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Former College Chancellor's Deal Too Costly, Critics Charge

Settlement with the controversial Ventura County educator is worth at least $215,000.

October 24, 2002|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

A deal worth at least $215,000 struck with former community college district Chancellor Philip Westin gives the deposed leader too much money and prestige for all the damage he has caused, critics charged Wednesday.

Although many expressed relief that Westin's six-year tenure at the district is over, they complained trustees were too generous in agreeing to pay his $203,000 annual salary until July and $12,000 a year in health benefits indefinitely.

From July 1 to Oct. 31 of next year, Westin can collect the difference between his salary and any income he earns from other employment. The board also gave him the title of chancellor emeritus, a duty-free position he can retain until Nov. 1, 2003.

"I think it was a complete sellout," said trustee candidate Cheryl Heitmann, who is seeking to replace Norman Nagel in the Nov. 5 election.

"This wasn't negotiation, this was surrender."

The board approved the settlement on a 3-2 vote. Trustees John Tallman and Art Hernandez, each facing reelection next month, voted against the settlement. Tallman said he could not justify giving Westin what amounts to lifetime health benefits.

"To throw it out there to a guy with his record doesn't make any sense," said Tallman, who added that many district employees work extra years to become eligible for lifetime benefits.

Under the agreement, Westin will receive medical benefits for life unless he gets a new job that offers him equal or better benefits, said Nagel, the board president. With that in mind, Westin's benefits could cost the district an additional $276,000 if he lives to age 80.

The board had been seeking to buy out Westin's contract since July, when the panel placed him on paid administrative leave in the wake of revelations he had charged the district $119,000 over four years for expenses related to his cars and computers and for expensive meals.

But an internal investigation found Westin had not broken any laws or district rules, Nagel said.

The board will receive a final report on the investigation in coming weeks, Nagel said.

Critics, however, did not believe the investigation was unbiased.

"They needed to get rid of him, but their independent audit didn't feel very objective to me," said Gerald Leavitt, one of two county residents named as plaintiffs in the taxpayers' lawsuit pending in Ventura County Superior Court.

His opinion was echoed by others who said the audit was a sham perpetrated by a board majority that wanted to let Westin off with a sweet deal. The board could have fired Westin by showing he had broken the law or violated district policy.

"There's plenty of cause to fire him," said Larry Miller, president of the Ventura County Federation of College Teachers, which pressed trustees to remove Westin. "But they would have spent more money in court because his ego would not have allowed him to be fired for cause."

Tallman conceded the deal was probably the most inexpensive way to close the door on Westin.

"I have talked to a number of attorney friends, and they all agree that firing for cause usually doesn't work," Tallman said. "What happens is that within two years there's a change on the board and it loses its enthusiasm to keep pushing, and pretty soon they settle."

Some critics said they found it particularly offensive the title chancellor emeritus was bestowed on Westin.

"I think giving Westin a title and a gracious and generous way of resigning is to accord him a respect that he did not deserve and that he did not give to so many of his employees," said Martha Torgow, an attorney for several district employees involved in lawsuits against Westin.

Nagel said the board had to give Westin a title and position to continue paying him medical benefits. "It's merely something to get him through this period," Nagel said, adding that it's easier to find a new job with a title and position.

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