Fast times indeed.
That’s my main impression after reading the three-day series we recently published about spending, contracting and benefits at the Rancho Santiago Community College District.
The series was dubbed, “Fast Times at Rancho Santiago,” and details how trustees enjoy lavish health care benefits, travel and hotels. Top district executives, like Peter Hardash, take free golf outings from companies whose contracts he recommends. The Chancellor, Raul Rodriguez, is the highest paid in Orange County.
Meanwhile, working class students are holding fundraisers to save classes.
Today at 5 pm, district trustees are meeting in public session at the district’s headquarters in Santa Ana to review a self-evaluation.
Here’s a tip.
You shouldn’t allow people who make public contracting decisions to play golf with the contractors they oversee. That’s a recipe for shitty deals.
Enact a gift ban.
Check your travel and hotel stays (think like the college students you oversee not the pricey lawyers you employ), keep your receipts and keep your partying separate from business meals.
You shouldn’t be taking free health care.
In fact, you should probably step up and challenge all the other elected leaders around the county gaming health care benefits to pay up as well.
It’s ridiculous to ask taxpayers to fund your health care just because you sit on a public dais once a month and occasionally travel to a conference or to lobby legislators.
And while you’re at it, given what sources are telling me (we’ve only scratched the surface), you should conduct a top-to-bottom review of your spending practices.
That’s right — check under the hood!
That was the general consensus from the miffed crowd on Saturday night that jammed the Voice of OC inaugural session of “The Art of Investigative Reporting” at our headquarters inside the Santora Building in downtown Santa Ana’s Artists Village.
As I walked into our event on Saturday, I was met at the door by Rancho Santiago Trustee John Hanna, who was a real stand up guy for heading to a public session where there were going to be questions about what he’s done as an elected official.
Hanna – a longtime Democratic Party leader – was one of those whose travel (and overbilling) we highlighted in our series.
When I invited him to formally join our session, he agreed and a new concept was forged – analyzing our investigation with both reporter and elected in a public forum.
I hope other elected officials are as eager to engage as Hanna was.
It wasn’t easy.
While I give him credit for standing up, being accessible and accountable (Hanna indicated his own support for a gift ban and spending review), the crowd was in a foul mood after reading our series and demanded to see immediate action.
Their anger is probably why so few of the elected trustees and administrators of this college district showed such little courage or class and dodged our reporter, Adam Elmahrek, for months.
Even starker were the unprofessional letters sent by the district’s attorney, Robert Feldhake – who got nasty with Elmahrek because he was demanding that the district turn over public records.
Officials withheld key documents for some time, with Feldhake insinuating Elmahrek was shameless, lazy and stupid for insisting there were holes in compliance.
But it turned out Elmahrek was right.
Feldhake and his team of officials had indeed not turned over receipts submitted by a former trustee showing he billed a $120 private limo ride to the district’s taxpayers. And it wasn’t the first time they were caught not handing over records.
Shameless, lazy and stupid are more apt terms for officials like Feldhake and the other district trustees and Chancelor Rodriguez who insist on top compensation and benefits but refuse to answer basic questions to the public that employs them.
Our attorneys, as always, hate it when officials refuse to turn over documents and like to remind us that court action is a potential remedy.
“It’s illegal not to provide access to records that are not exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act, whether it’s intentional or not,” said Terry Francke, founder of Californians Aware and Voice of OC’s public records consultant. “It’s very unusual for a lawyer representing the government to get into pettiness or snarkiness with someone exercising their right to request a record, and that seems to me very unprofessional.”
Now on Saturday night, Hanna apologized for his actions and indicated he would be reimbursing the district for some expenses. He also explained that many of those trips trustees took brought more resources back to the district. Hanna even fired back at the newsroom, indicating that our reporters should have also exposed a student trustee who took an expensive trip almost a decade ago to New York.
Members of the audience tore into Hanna, echoing the sentiments of Mike Moodian – a Chapman University professor who has run to represent college districts like Rancho – questioning the rationale for lavish benefits.
Another attendee – Attorney Alfredo Amezcua (a prominent graduate of Rancho Santiago and supporter) – noted that the Voice of OC series should require immediate action and a complete audit. Nothing less should be accepted.
Hanna told the crowd that he couldn’t speak ill of Mr. Hardash’s actions because as a trustee he doesn’t have the power to actually run anything at the district, just offer direction.
Which begs the question: Then why am I paying for your health care?