Community campus follies
A crooked clock tower. A science building with defect-riddled labs. A running track that cracked and athletic field turf that wrinkled.
The list of construction errors — from goofy blunders to serious mistakes — across the nine campuses of the Los Angeles Community College District is stunning. A recent series in The Times looked at the district’s much-needed construction overhaul, financed by $5.7 billion in voter-approved bond money, and estimated that it has lost tens of millions of dollars due to bad workmanship, repairs of mistakes and poor planning. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is investigating a possible conflict of interest on the part of a former Mission College official who co-owned a company that worked as a subcontractor on that campus.
Initially, the community college district chancellor and other officials contended that the series was one-sided and sensationalistic, and that the district, which serves 142,000 students, had completed many successful projects and fixed many of the problems. (That clock tower, for instance, was straightened.) In the last few days, however, Chancellor Daniel LaVista has pledged to review ethical standards, contracting practices and oversight procedures.
On Wednesday, the board of trustees voted to dismiss Larry Eisenberg from the job of overseeing the construction project. That’s a good start. Not only did construction plans go haywire on his watch, but his own plan to have campuses generate all their own power through wind, solar and geothermal energy cost millions in designs that were impractical and never built.
We have a few other suggestions for how the district can be more vigilant. We’d like to see a strong ethics code. Trustees and other district leaders should not be helping relatives land jobs — as a few did — or overseeing construction on campuses where they have ties to a contractor. Also, most trustees routinely receive campaign money from construction companies, some of which have big contracts in this project. There’s nothing illegal about that, but it creates obvious conflicts.
It’s a challenge to improve oversight when the trustees who run the district face little political scrutiny and cannot easily be held accountable. Although trustees are elected, the reality is that few voters are directly affected by their decisions and relatively few people turn out to vote for or against them. (Can you name a trustee?)
The district should revamp the anemic citizens oversight committee that it set up to monitor spending. The committee needs the power and resources to evaluate what it is overseeing. And instead of being appointed by the trustees, members should be chosen by county and city officials.
Last year, the district created an office of inspector general to audit the construction program. That office should do so aggressively and issue regular public reports.
There’s still $3 billion to spend. Let’s see it done in a way that leaves students fulfilled and taxpayers assured.
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