Behind the screens of the Peralta Community Colleges board: Reporter finds some telling e-mails

Matt Krupnick, my colleague who covers higher education for the Bay Area News Group, requested e-mail correspondence from the public accounts of Linda Handy, Marcie Hodge and William Riley, trustees for the Peralta Community College District who are running for re-election or, in Hodge’s case, for mayor. He tells us what he found.

from Fletcher Prince's photostream on flickr.com/creativecommonsA stack of e-mails I obtained from the Peralta Community College District gives an interesting look into the inner world of trustees — and some shed light on why they never return my calls.

The e-mails, obtained through the California Public Records Act, were sent to and from the public accounts of trustees Linda Handy, Marcie Hodge and William Riley, all of whom are running for re-election or for another public office in November. Most of the messages provided nothing but tedium, but others contained some surprising reactions to what I thought were standard requests for information.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” Handy responded in one message when told of my request for the e-mails. “How racist is that?”

All three of the trustees, who all happen to be African-American, are running for public office — Handy and Riley for re-election and Hodge for Oakland mayor — and none of the three has been willing to answer questions about their performance on the Peralta board. Looking through their e-mail is one of the few ways for a reporter to tell the public about these officials.

The messages show surprising reactions from other trustees as well. Also in response to my records request, Trustee Cy Gulassa wondered who owns the Bay Area News Group, for which I write, guessing that politics were behind our investigation into former Chancellor Elihu Harris.

“Given its irrational pursuit of Elihu, does it have a right-wing objective?” Gulassa asked in a message to Riley and Trustee Abel Guillen. “Can we explore this?”

I know nothing about this company’s owners or their politics, and I and my colleague, Thomas Peele, pursued stories about Harris because we were concerned about the use of public money and how the Peralta district operates. After our reporting, the board opted not to renew Harris’ contract and is now engaged in a search for a new chancellor.

The e-mails do explain why it’s so hard for me to reach an elected official in the district. On July 7, the day the Alameda County grand jury released a report criticizing Peralta leadership, a college-district employee, Roxanne Epstein, advised trustees I would be calling them for comments. Epstein, who made a little more than $100,000 last year as the chancellor’s assistant and the board clerk, also gave trustees some advice.

“Please consider ‘do not answer’ for his number,” Epstein wrote, referring to my queries. Sure enough, none of the trustees answered my calls.

Other messages showed evidence of rocky relations between trustees, as well as possible violations of the state’s open-meetings law. In an e-mail to three other trustees — the Brown Act forbids such communication between a majority of an elected board — Trustee Bill Withrow took exception at his colleagues’ decision to distance themselves from a consultant.

“What the hell is your problem!!!!!” Withrow wrote to board president Abel Guillen. “If you want to rumble…bring it on.”

In an attempt to mollify Withrow, Guillen responded that the consulting firm, the Pineapple Group, had close ties to Harris.

“We can deal with this issue once Elihu is long gone,” Guillen wrote. “We can’t afford perceptions of impropriety.”

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • http://www.thefrustratedteacher.com/ TFT

    Politics as usual.

  • Oakland Teacher

    How did we end up with a ship of fools running the Peralta CC District? Like the stuff with Elihu Harris wasn’t bad enough!

    Great job on all the investigative work from Matt Krupnick.

  • oakey

    It is so outrageous for journalists to seek answers to questions of impropriety, corruption, incompetence and squandering of public funds. How dare they. Especially against people of color.

    Except, of course, that chances are it’s true.

  • http://www.wefightblight@blogspot.com We Fight Blight

    The Peralta Community College District is run like a little fiefdom with little or no transparency. Some members of our community who have been elected see it as their way to enrich themselves. Public records act requests are a right of the community to ensure transparency. For someone on the Board to suggest such a request is racist is not only a fool who lacks understanding of the law, but is simply ill-suited to be a representative for our community. No wonder Oakland is so troubled when we have public representatives who fail to engage the community, fail to understand the law and only want to line their pockets. Thanks for the reporting. Maybe We Fight Blight might blanket these fools with a Public Records Act Request.

  • J.R.

    Typical political foolhardiness, it’s always about “right or left” and never about right or wrong. These people like all public “self” serving employees think that the real taxpayers are their personal ATM of enrichment. Public servants my foot.

  • Hot R

    The Board secretary makes $100,000 a year? Enough said.

    Unfortunately certain political elements seized the Peralta District some years ago and have used it ever since as their cash cow, just as they once did with OUSD. Thus we see inflated salaries, cronyism and the like run rampant. This is no secret to anyone who follows the news. Oh yeah – and any investigation is racist.

  • http://facebook.com/blackhour Reginald James

    So, it’s just a coincidence that the three trustees “all happen to be African-American.” That’s a relief.

    I know there have been great budget cuts, but gotcha journalism does not replace good beat coverage.