things are being done right."

Louis Caldera has vowed to end the rift.

"The Rio Hondo trustees must learn to work together," Caldera said. "The stakes are too high and the issues too complex to be distracted by insignificant issues."

Privately, some candidates said the differences are too deep to work out, that the board, no matter who gets elected, will remain divided on many issues.

But Gonthier said that sometimes disagreements are "healthy."

"You cannot take a five-member board and vote 5-0 all the time," Gonthier said. "It's not democratic."

3 Races by Area

* Area 1--El Monte and South El Monte

Incumbent Hilda Solis, director of a college preparation program for underprivileged high school students. Solis, who is the board's president, has a master's degree in public administration from USC and a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Cal Poly Pomona. She has served on the board since 1985.

David Flores, an attorney at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Flores, a first-time candidate, has a law degree and a bachelor of arts in political science from USC. He has also served as a contract negotiator specialist for JPL.

Elizabeth Van Note, an administrator for the city of Bell. Van Note served on the Rio Hondo Board of Trustees from 1979 until 1983, when she was defeated. Van Note, who has lived in El Monte all her life, has a bachelor of science degree in business administration from Cal State Los Angeles.

* Area 3--Whittier

Incumbent Isabelle Gonthier, a deputy labor commissioner for the state. She has served on the board eight years. Gonthier, along with Solis, has helped develop an innovative child-care program at Rio Hondo College.

Ceci Medina, the director of multicultural studies at Cerritos College in Norwalk. Medina, a longtime Whittier resident, has worked in many different areas within the community college system.

* Area 5--East Whittier

Clair Buchholz, a machine and maintenance supervisor at a factory in Whittier. The graduate of Montebello High School has lived in Los Angeles County for 50 years. He has taken several management seminars.

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