WHITTIER — After a bitterly fought campaign that included a scathing "hit" letter, the voters in the Rio Hondo College District have returned incumbents Hilda Solis and Isabelle Gonthier to the board of trustees.
Voters also selected Barbara Stone, a conservative political science professor, to fill the seat vacated by Marilee Morgan, who retired after serving on the board for 14 years.
Some college officials said the races for district seats in Whittier, El Monte and South El Monte were the most competitive in recent memory, fueled partially by the controversy over last year's change of presidents at the college, which split the five-member board. Nine candidates were seeking election.
The winners have pledged to reunite the board, but some college sources say privately that they expect the bickering to continue, with Gonthier and Solis in a struggle against Trustees Ralph Pacheco and Bill E. Hernandez. Stone, who was supported by Morgan, is seen as the swing vote on the board. Stone has been critical of the trustees' decision not to renew Herbert Sussman's contract as president last year, but supportive of the decision to hire Alex Sanchez as Sussman's replacement.
The campaign reached the boiling point early this week, when a letter attacking Solis was sent to voters in El Monte and South El Monte. The letter, typed on official college stationery by a group claiming to be the "staff committee for ethical elections," accused Solis of living outside the district and associating with a convicted child-molester, among other things. Solis denies the allegations.
College President Sanchez has asked Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner to investigate the matter. "The letter is written on Rio Hondo letterhead and represents that it is official business of the district," Sanchez wrote in a letter to Reiner. "This is absolutely not true, and thereby constitutes an intentional misrepresentation."
In the last days of campaigning, Solis and her supporters walked door-to-door to deny the allegations. On the eve of the election, Solis said she was worried she had lost the race because of the letter.
But Solis' race was never close. She won 45.7% of the vote. David Flores, who received encouragement from Hernandez and Pacheco, finished second, with 35.1%.
"I'm sure the letter had some effect on the election, but there were a lot of people who hung in there with us," Solis said. "I'm anxious to move forward."
In Area 3, which includes parts of Whittier, incumbent Gonthier beat newcomer Ceci Medina to win a third term.
In Area 5, which also includes parts of Whittier, Stone easily defeated her four opponents. Stone, a well-known figure in Whittier for 17 years, has run before for State Assembly seats, but has lost. The Cal State Fullerton professor is a member of the state Little Hoover Commission and other committees dedicated to improving education. Attorney Louis Caldera, who launched a well-financed campaign with $20,000 in donations, finished second.
Stone said she is anxious to stop the board's bickering and improve the image of the college by spending more time in the community promoting programs.
For more than a year, the board, has been split on several issues.
The problems started when Trustees Ralph Pacheco, Bill E. Hernandez and 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 Sussman's leadership style. Gonthier and Morgan disagreed and voted to retain Sussman.
Another spit developed over the selection of Sussman's successor. Pacheco and Hernandez favored a candidate from east Los Angeles, but Solis joined Gonthier and Morgan to hire Alex Sanchez, former vice president at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Pacheco and Hernandez told Gonthier and Solis that their decision to hire Sanchez could cost them the election. They said the community wanted a local president, not someone from outside the state, and the votes would prove it. At the beginning of the campaign, Pacheco criticized Gonthier and Solis for their decision to hire Sanchez.
"They (the residents of the district) had been saying, 'If you are going to hire someone, hire someone who knows our community, who understands the community college district,' " Pacheco said. "It was an opportunity as a community to promote within our community."
Solis said she sees her victory as a vote of confidence for Sanchez.
"He can now move forward and make the changes and improvements necessary at the college without having to worry," Solis said.
Pacheco said he wants to put the hard feelings in the past, but said he expects the board to continue to disagree.
"Whenever you have bodies of two or more, there are going to be differences of opinion," Pacheco said. "But I'm looking forward, with no hard feelings. I see a new era here."