Scott Svonkin has made a lot of enemies in the three years since he joined the board of the small San Gabriel Unified School District. He now is running for the vastly more powerful Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees.
The Los Angeles Times recently published an exposé uncovering the waste of tens of millions of dollars in the community college district's $5.7 billion voter-approved bond construction program. One boondoggle was a solar-energy project that would have required covering cherished green spaces with photovoltaic panels, turning welcoming, carefully designed campuses into “power plants,” as one college president said. The project cost millions of dollars to devise, only to be thrown out.
Elected college trustees, who allowed much of the waste, reacted to the Times exposé by firing Larry Eisenberg, the bonds project chief who pushed the solar plan in the face of strong criticism from college presidents, a district energy adviser, independent experts and state safety advisers.
For years veteran college board members, including Mona Fields, Kelly Candaele and Nancy Pearlman, failed to seriously question Eisenberg's growing solar fiasco. Svonkin, now vying in a May 17 election against Lydia Gutierrez, would join them and several other board trustees if he wins the seat, as expected.
Svonkin declares, “What created the problems was the lack of oversight in the district, the lack of experts” and the “lack of accountability” in the college district.
That's not how Svonkin talks, however, as an elected member of the San Gabriel Unified School District, where he has repeatedly fought independent oversight of pricey local construction projects.
George Carney, San Gabriel Unified's energy manager and chair of the board advisory improvement committee, says that Svonkin, in fact, pushed hard to duplicate Eisenberg's solar plan, claiming it would “save San Gabriel millions.”
Svonkin's claims were outlandish on their face, says Lee Freeman, who was San Gabriel school board president when Svonkin launched his proposal. Freeman says Svonkin claimed, “ 'By putting in these solar panels, we are going to save millions of dollars.' Millions of dollars? My God, man, our total electric bill is not even that big.”
Svonkin's solar scheme was never approved, but Freeman now regrets that he urged Svonkin to run for the San Gabriel school board instead of for the obscure San Gabriel Water Board — Svonkin's original goal in politics.
Freeman, former chief operating officer of a Fortune 500 alternative-energy company, is a strong supporter of alternative energy, but he was alarmed that Svonkin wasn't interested in whether the solar plan was economically responsible.
“He was proposing that we contact vendors — and we would just pick one of them and just get started right away,” Freeman says. “His analyses were a mile wide and a micron deep.”
Local sentiment against him may help explain why, in the March 8 primary, 78 percent of San Gabriel voters chose someone other than Svonkin in the race for the community college board.
Critics say Svonkin, the strong favorite to win the community college seat on May 17 thanks to massive backing from top Democrats and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, will become yet another cheerleader for wasteful bond projects.
Carney, holding up an imaginary newspaper, says Svonkin “likes whatever he reads that morning. … There's never been anything like, 'Look, George, I would like you to get me a report on solar and have it to me at the next meeting so we can discuss it.' ”
As the Times reported, veteran trustees on the community college board did nothing as Eisenberg's alternative-energy program drew increasingly stronger criticism and cost estimates rose. Millions of dollars were spent on blueprints that were never used.
Svonkin tried hard, but failed, to get the San Gabriel board to copy the college district's trouble-plagued concepts.
Carney describes Svonkin's thought process as: “Wow, we'll just slap these panels on all of our roofs, and we'll generate electricity up the ying-yang.”
Svonkin tells L.A. Weekly he will clean up the disaster at the Community College District, saving “millions of dollars” by “going in and auditing everything they do and finding better ways.”
That's not going to happen, say many in San Gabriel who have watched Svonkin for the past three years.
In the wake of the Times exposé, the Los Angeles Community College District has created a new citizen oversight committee — adding to 10 oversight committees already in place.
Svonkin calls the creation of an 11th oversight committee a “good first step.”
But Carney says that in San Gabriel, “He didn't want the oversight committee.”
In fact, at one key San Gabriel school board meeting in 2010, Jerry Schwartz, chairman of the district's long-range facilities oversight committee, asked to speak in order to correct a factual error regarding a big labor contract. Svonkin shut Schwartz down before he could talk, snapping: “No, you are not part of the board, and you are not part of the agreement.”
The large audience murmured in disbelief.
After witnessing Svonkin's frequent resistance to independent oversight of bond expenditures and bond planning in San Gabriel, Wayne San Filippo, vice chairman of the district's facilities oversight committee, says, “I don't think of him as being informed about anything.”
San Gabriel school board member Colleen Doan says Svonkin's standard phrase when he argues against getting recommendations from oversight committees is that they “ 'are not a decision-making body, we are the ones who make the decisions.' ”
Svonkin began losing his temper when the Weekly questioned him on his treatment of Schwartz and his problems with independent oversight committees.
“Respond to wha-a-a-a-at!” Svonkin replied in a loud voice. “Respond to … people that lie about me? You cannot compare the San Gabriel Unified bond oversight committee to the L.A. Community College oversight committee. They are not equal. At some point I'm going to probably need to talk to your editor — because you are not listening!”
Svonkin says his critics are upset because he pushed through a union-friendly project labor agreement that limits competitive bidding and is expected to drive up costs.
He claims that respected San Gabriel civic leaders and school board members who criticize him “fundamentally don't believe that people should get a fair wage and get health care benefits.”
Schwartz is taken aback by Svonkin's sweeping slam. “How could anybody who has a job, or ever had a job, be against fair wages and benefits?”
The unions have given a substantial $64,600 to Svonkin's campaigns since 2007.
In another of his plans, Svonkin sought to save money in San Gabriel schools by assigning one principal to run two schools at the same time — an idea many found bizarre.
“Fire the principals. That's not really a rational response,” Carney says.
“If you are going to have one principal for two schools, what kind of support do those schools have?' asks Denise Menchaca, San Gabriel school board president. “He's the type where if you go deeper in, then you realize: Eh, it's a show again.”
Doan endorsed Svonkin in 2007 for the local school board. Today, watching Svonkin run for a political office with far greater responsibilities, she says in exasperation, “If we had all voted like Scott, we'd be bankrupt.”
Menchaca seconds that: “The county would have taken us over.”
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