Community College Board President Accused of Harassment and Intimidation
Left, an illustration of Scott Svonkin from our 2011 story; right, Andra Hoffman, his fellow board member who's accused him of harassment
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster; photo courtesy Los Angeles Community College District
In the pantheon of local governmental bodies, the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees surely ranks toward the bottom in terms of interest from the public. That's a shame — the board controls a $3 billion budget and nine schools, which together educate around 230,000 students, many of whom live below the federal poverty line. It's also entertaining to watch the steady stream of petty infighting among the trustees.
Most of this infighting goes on behind closed doors. But later today, it will be on full display for public consumption, as the board takes up a motion by trustee Andra Hoffman to sanction the board's president, Scott Svonkin. The motion alludes to a "pattern of harassment" going back to 2015, when Hoffman refused to vote for Svonkin for president (the president being elected by the seven board members). The motion reads, in part:
I have observed in many circumstances his abusive conduct and dismissive behavior toward women on this board and in this district, including students who have come before the board to speak, and I feel extremely uncomfortable in his presence and he makes me afraid to perform my duties as an elected official and a member of the board of trustees for the Los Angeles Community College District for fear that he will attack me or use intimidation tactics to silence my opinion, vote and/or voice...
In a written response included in the board's agenda, Svonkin calls Hoffman's claims "baseless, unfounded and unjust" and " a cheap and desperate attempt to attack my character for political gain."
Svonkin tells L.A. Weekly that he plans on apologizing to Hoffman at tonight's meeting.
"I am direct, and if she isn’t comfortable with that, I’m very sorry," Svonkin says. "I never intended to make her uncomfortable. I intended to make my points on policy issues. I see the world in very black-and-white. And I don’t believe Ms. Hoffman shares my values. And if she’s offended and uncomfortable with me and the words I use, I apologize. My intent is to debate things passionately."
As for the attempt to sanction him, he says: "It’s not the way you handle disagreements. When you’re working with someone, a colleague, you don’t take private conversations about issues and turn them into a public fight. It’s not healthy for an elected body."
Hoffman did not make herself available for comment, but her political consultant and friend Larry Levine did. He tells L.A. Weekly that Svonkin has often behaved rudely toward his colleagues but that the "final straw" was during last month's June 7 meeting, when Svonkin offered up a motion honoring three board members — Mike Eng, Nancy Pearlman (both of whom were about to leave office) and Svonkin himself. Svonkin's motion praised himself for his own "leadership, contributions and meritorious service" and proposed that he be named "Board President Emeritus."
Pearlman says she was insulted that, after serving on the board for 16 years, she didn't get her own motion, as is customary. And Hoffman wasn't comfortable with the board president emeritus title. In the end, the motion passed, but only barely, by a vote of 4 to 3, with both Hoffman and Pearlman voting against it.
Levine says that during the break, Svonkin approached Hoffman and, waving his finger, yelled at her: "You just made the biggest mistake of your political career. I’ll make sure you’re never elected to any other office!” Levine says the hectoring continued until the College District's chancellor, Dr. Francisco Rodriguez, intervened and reminded Svonkin they were still in public. Levine says this incident is only the latest in a "two-year pattern of harassment, intimidation, threats, and verbal and physical menacing."
Svonkin disputes this version of events. He says the argument was over Measure CC, a $3.5 billion construction bond measure passed by voters last year. Svonkin was an early champion of the bond measure, while Hoffman initially supported a different proposal — though, in the end, she says she voted for CC. Svonkin says that he told her, "I’m going to make sure that everyone knows you didn’t support the bond."
Levine calls Svonkin's countercharge "an attempt to try to change the subject."
Today's meeting is the first in 16 years at which Nancy Pearlman is not a board member, having lost her most recent election this year. Pearlman says she wishes she was still a board member, so she could vote yes to the Svonkin sanction.
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"He’s been verbally abusive to me for the last few years," Pearlman says. "Scott likes to be controlling, manipulative. It all has to be done his way. It’s not a collaborative effort. He’s extremely disrespectful."
Should the motion get at least four votes and pass, the board would schedule a sanctions hearing, where evidence would be presented. Hoffman says she has saved voicemails and text messages that show Svonkin's "contempt, anger, hatred and disdain" toward her. The vote to sanction Svonkin would need five votes to pass.
"She could have information where I disagree [with her] on an issue, but I harbor no ill will toward her," Svonkin says.
Svonkin has a history of boorish behavior. In 2010, there was an aborted attempt to recall him from his post as a board member for the San Gabriel Valley Unified School District. An editorial in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune noted Svonkin's "incivility," "bullying tactics" and "union shilling," and added a delightful anecdote:
Unlike virtually every other council or school board member in the entire San Gabriel Valley, he refers to himself as "the Honorable" Scott Svonkin. Even members of Congress rarely exhibit such unearned arrogance. Is he up for a seat in the House of Lords soon?
"I was a high school dropout," Svonkin says. "Community college turned my life around. These things are very personal to me. if you talk to people, they will criticize my style and presentation. It is rare that you will find any of my colleagues that will question my commitment to public service."
Svonkin was elected to the Community College Board of Trustees in 2011. Now he's running for a seat on the Board of Equalization, the embattled state agency that oversees tax collection, which lawmakers recently voted to strip of most of its power.
In his bid for that seat, Svonkin has received the endorsement of dozens of current and former elected officials, including Attorney General Xavier Becerra, State Treasurer John Chiang (who is running for governor), U.S. congressmen Brad Sherman and Tony Cardenas, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, six City Council members and four out of five county supervisors.
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