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Hey, that’s our money you’re spending

Some bad news bears repeating. With multi-media headlines vying for attention 24 hours a day, it’s easy for important stories to lose their punch, even those that directly affect your wallet.

Bay Area News Group reporters Matt Krupnick’s and Thomas Peele’s July 11 stories about Peralta Community College Chancellor Elihu Harris and other district leaders need to remain fresh in our minds. (For the full stories go to www.insidebayarea.com/elihuharris).

Peralta raises at odds with district rules

According to Krupnick and Peele, Harris “violated Peralta Community College District policies when he unilaterally approved raises for dozens of managers throughout the course of several months, according to district trustees and documents.”

Raises are supposed to be approved by district trustees, but Krupnick and Peele report, “beginning last year Harris handed out pay hikes of up to 16 percent for 57 top administrators, two of whom received two raises within six months. Trustees, who learned about the raises after fact, said they were upset about the policy violation but would not punish Harris or roll back the salaries.”

While the managers were enjoying their fattened paychecks, other employees were steeling themselves to make it through proposed furloughs and pay cuts.

Thuy Thi Nguyen is general counsel for the Peralta district. She and Harris are longtime acquaintances. When Harris was mayor of Oakland and Nguyen was freshly graduated from high school, Harris proclaimed June 23, 1993 “Thuy Thi Nguyen Day” for her contributions to the community.

Within about a year’s time, Nguyen former income of $148,000 bumped up to$165,000.

And Alton Jelks, Harris’ special assistant, has gained $20,000 for a current salary of $145,000, a raise in two installments in six months’ time. Jelks also worked in the mayor’s office when Harris was in City Hall.

The reporters state that Harris has declined numerous requests for interviews within the past three months. And Nguyen declined to answer questions, citing attorney-client privilege and professional ethics.

Several trustees said they were upset the chancellor had granted the raises without first bringing them to the board, especially since Nguyen, as district counsel, is supposed to make sure Peralta leaders follow laws and regulations. Board President Bill Withrow said he did not know about Nguyen’s second raise until the reporters asked him about it .

Trustees decided this year — without telling the public, as the state open-meeting law requires — to keep the manager raises in place and not to admonish Harris publicly.

At Peralta, lavish spending is routine

“Leaders of the Peralta Community College District have spent thousands of tax dollars on lavish hotels, East Coast trips and even clothing in the past 18 months.”

The reporters reviewed district records that showed some trustees — and Harris — broke the district’s rules on travel and related expenses, which require travel is preapproved at the “lowest possible cost.”

But Harris last year opted instead for more tony lodging options, and traded in his preapproved option for a Yosemite Lodge room ($140 – $170 per night) for a room at the Ahwanhee Hotel ($340 per night) during a conference for educational leaders.

A few weeks later, Harris’ wife, with a plane ticket purchased on a Peralta card, accompanied her husband to conference in Florida. The airfare was refunded more than a year later, after the Bay Area News Group questioned the $240 charge.

Counsel for the district censored the bills so that the reporters could not get information on exactly what trustees were buying with the cards. The story states that Trustee Marcie Hodge spent more than $4,460 in personal expenses since January 2008. Hodge has repaid the money, often citing using the Peralta card by mistake.

If you can read the full stories, please take the time. These seemingly nickel and dime violations aren’t just bad for the budget, they’re also signs of how little respect there is for the public, which subsidizes community colleges. Any conduct that raises red flags should lead to a vigorous review and re-evaluation of the district’s leaders.