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Scott Svonkin takes slight lead in L.A. Community College Board runoff

The senior advisor to Sheriff Lee Baca is barely edging out schoolteacher Lydia Gutierrez, who sought to make an issue of his ties to incumbents who presided over the district's troubled building program.

May 18, 2011|By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Scott Svonkin was pitted in a runoff election against Lydia A. Gutierrez for a seat on the Los Angeles Community College District board.
Scott Svonkin was pitted in a runoff election against Lydia A. Gutierrez… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Scott Svonkin, a senior advisor to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, took a narrow lead Tuesday over schoolteacher Lydia A. Gutierrez for a seat on the Los Angeles Community College District board in a race that focused on the district's troubled $5.7-billion construction program.

Svonkin, 45, far outgunned Gutierrez in fundraising, but that did not translate into a clear advantage in early voting tallies. Since April 3, Svonkin's committees reported raising just over $299,000, including $220,000 from a single donor, the Los Angeles College Guild State PAC, a branch of the community college faculty union. Gutierrez's campaign reported receiving $3,788 in the same period.

"The voters wanted something different, not the status quo," Gutierrez, 53, said late Tuesday.

The nine-campus district has long been criticized for low rates of students graduating or transferring to four-year colleges. The spotlight shifted, however, after a Times investigation in February found that tens of millions of construction dollars, backed by voter-approved bonds, had been wasted because of inadequate planning, shoddy workmanship and frivolous spending to upgrade classrooms, libraries and athletic fields.

"The voters were concerned about waste and abuse and they wanted to know I would clean it up," Svonkin said.

Svonkin originally ran on a Democratic slate with incumbents Mona Field and Miguel Santiago, who for years oversaw the construction program. Most of the trustees, including Field and Santiago, had accepted donations from builders and others who received contracts from the board, the Times series showed.

Powered by a late burst of money from contractors, all four members of the slate — Svonkin, Field, Santiago and San Fernando City Councilman Steven Veres — were the top vote-getters in the March primary. But Svonkin failed to gain a majority of the votes, setting him up for the runoff.

Svonkin returned more than $10,000 in contractor donations, but kept several thousand dollars. Last week, he said that was an oversight and that the additional money would be returned.

Gutierrez, a San Pedro resident and Republican, ran as a reform candidate, calling for an inquiry into the construction program by California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott. She characterized Svonkin as an insider who would whitewash wrongdoing in the construction program.

"We need to show that every dollar used will be used correctly, " she said.

Svonkin said he, too, would bring reform, including an independent audit to ensure the construction dollars are being spent prudently as well as a prohibition on favoritism in hiring for relatives of board members and college officials. "Everybody who hasn't been fired for failing to protect the public interest should be," said Svonkin, who also sits on the San Gabriel Unified School District board.

In the final weeks, the campaign veered into side issues as the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee sought to publicize Gutierrez's conservative social views. A late mailer portrayed her as a "Sarah Palin-style Tea Partier."

Gutierrez responded that she didn't support Sarah Palin or receive money from the tea party. "I'm sorry my opponent created confusion about what this campaign was about," Gutierrez said Tuesday night. "But the voters are really showing they know."

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