(Publisher’s note: The following is a guest commentary by Long Beach resident Elizabeth Thomas. It appeared in the July 5-19 edition of the Business Journal.)
Long Beach voters passed measures A and LB, increasing taxes to pay for billions of dollars in infrastructure, safety and building projects for the city and Long Beach City College.
Taxpayers were promised that Citizen Oversight Committees (COC) would assure their money was being spent wisely.
But upon closer scrutiny, there are serious doubts that these supposedly independent Citizens Oversight Committees can do the job. COCs are supposed to be an independent “watchdog,” reviewing all spending and protocols to ensure funds are used as promised, and used efficiently.
Looking at what has happened at Long Beach City College (LBCC), it is doubtful that appointed members of the LBCC COC would be impartial or are even qualified to do the job. Apparently all have been hand-selected by the college administration and are likely pre-disposed to favor college management without question.
Bylaws state the committee should have: one student enrolled in the district, one active in the local business community, one active in a senior citizen’s organization, one in a “bona-fide taxpayers association,” one in a support organization for the college and two members of the community at large.
Sounds fine. Unfortunately the COC for LBCC’s Measure E (2008), for $440 million in building projects, met only twice a year. How can anyone oversee building projects so dynamic that the original budget of $440 million ended up with “adjustments” of over $200 million – an over 45% increase? There would be no time to raise concerns and have them acted upon.
In fact, when looking at auditor’s reports delivered to this COC for review, the professional auditors only verified that money was being used per the language of the bond. There is nothing that addresses how well the money was managed – nor is there any kind of target budget process that makes it possible to track expenditures.
The new LB Bond, that will cost taxpayers nearly $1.9 billion, is supposed to finish the projects that Bond E failed to do. But already the process is flawed.
Three new LBCC COC members were appointed on June 28, 2016, and three existing committee members’ term were extended.
There was no defined process for the candidate selection – and in fact, the candidates were determined entirely by the superintendent’s office without input from the LBCC Board of Trustees (elected by voters) or anyone else.
Only one trustee (the Board of Trustees consists of five members) questioned the process: Sunny Zia, the only no vote on a rushed approval vote.
A debate at the meeting revealed that neither the trustees nor district were provided candidate biographies before the vote. (Interestingly, qualifications do not require experience in managing building projects.)
The public was not even invited to apply, and none of the applications were made available to the public. Although Zia requested the vote be postponed, it could not, because candidates had to be in place by July 1, 2016.
So this rushed, disorganized and closed process has resulted in new appointees Eric Berg (Senior Citizens Organization), Randy Gordon (Local Business Community), and Stella Ursua (Community at Large).
Since being elected, Zia has been pressing for more fiscal transparency and videotaped board sessions reveal the animosity other members of the board have for her outspoken insistence. Interestingly, Stella Ursua was Zia’s opponent in the election for the LBCC’s Second District.
More discussion regarding Measure E construction updates ensued at the June 28 meeting, and revealed even bigger flaws.
Several in the audience noted that important building industry project management best practices did not seem to be in place:
• One was the lack of budget targets, i.e., a budget for the work actually completed by a specified date. Known as Earned Value Management, it is a project management technique for measuring project performance and progress in an objective manner;
• Project risks, issues or problems, and project red flags were also not reported in the meeting, although typically they are a source of project failures; and
• Change control boards are another critical project management practice to ensure stakeholder visibility and control of project requirements and scope changes.
In summary, although the college says it is committed to fiscal responsibility and transparency it was not apparent from the Trustee Board Meeting of June 28.