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Chancellor's Fate Delicate Issue for Board

Colleges: Ventura County trustees, under pressure to oust him, may risk their own political futures. Three are up for reelection and one is subject to recall.

July 14, 2002|AMANDA COVARRUBIAS and MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When the five elected trustees of the Ventura County Community College District meet Tuesday to decide the fate of embattled Chancellor Philip Westin, they may also be setting the course for their own political futures.

With a majority of board members facing reelection in November and one targeted for recall, their closed-door evaluation of Westin's performance as head of the 31,000-student district is sure to be politically charged, experts say.

The trustees are under increasing pressure to take action against Westin, who is fighting to hold onto his job after revelations that he submitted more than $119,000 in business-related expenses from 1997 to 2001.

But the board's decision won't be an easy one, because it shares responsibility as the public's watchdog for financial abuses, critics say. With full knowledge of Westin's spending, the board voted 4 to 1 in May to award the chancellor a new four-year contract, a $30,000 pay raise and a $1,500-a-month car allowance. Trustee John Tallman, a longtime Westin critic, dissented.

In June, at the district's expense, Westin took out a $6,000, full-page advertisement in a local newspaper defending himself.

"Without exception, Chancellor Westin's expenditures fully complied with law, board policy and his employment contract with the district," the ad states.

Indeed, the trustees' decision over Westin's future is complicated because it appears that he did not violate district policy, which places no limits on his spending and provides little oversight. An audit also cleared him of criminal wrongdoing.

As a result, the chancellor has said repeatedly he will not resign.

"These weren't the kind of mistakes you fire somebody for," Westin said. "It's not a hanging offense."

But Westin's spending habits and the board's failure to control them over his six-year tenure have sparked public outrage, fueled in part by the daily barrage of headlines over major financial scandals--from the collapse of Enron to WorldCom, said Herbert Gooch, chairman of the political science department at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

"It's supposed to be the board that's keeping watch on these issues," Gooch said. "You have these national villains, and now you have the local embodiment of it. It taps into an anger that could carry over into the fall, when people could vote with their feet."

Pressure to oust Westin heated up when it was disclosed that trustees renewed his contract, even after learning of his spending practices.

Board Vice President Art Hernandez, who now says he will call for Westin's resignation, was on a subcommittee that recommended the chancellor receive a pay raise and an automobile stipend as part of his new contract. Hernandez and other board members said they did not authorize Westin's newspaper advertisement.

Hernandez, Tallman and board President Norman Nagel are up for reelection this year. Trustee Allan Jacobs, whose term expires in 2004, is the subject of a recall effort by the conservative Ventura County Republican Assembly, which has ties to state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks).

Assembly leaders say they do not know enough about trustee Bob Gonzales, the Santa Paula police chief, to start a recall against him, but critics say a chief aide to McClintock served as Gonzales' campaign manager. Gonzales has declined to discuss Westin's future before Tuesday's board meeting.

Nagel and Jacobs remain firmly committed in their support of the chancellor.

"When you look at everything that's been done in the district under his leadership, it's been extremely positive," Nagel said. "Are you going to take this blemish and destroy everything else? That's not something I want to do."

Meanwhile, community activists Hank Lacayo and David Maron have started an e-mail campaign to oust Westin. But others say the trustees also bear responsibility.

"People are saying if [the trustees] have any political ambitions, they'd better do something," said Don Facciano, president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn. "They're getting a lot of pressure. They could be looking for a scapegoat, to fire Westin and say, 'We did our job and now everything's wonderful again.' I hope the trustees will make their decision based not on political expediency or whether they'll be recalled, but on facts."

The board first learned about the extent of Westin's spending in March when the Camarillo-based law firm of Wood & Bender presented trustees with a detailed report of his expense records. The report found more than $119,000 in overall expenses from 1997 to 2001.

Of those, $46,000 were listed as questionable, essentially lacking receipts or adequate documentation. Included were $22,300 for car repairs, $12,700 for equipment and supplies, $7,600 for computer software, $1,600 for travel upgrades and $1,700 for miscellaneous.

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