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College District Names New Chief

James Meznek, 53, who currently heads a campus in Barstow, takes over Ventura County's 35,000-student system in August.

June 18, 2004|Lynne Barnes | Times Staff Writer

A Barstow college administrator lauded for his fiscal responsibility has been hired to head the Ventura County Community College District, which was rocked by a spending scandal two years ago that forced the ouster of the previous chancellor.

James Meznek, president of Barstow College in San Bernardino County, will take over the office vacated 20 months ago by Philip Westin, who resigned amid accusations he had abused his district expense account by charging meals, car repairs and pricey electronics.

An audit later cleared Westin of any criminal wrongdoing.

The announcement of Meznek's hiring came Thursday morning after a unanimous vote by the five-member district board of trustees.

Meznek, 53, who was born and raised in Detroit, cited "prudent financial planning and management" as his greatest accomplishment at Barstow.

"It's a small college, and fluctuations in enrollment can offset revenue streams severely," Meznek said.

During his six-year tenure, he said, he worked to increase the reserves at the 3,200-student institution from less than 5% to about 18%.

Cheryl Heitmann, president of the Ventura County Community College District board of trustees, said she expected Meznek to start his new job by late August.

The 35,000-student district includes Moorpark, Oxnard and Ventura colleges.

Two Ventura County educators, first James Walker, a former president of Moorpark College, and then Bill Studt, a former superintendent of the Oxnard Union High School District, have served as the community college district's interim chancellors since Westin.

Heitmann cited Meznek's 25 years of experience as a strength, along with his financial savvy. "When he arrived at Barstow, they were in some serious financial problems, and he has really turned that college around," she said.

Heitmann also praised his "inclusive" management style: "He has accomplished innovative, creative solutions in other districts. He's a strong advocate for students and student success, and he's improved morale and increased enrollment."

Heitmann said that, in deciding to hire Meznek, trustees weren't necessarily reacting to the Westin scandal.

Westin resigned in October 2002, 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.

"I think that's always in the back of people's minds, but we were looking forward, not backward," she said. "We were looking for someone who will take us forward."

Westin was paid $203,000 a year to lead the college district, which has an annual budget of about $119 million and about 425 full-time and 1,000 part-time teachers.

Meznek earned $125,000 a year at Barstow College, which has a budget of $13 million and about 45 full-time and 100 part-time teachers.

His salary and the length of his contract in Ventura County will not be set until the next board meeting, scheduled for June 29, Heitmann said.

Marcia Zableckis, president of the board of Barstow Community College, said Meznek gave up his raise in recent years to help his district save money.

"For two or three years now, he refused a pay increase," Zableckis said. "He felt he could get by with the money we gave him, and he didn't want the school to be hurt."

He will be missed for more than his financial prudence, she said.

"Dr. Meznek is concerned about what's best for the college and the students," she said. "He truly cares about the success of our school, and I'm sure he will care about wherever he goes."

Meznek earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Wayne State University in Detroit and his doctorate from the University of Michigan.

He has worked in college administration in Michigan, Wyoming and Minnesota, as well as in Chula Vista and Sacramento in California.

While in Minnesota in the mid-1990s, he received a vote of no confidence from the faculty of one of two colleges that were being restructured.

"I was hired to merge two independent colleges," he said. "One was a junior college and the other was a technical college. The junior college faculty felt I wasn't sensitive enough to their needs and voted no confidence. The technical faculty didn't join them in the no-confidence vote, but that wasn't as widely reported."

Zableckis said she wouldn't characterize Meznek as insensitive.

His personality "can be strong," she said, "but strong is needed sometimes."

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