School Officials Vow to Revive Lawsuits : Downey Fails to Hear College Testimony

Times Staff Writer

United College of Business officials stormed out of Tuesday night's City Council meeting after the council unexpectedly refused to hear testimony from expert witnesses in support of the college's bid to expand enrollment.

College officials vowed to proceed with two discrimination suits that had been filed against the city last year after the city denied a request to allow 250 additional students to be enrolled at the main Downey facility.

In the suits, the college alleged that the city turned down the expansion application because of fears that enrollment of additional "low-income, minority students would discourage higher-income, white customers from patronizing nearby businesses."

City officials have said that allowing more students would increase a parking problem in the city's downtown area. The main United College facility in Downey, which now is allowed 250 students, is on the second and third floors of a building it shares with the Downey National Bank, 8345 Firestone Blvd.

Suits Were on Hold

The suits, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court and in U.S. District Court last fall, had been put on hold while the two sides were working on an out-of-court compromise, said Christian E. Markey, college attorney.

The council, as part of the effort to reach an agreement, had planned to hear testimony Tuesday on the college's request, college officials said.

But the council's vote Tuesday night to put off the scheduled hearing until Aug. 23 ruled out the testimony of at least one expert who traveled from Washington, D.C. Several council members said they needed more time to review hundreds of pages of documents that college officials submitted July 19 in support of their proposed expansion.

College officials, however, saw the delay as a violation of good faith and an attempt to block the college's expansion plan.

"They were arrogant and rude, " college President Alan D. Mentzer said after storming out of the meeting when he was not allowed to speak by Mayor Robert G. Cormack. "To get this treatment in this city and in this county is unjust at best."

Paul H. Carpenter, a director for the Washington D.C.-based Assn. of Independent Colleges and Schools, said he did not know if he would be able to return for the hearing next month.

Mentzer said the college "had jumped through hoops" in an effort to reach a compromise. For example, the school had lowered its expansion request from 250 students to 120 students and met the July 19 deadline to file evidence supporting its request to the city.

Also, interviews scheduled for this week with witnesses related to the lawsuits had been cancelled because of the agreed-upon hearing, said Mentzer. An agreement was also recently worked out between college officials and the nearby First Baptist Church of Downey to provide extra parking spaces for the additional students, he added.

Expenses of College

The business college also spent about $2,500 in consulting fees and travel expenses for a traffic specialist, lawyers and Carpenter's trip from Washington, Mentzer said

Just before the hearing was to begin, several City Council members said they had not read all the documents submitted by college officials, and preferred to postpone the hearing for a month.

City Planner Ronald M. Yoshiki suggested that only the testimony of the expert witnesses be heard, but City Councilman Randall R. Barb then said that he would oppose any testimony. "It should be all or nothing," Barb said.

But Mentzer charged that the City Council deliberately tabled the matter. He said City Council members should have known "24 hours ago" that they were not prepared to hear the testimony and needed more time to review the documentation submitted by the school.

"We expected a full and fair hearing," said Mentzer. "We didn't even get a phone call."

In a telephone interview after the meeting, Yoshiki said that the city would be prepared to conduct a full hearing on the issue next month. He said that the outcome of Tuesday's meeting was unintentional. He said he had not read all the evidence, particularly the agreement allowing the use of the church parking lot.

"We have to review everything to have a fair assessment" of the college's application, said Yoshiki.

Although college officials say they will continue to attempt a compromise by appearing at the hearing next month, Markey said he planned to reschedule interviews with witnesses--the first step in reactivating the lawsuits.

The college is asking for $7 million in damages and a court order to permit the expansion. The suits allege that the city has denied the college's request because 64% of the students attending are Latino and black.

City officials have described the charge as "ludicrous."

The one-year business college teaches day and evening courses in bookkeeping and word processing and in secretarial and other skills. A second, slightly smaller facility is on Firestone Boulevard, one block from the main Downey facility. The college also operates campuses in Pico Rivera and Hollywood.

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