In November 2008 district taxpayers entrusted Southwestern College with Proposition R, a $389 million bond.
After 232 criminal charges and more than a dozen indictments, a new governing board was forced to pull the plug on all the dirty contracts and start over. This cost the taxpayers years of time and tens of millions of dollars. When construction resumed, inflation had eaten away at the college’s buying power, scaling back what was originally envisioned in Prop R.
Now, with Prop R running dry, the district is poised to ask taxpayers for another bond, $365 million, to fulfill maintenance obligations and complete the college’s reconstruction master plan. Without new money the college is not able to move forward on many projects, most of which are academic.
The unfortunate fact is this bond is necessary. SWC is 52 years old and in need of maintenance and new facilities. Our current governing board members are not the same crooks that became corrupted by contractor’s bribes and back-room deals. They have earned back taxpayer trust and would most likely do right by the district and its students.
But there are lessons yet to be learned. The culture of secrecy that plagued the Chopra era has been allowed to fester and thrive once again. Under President Melinda Nish, the college has become increasingly hostile to the press, especially regarding public records requests. After Chief of Police Michael Cash negligently (“accidentally”) discharged his firearm in the campus police station in 2013, he was suspended temporarily but did not lose his job, despite nearly killing his secretary and two others. An investigator’s report, a document of clear and vital interest to the taxpaying public, still has not been released. Nish and Co. speciously cited the Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights to justify the cover-up.
A current dean threatened to sue The Sun and its advisor over the publication of emails she herself sent and comments she herself made. Again, protected by Nish, she was reassigned, but remains safe and snug in her new high-paying job.
When The Sun requested documents from the SWC police last November, the district did not respond to the request until well beyond the legally mandated 10-day window, one day into winter break, all but guaranteeing The Sun would not be able to publish a story.
A similar public records request was made on April 4 during Sunshine Week, when the American news media tests public agencies on transparency and honesty. Southwestern College failed its test. The district refused to release documents until confronted by a national First Amendment rights organization. Now it says it will comply on May 15, again, conveniently, well beyond the date the college newspaper could publish news relating to them.
This pattern of secrecy and defiance of public records law does little to instill confidence in the district’s willingness to be transparent or accountable with new bond money. At every turn the district has prioritized its public image over the public good. Every effort has been made to justify secrecy over open government. The cover-up culture that flourishes under President Nish is particularly troubling considering the potential for another $356 million in bond money. With that much money on the table, there is little standing in the way to prevent more fraud. The last batch of crooks got off without jail and given the district’s ongoing resistance to transparency, the conditions are ripe for further abuse. After all, Nish’s veil of secrecy is well ensconced in the college culture. Her adversarial attitude towards the press and public scrutiny pervades the district’s corridors of power.
If the college expects district taxpayers to support another round of tax increases, then it is reasonable for the public to expect the district to be forthcoming in the release of public records. The district should immediately release the investigator’s report into the Cash shooting. The district should immediately release all outstanding requested public records. The district should begin responding to records requests not with hostility and defiance, but in routine accordance with public records law.
Finally, the culture of secrecy and obfuscation toward student journalists working in the public interest— the same public now being asked to produce from their pockets the funds to make up for the crimes of past administrators— must come to an end.