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Battle Begins Over College Bond

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

August 23 -- The first shots in the war over Santa Monica College’s proposed
“partnership” bond measure were fired last week when political leaders and community activists submitted ballot arguments to the County clerk.

Those who lined up on opposite sides of the bond justified their positions with conflicting versions of fundamental facts, revealing very different interpretations of the last-minute events that sent the $135 million bond to the November ballot.

Supporters argued that the bond would allow the college to renovate Santa Monica facilities and restore instructional programs in Malibu, which is part of the college district but has few facilities, and fund new playing fields for college and community use.

The argument, filed by Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights Co-Chair Dennis Zane, was signed by College Board President Margaret Quinones, City Council member Bob Holbrook, Rent Control Board Chair Jeffrey Sklar, State Senator Sheila Kuehl and Malibu Mayor Sharon Barovsky.

The opposing argument, filed by resident Mathew Millen, argues that the bond would be the third tax hike in as many years and could result in the college assuming control of City facilities. Millen, a Pico Neighborhood landlord, led campaigns against school district parcel tax increases in 2002 and 2003.

In addition to Millen, the opposing argument was signed by Pico Neighborhood activist Don Gray, Santa Monica Democratic Leadership Club Chair June Coleman, L.A. County Republican Central Committee Member Polly Benson-Brown and Santa Monica tenant Michael Rosenfeld.

Both sides will have the chance to submit rebuttals, which will be printed on the ballot next to the original arguments. Because the County clerk does not fact-check ballot statements, it is up to each side to present voters with its version of the facts.

In this case, it seems the two sides disagree about even the most basic facts -- for instance, whether the bond is a “partnership” between the City and the college.

The City Council has not taken a formal position on whether to become a partner on the bond projects. The council halted its discussion of the issue early this month when the College Board of Trustees failed to place a $175million bond on the November ballot.

The board, which had fallen one vote short, approved the measure at $135 million when it reconsidered its vote a few days later.

Supporters and opponents of the measure have interpreted the council’s inaction in very different ways.

Proponents emphasize that the council’s most recent action was a positive one -- it directed City staff to work with college officials on options for a legal partnership agreement, and those negotiations are still ongoing.

The pro-bond argument filed by Zane, who has been hired by a group of activists to run the campaign, avoids saying outright that the bond will be a partnership between the City of Santa Monica and the college but hints that the projects would be collaborative.

The argument states that “all projects funded by this measure will be available for public and student use,” and that playing fields would be “for instructional and community use.”

In interviews, supporters refer to the bond as a “partnership.”

“I support it because the college has needs and the City has needs and it creates partnership,” Holbrook said.

Holbrook, however, did say that his signature on the pro-bond argument represented his “individual opinion” and not the will of the council.

But Mayor Richard Bloom believes that although there is likely no law prohibiting Holbrook from signing on as an individual, that it “certainly does send a confusing message.”

Bloom, who has been less supportive of the bond than some of his council colleagues, is not hopeful an agreement between the City and the college will be struck.

“In my mind there isn’t a lot of hope that this (a partnership agreement) is going to be pulled together,” said Bloom, who has argued that the process that led to the bond’s approval was rushed.

Millen said the council’s failure to take a definitive positive vote means the partnership does not exist.

“There was no vote to partner,” he said “They don’t need to vote to not partner.”

Millen’s anti-bond ballot argument states, “The City of Santa Monica (has) already refused to partner with Santa Monica College.”

In addition, Millen argues on the ballot statement that the Board of Education also “refused” to partner with the college, referring to the board’s vote against joining the bond campaign.

Bond proponents, however, interpret the board’s position differently, saying that even though the board declined to form an immediate partnership with the college, it has been careful to leave the door open for future partnerships, possibly on projects funded by the proposed bond.

Proponents of the bond also dispute the statement in Millen’s argument that the bond “requires absolutely no partners,” which suggests the college could use the partnership concept to woo voters and then take the money and use it for college projects.

Don Girard, College Director of Marketing, said that although there is no written guarantee on the $45 million tentatively slated for projects with the City of Santa Monica, there is a provision in the bond that the $25 million earmarked for partnerships with the City of Malibu could not be spent outside of partnership projects.

Millen said he had “no comment” about Girard’s claim because he did not see evidence of such a guarantee in the written ballot language.

Still another point of disagreement is how the bond money could be used.

In their ballot argument, opponents write, “Do you want to turn parks into parking lots or re-decorate administrative offices? It can happen.”

Girard said he had “no clue” what Millen was referring to.

But Millen argues that vaguely worded items on the bond’s project list such as “upgrades to existing and future District facilities” and “parking facilities and roadway improvements” would allow the college to do pretty much anything with the bond money.

The bond would cost homeowners about $18 per $100,000 of assessed value of their homes each year for the life of the bond, likely 10 to 12 years.

Specific projects funded by the proposed bond will be listed on the ballot. They are:

  • Replacement or renovation of Health, Fitness, and Physical Education Building.
  • Site acquisition and improvements to the District for field space, especially women’s soccer, in order to make available a complete offering of District-provided programs in Health, Fitness, and Physical Education.
  • Site acquisition and improvements on Malibu for instructional facility of no more than 25,000 assignable square feet and field space.
  • Retrofit existing District fields of other fields available to the District for year-round usage.
  • Improvements to provide childcare and an Early Childhood Development lab facility.
  • Replacement of earthquake-destroyed tennis courts.
  • New Music and Performing Arts Complex to support new University of California admission requirements.
  • Upgrades to existing and future district facilities, including Projects done under Cooperative Agreements, for energy efficiency and to meet modern sustainability practices.
  • New Career Opportunity Center to support programs in emerging technologies and to compete for State and Federal grants.
  • Satellite campus parking facilities and roadway improvements.

According to the ballot, all bond expenditures are subject to review by a Citizens Oversight Committee which reports to the public, as provided by the Education Code, and bond proceeds will not be used to purchase residential property.

The bond measure also stipulates the following:

  • “The District will not unilaterally override the City of Santa Monica of City or Malibu land use authority for any Projects done under Cooperative Agreements within the city limits of the respective city.
  • ”The District will involve faculty, staff, and students in curriculum development throughout the life of the bond measure program.
  • ”The District will conduct a neighborhood assessment of need as past if the program design of the Career Opportunity Center Project.
  • ”The District will conduct a comprehensive assessment of program need prior to making improvements in Malibu for an instructional facilities and field space,” and
  • ”The District will provide an opportunity for input from the community and neighborhood residents during the development of Projects to be funded by the bond measure.”
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