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Ventura County

College Board May Ax Lawyer

Three of five trustees say they want to replace attorney Jack Lipton, considered an ally of the district's embattled former chancellor.

January 11, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County Community College District trustees may soon begin a search for a new district lawyer in a bid to cut legal expenses and repair damaged relations with employees, a trustee said Friday.

At least three trustees -- Mary Anne Rooney, Cheryl Heitmann and board President Art Hernandez -- have said they want to replace attorney Jack Lipton, who is considered a friend and ally of embattled former Chancellor Philip Westin.

"Jack's been here a long time, and maybe it's time for a change," Rooney said. "It's always good to bring in a new set of eyes. That happens a lot when you have new leadership."

Both Rooney and Heitmann were elected to the five-member board in November, when Hernandez was reelected. The board is expected to consider a proposal Tuesday to sever Lipton's contract and accept bids from prospective candidates for the position.

Trustees were known to be disappointed that Lipton allowed them to get into legal hot water with former Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, who found that the board had violated the state's open meetings law several times last year.

Most of the Brown Act violations occurred during discussions of Westin's employment. The former chancellor resigned last year amid allegations that he abused his business expense account, charging more than $119,000 to the district over a four-year period.

"We rely on counsel to provide us with a clear understanding of the Brown Act," Rooney said. "They're the ones who are advising us, and Brown Act knowledge is crucial."

Lipton did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Lipton, an attorney for the Los Angeles law firm of Burke, Williams and Sorenson, was hired as the district's legal counsel in 1998.

Westin's expense report showed he frequently dined with Lipton and charged the meals to the district.

"He and Westin were just a disaster for this district," said faculty union President Larry Miller. "He charged the district every billable hour he could."

Lipton advised trustees in their early investigations of Westin's spending, and in their negotiations with him for a new contract and a $30,000 raise. Lipton also oversaw a high-profile case supported by Westin that accused four Ventura College counselors and a secretary of discrimination. The district lost the case and faces numerous related lawsuits.

"I'm certainly disappointed with the number of lawsuits on our agenda," Rooney said.

The district's legal costs climbed from $78,000 before Westin's hiring in 1996 to more than $993,000 in the 2001-2002 fiscal year.

Hernandez said hiring a new attorney will send a clear message to district employees that the board wants to improve strained relationships.

"It's a good opportunity for all of us to revisit the issue and come up with someone who's the right fit for the district," Hernandez said. "By changing some of our team players, it may affect our relationship with the colleges and unions and others. It shows that there's someone listening to them."

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