Are Peralta Problems Symptoms of Long-Term Difficulties?

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 16, 2009 - 10:51:00 AM

Over the weekend, our friends over at the Tribune published a series of devastating and troubling articles by reporters Matt Krupnik and Thomas Peele alleging a recent pattern of fraud and fund misuse by the administration and board of the Peralta Community College District—“Alameda County college leader’s business partner gets $900,000 contract”; “Peralta raises at odds with district rules”; “Peralta district pays Harris for 57 weeks of work, and more.” 

Of those, the most troubling to me, personally, is the $900,000 contract story. Although I knew nothing about the contract itself, I warned district officials—both in print and in private—that this type of situation was brewing. 

The Peralta Community College District operates four local colleges—Laney and Merritt in Oakland, Berkeley City College, and the College of Alameda. It is an important and necessary part of the East Bay’s education establishment. 

In their “business partner” article, Mr. Krupnik and Mr. Peele write that “Peralta Community College District Chancellor Elihu Harris helped steer a $940,000 no-bid contract to … business partner [Mark A. Lindquist in April of 2007] without disclosing the relationship to district trustees before they approved the deal.” Mr. Lindquist, who had joint real estate and radio station interests with Mr. Harris at the time the bid was awarded, received the contract to oversee the renovation of buildings at Laney College. According to the Tribune story, Mr. Harris had no relationship with 1701 Associates, the Lindquist firm that received the oversight contract, but several sources within the story were concerned that they were troubled by the fact that Mr. Harris did not disclose to the Peralta board the formal business relationships he did have with Mr. Lindquist, leaving open the unproven suspicion that there could have been some behind-the-scenes quid pro quo involved between the two partners. We stress the words unproven and could have been. The no-contract bid to 1701 Associates looks bad, but no-one has come up with evidence that Mr. Harris personally benefited from awarding the contract to his business partner. 

What disturbs me, however, is that the money for the Lindquist contract came from Peralta’s 2006 Bond Measure A which, according to the Krupnik-Peele article, “have been steeped in secrecy, said the chairwoman of the committee overseeing the bonds. ‘There has been a lot of circling the wagons around expenditures of Measure A funds,’ said Helene Lecar. The district did not tell her panel about the Lindquist connection, she said.” 

Actually, that’s not the half of it. 

I was covering the Peralta Community College District administration and board as part of my regular Daily Planet news beat during the spring of 2007 when the Lindquist contract award was announced. I don’t remember the contract discussion itself, but I do remember a lot about the troubles concerning Measure A oversight. 

The $390 million construction bond measure was passed by Alameda County voters in June of 2006 with specific language requiring a seven member citizen oversight committee to make sure the money was properly spent. But in late 2006 and throughout 2007, I wrote a series of articles outlining how the oversight committee was not properly functioning (“Peralta Bond Confusion Concerns Laney Faculty,” Dec. 12, 2006; “Problems With Measure A, Says Former Peralta Counsel “ Dec. 19, 2006; “Peralta Officials Backtrack on Measure A Money,” July 24, 2007; “One Year Later, Measure A Still Has No Citizen Oversight,” June 26, 2007; and “Confusion Continues to Plague Peralta District Measure A” Oct. 30, 2007. 

In the June 26, 2007 “Still Has No Citizen Oversight” article, I wrote that “more than a year after local voters approved the Peralta Community College District’s Facilities Bond Measure A, authorizing the four-college district to issue some $390 million in bonds, a citizens’ oversight committee required by that measure has yet to organize itself, has yet to meet, and has not yet been fully formed.” I added in the article that “Peralta Vice Chancellor Tom Smith says the oversight committee has not yet met because ‘there is nothing for them to do.’” That was written two months after the awarding of the Lindquist contract, in which Oversight Committee Chair Helene LeCar told the Tribune reporters that district officials “did not tell her panel about the Lindquist connection (with Chancellor Harris).” 

And in the Oct. 30, 2007 “Confusion Continues” article, I said that “the citizens’ oversight committee for the Peralta Community College District Measure A facilities bonds, which has not issued required minutes or a report on its activities for the year and a half since the bond measure was passed, descended into something close to disarray this month with confusion over its membership. Meanwhile, with or without citizen oversight, Peralta continues to move forward with projects funded by Measure A bonds, with the board approving requests for $2.7 million in 17 contracts and change orders at its Oct. 9 meeting and $2.1 million in three contracts at its Oct. 23 meeting.” 

I added that as of the end of October of 2007 “no public notices of committee meetings appear to have been ever given, no report has been issued, and no minutes or other documents from the oversight committee appear on the Peralta district website. Meanwhile, Peralta has not even fully formed the oversight committee.” 

At the time of the writing the “Confusion Continues” article only six of the seven member oversight committee had been chosen, a year and a half after the passage of Measure A, and six months after the awarding of the Lindquist Measure A contract. 

But it gets worse. 

During the 10 months I was writing articles on the problems with Measure A construction bond oversight between December of 2006 and October of 2007, I had several private conversations with board members high-placed district officials. I told them of the information that I was uncovering, that while I had seen no evidences of malfeasance in the Measure A contracts, I was also seeing no proper oversight of the bond money spending. The July 24 2007 “Peralta Officials Backtrack” story, for example, showed that the district was keeping no publicly reported, running total of the bond measure money being allocated. That followed the Dec. 12, 2006 “Peralta Bond Confusion” story which reported that “the itemized Measure A bond [project] list that [appeared at the time of the article] on the district’s website has serious discrepancies and lapses in its explanation of how its final figure was developed.” Following the publication of the Dec. 12 2006 “Peralta Bond Confusion” story, the itemized Measure A bond project list was pulled from the Peralta website. 

All of this, I privately told the Peralta officials, was adding up to a major fiscal oversight problem that could explode at any time and jeopardize the chance of passage of any new Peralta bond measures that came before county voters in the future. I kept being assured, in private, that something would be done about the problem, but my impression was that none of the Peralta officials took the situation as seriously as I did. Officials can say now that they did not know about the excesses alleged in the Tribune articles. But it’s not because they weren’t warned. 

It remains to be seen how much effect this will have when Peralta comes back to voters for renewal of the construction bonds. 

There is a river of deep irony in this situation. 

Earlier in the decade, the Peralta Community College District was something of a laughingstock in the local press, as it was mired in a series of malfeasance and fiscal mismanagement controversies surrounding the board and former Chancellor Ron Temple. But in December of 2006, while the Measure A problems were still a small smoldering and not yet a fire, I was observing that the district was experiencing a fiscal oversight turnaround. 

“After years at the center of scandal and turmoil,” I wrote in a December 1 article, “the Peralta Board has seen a complete turnover in two years, with only … trustee Bill Riley as the lone holdover from the years when former chancellor Ron Temple ran the district. Current board president Linda Handy won her … seat in 2002 against incumbent Brenda Knight, a Temple supporter, and four of the current board members—[Bill] Withrow, Marcie Hodge, Nicky Gonzalez-Yuen, and Cy Gulassa—came on in 2004 when the incumbents in their districts chose not to run. …[T]rustee Alona Clifton lost her seat to challenger Abel Guillen in the election earlier this month. Guillen does not take office until mid-December.  

“Meanwhile,” I continued, “beginning with Handy’s election in 2002, the board began to tighten up operations at the four-college district, firing Temple and replacing him with Elihu Harris. Those reforms escalated following the 2004 election, with added fiscal oversight and controls slowly put into place.” (“Withrow Expected to Take Helm of New Peralta Board.”) 

Among those oversight reforms were significant board questioning of contract cost overruns that previously had been routinely approved, the requirement that the district general counsel and chief financial officer sign off on “significant” items for legal and fiscal propriety before they were placed on the board agenda, and the hiring of a district oversight employee to report directly to the board. 

But because I was the only area newspaper reporter regularly covering the Peralta Community College District in 2006 and 2007 when the fiscal oversight and reforms were being put in place by the newly-constituted board (aside from student coverage in the Laney College newspaper), those reforms were largely unknown to anyone who was not reading the Daily Planet. For a good deal of the public—as well as for most of the local media—the Peralta District was still in the board and administrative disarray of the Temple years. And with the publication of the new Tribune fiscal mismanagement and malfeasance accusations, that view is now reinforced. 

Were the Peralta College District reforms of 2006-07 a real turnaround from the Temple days, and the current Tribune allegations either untrue, or simply a misstep along the road to full district fiscal accountability? Or were the 2006-07 Peralta reforms simply an aberration, a temporary fulfilling of reformist campaign promises before the district sank back into a general morass of mismanagement? 

I can’t answer that question, because I’ve moved on to other assignments, and no longer cover Peralta. As far as I know, no other non-student newspaper regularly covers the district, either. So unfortunately, unless another local newspaper or media outlet assigns a reporter to longterm monitoring of the district, the public has no way of knowing the full truth about Peralta, which could have deep effects on the district’s status and standing and public financing. And that is a shame, both for Peralta, and for the general public that pays the district’s bills and depends upon its necessary community college services.