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College District's Interim Chief Aims to Build Trust

Ventura County: James Walker, the retired president of the Moorpark campus, takes over while the embattled chancellor is on leave during inquiry.

July 19, 2002|AMANDA COVARRUBIAS and MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The newly appointed acting chief of Ventura County's Community College District promised Thursday to restore public confidence as the district investigates charges of overspending by Chancellor Philip Westin.

"My job is to get us back to what we're all about," James Walker said as he settled into a temporary office at district headquarters in Camarillo.

The 66-year-old Walker was installed as acting chancellor Thursday, two days after Westin was placed on administrative leave.

Board President Norman Nagel said Walker will bring stability to the troubled district, which has been pummeled by allegations that Westin misspent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on meals, travel, computers, auto repairs and improper contracts.

"We all feel we need to reach out to the public and show the community college system is still a viable entity," Nagel said.

Walker retired July 1 after 10 years as president of Moorpark College, but he barely had a chance to relax before he was back in a suit and button-down shirt.

In a touch more about symbolism than style, he chose a garish necktie depicting scattered jigsaw shapes. "I'm here," he explained, "to help sort out the puzzle."

"If I'm a parent out there, I'd hope they would not discourage any of their youngsters from attending any one of the [district's] three colleges," Walker said of the recent controversies. "What goes on in the classroom is really separate from what happens in the political arena. It's also important I restore the confidence of the people who work in this district."

Trustees voted unanimously to appoint Walker to lead the district, which includes Ventura and Oxnard colleges, while they investigate the expenses submitted by Westin over the last six years.

Some of the allegations about Westin's spending were contained in a report presented to trustees in March by the Camarillo law firm of Wood & Bender. Others emerged this week in a Superior Court lawsuit filed on behalf of county taxpayers by the Ventura firm of Benton, Orr, Duval & Buckingham.

Westin, who was unavailable for comment Thursday, has acknowledged poor judgment on some purchases but has denied violating any laws or district policy and has repeatedly said he would not resign. He has also questioned the motives of his critics.

Since allegations surfaced in March, trustees have flip-flopped regarding their support for Westin. They first sought his resignation, then voted 4 to 1 in May to raise his salary 16% to $203,000 and extend his contract through 2006. The contract also guarantees him a $305,000 buyout if he is removed from his job without cause.

After a public outcry erupted, trustees voted earlier this week to place Westin on paid administrative leave until further notice.

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