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Ventura County

Board Says It Acted Properly in Westin Case

Suit: Citing several legal opinions, college trustees conclude that awarding raise didn't violate law.

September 19, 2002|AMANDA COVARRUBIAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trustees of the Ventura County Community College District did not violate the state's open-meetings law when it approved a $203,000 contract in May for Chancellor Philip Westin, the board president said Wednesday.

After seeking legal opinions from three lawyers and Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, the five-member board concluded it properly notified the public about plans to award a $30,000-a-year raise to Westin, who has come under fire for excessive spending.

The board was responding to allegations in a lawsuit filed on behalf of taxpayers, contending widespread abuse of public money by district officials and trustees, as well as violations of the Brown Act, the state's open-meetings law.

The suit, filed in Ventura County Superior Court in July, alleges the board did not state on its May 28 meeting agenda that it was considering granting the raise, as required under the Brown Act. The suit also contends the board violated the law by discussing the raise behind closed doors.

If true, then it could be argued that Westin's contract was approved illegally and should be rescinded.

The chancellor was placed on paid administrative leave in July while the board investigates his spending, which amounted to $119,000 over four years.

The district's legal counsel, Jack Lipton, and two attorneys with the Los Angeles law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, determined the board had done nothing wrong, board President Norman Nagel said.

"All of their opinions said we were not in violation. If there was any kind of doubt that we were, we remedied it by voting on it in open session," he said.

The board also directed acting Chancellor Jim Walker to check with Bradbury.

Although Walker never asked in his Sept. 5 letter to Bradbury whether the district attorney's office was investigating the college district, Bradbury wrote on Sept. 16: "Without confirming whether we are currently investigating or will be investigating any of the Board's actions of May 28, 2002, or any related actions, I can say that we will not be issuing any opinions or statements on this matter....

"If the board has the slightest doubt as to whether its actions on May 28 complied with the requirements of the Brown Act," he wrote, "I would urge you to [put] the challenged actions [on the agenda] again for full public consideration at an upcoming meeting under the 'cure and correct' provisions of the Act."

Despite the board's denial of wrongdoing, the lawsuit against the district will move forward, said Paul Stevens, an attorney for the Quisenberry Law Firm in Los Angeles, which filed the document with Benton, Orr, Duval & Buckingham of Ventura. County residents Gerald Leavitt and Gerard Kapuscik are named as lead plaintiffs in the class-action suit.

Nagel said the suit amounts to nothing more than harassment by the Ventura firm, which also represents four community college district counselors who say they were unfairly suspended from their jobs.

"This firm has another agenda," Nagel said. "You have to look at the allegations, look at what their agenda is. It's to destroy the board and Dr. Westin. They're trying to put the things with their clients in the best possible light and the things with us in a bad light. That's why they're bringing up these issues, like the Brown Act."

Auditors working under the direction of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, which was hired by the board to investigate the allegations, began reviewing internal documents this week at district headquarters in Camarillo. Nagel said he hoped the probe would be completed in "days or weeks, not months." The firm is also looking into similar spending improprieties alleged in a report presented to the board in March by the Camarillo law firm of Wood & Bender.

The spending dispute has surfaced against a backdrop of severe budget constraints besetting the 36,000-student district. Board members approved a $292-million budget Tuesday for the 2002-2003 fiscal year that includes a 2.6% cost-of-living raise for all of its roughly 2,800 employees.

Although there were no layoffs, there were no new hires, either, to keep up with the district's growing enrollment. Trustee John Tallman said layoffs could be a strong possibility next year. Moorpark, Oxnard and Ventura community colleges have been asked to come up with a plan for trimming $500,000 each from their budgets in the next fiscal year.

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