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Ventura County

Reconsideration of Chancellor's Pact Is Urged

Colleges: A trustee says he hastily voted to renew the contract for Philip Westin, who is under fire over spending habits and management style.

July 04, 2002|MARGARET TALEV and AMANDA COVARRUBIAS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Responding to public outrage, Ventura Community College District trustee Art Hernandez wants the board to reconsider a newly approved four-year contract for embattled Chancellor Philip Westin, who has come under fire over accusations of excessive spending.

Hernandez said Wednesday he was under pressure and acted hastily when he voted to renew Westin's contract in May despite concerns over the chancellor's spending habits and management style.

"We have to revisit the contract--that's what the people want," Hernandez said. "I just want to show some leadership.

"I'll take responsibility for my vote," he said. "But we could have waited. I don't want to come off like I was misled. I have enough experience to know when to slow things down. But I didn't."

Hernandez has sent board President Norman Nagel a letter requesting a closed-session meeting with other trustees to discuss the matter. Nagel and trustee Allan Jacobs could not be reached for comment. Trustee Bob Gonzales has said he would be willing to meet at Hernandez's request.

Westin declined to comment.

Hernandez was on the prevailing side of a 4-1 board vote to extend Westin's contract and award him a 16% raise, bringing his salary to $203,000. The vote came two months after Hernandez and his colleagues learned about Westin's spending habits.

Camarillo attorneys David Bender and David Wood provided trustees with receipts and other public records showing that during a four-year period the chancellor charged taxpayers more than $119,000 to cover business expenses, which included meals, travel, computer software and car maintenance. The report has since been made public.

Taxpayer advocates, teachers' union members and the public have responded by calling for Westin's resignation. More than 100 people jammed last month's board meeting with picket signs, demanding the chancellor and trustees step down.

Although he has apologized for some of his expenses and has vowed to change things, Westin has said what he did "was not a hanging offense" and that he has no intention of resigning. He also has accused Bender and Wood of conducting an unauthorized audit in a bid to oust him to gain control of the district's lucrative contract.

The board, however, contends it did not authorize the audit and has refused to pay a $61,000 bill submitted by Bender and Wood for their investigative work.

The four trustees who voted to renew Westin's contract have vowed to impose stricter oversight of the chancellor and other administrators but so far have stood by him. Hernandez is the first trustee to ask the board to reconsider its decision.

Some of Hernandez's critics say he is only acting now to save his political career. Hernandez is one of three trustees facing reelection in November and has also been suggested by some Oxnard leaders as a potential challenger to county Supervisor John Flynn in 2004.

"Mr. Hernandez is a day late and a dollar short," said Flynn, who was among those critical of Westin and trustees at the board meeting last month.

Hernandez said he plans to seek reelection as a trustee but said he has no plans to run for supervisor.

Trustees initially demanded Westin's resignation after Wood and Bender approached them with Westin's expense records and suggested he may have broken the law. The trustees changed their minds after an independent audit found Westin's purchases did not involve criminal wrongdoing.

Wood and Bender have declined repeated requests for interviews, only to say they did nothing improper.

Several board members defended their decision to renew Westin's contract and to award him a $30,000 raise. They said the raise put Westin in line with other chancellors of similar-sized college districts.

Trustees also worried that financing for a recent voter-approved $356-million bond measure, earmarked for improvements at the district's three campuses, might be jeopardized if Westin quit.

Meanwhile, trustee John Tallman, the sole board member to oppose Westin's new contract, applauded Hernandez's call for revisiting the matter.

"So far, we really haven't gone in the direction the public wants us to go," Tallman said. "This will give us a chance."

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