2 challengers, 2 incumbents win school board election

Board President Barry Snell lost his bid for a second term, placing fifth in the contest for four seats.

By Jonathan Friedman and Michael Aushenker / The Malibu Times

Former Santa Monica municipal attorney and longtime education activist Laurie Lieberman was the top vote getter in last week’s election for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s Board of Education. She will join the board for her first term. Incumbents Oscar de la Torre and Ralph Mechur were re-elected with second-place and third-place finishes, respectively. Coming in fourth for the final seat was challenger Nimish Patel. Barry Snell, the current board president, placed fifth. Patrick Cady, the lone Malibu resident in the race, finished sixth.

As of press time Tuesday night, the results were unofficial, and there still could be ballots remaining to be counted. However, the list of winners is not expected to change. As of Tuesday night, Lieberman had 16,694 votes. She was followed by de la Torre (14,644) Mechur (13,326), Patel (12,030), Snell (10,804), Cady (10,604), Chris Bley (10,036) and Jake Wachtel (5,503).

Lieberman credits her victory to people knowing her as “a thoughtful and open person, and a team player.”

“I think that I have a lot of experience and I worked with many people over the years in different arenas,” she said. “I think I have a broad array of support from people who respect each other and have different points of view. And I’m very grateful for that.”

De la Torre’s win comes after some troubling months. Earlier this year, the Santa Monica Police Department began a four-month criminal investigation due to his alleged role in a fight that took place near the youth center he runs. The SMPD recommended the District Attorney’s Office file “child endangerment” charges, claiming he failed to break up the fight between two youths quickly enough. The District Attorney’s Office rejected the recommendation. De la Torre said the investigation was politically motivated. The City of Santa Monica has since hired a county panel to review it.

“People were able to see that I stand for values that are important to them,” de la Torre said of his victory. “I hope that the attacks against me also inspired people of good will to support me in this election.”

Also, there was a mild controversy in the weekend prior to Election Day when former Malibu High principal Mike Matthews said his name was falsely placed on a de la Torre campaign ad as endorsing him. Fellow Board member Ben Allen made a similar charge, but eventually ended up supporting de la Torre following a conversation between the two.

“I thank all of the voters in Malibu that saw beyond the ‘controversy’ and supported my re-election to the Board of Education,” de la Torre wrote on The Malibu Times’ Web site. “I apologize to Mike Matthews for the mistake and future endorsements will be secured in writing. The school district is facing a crisis and I have committed to work on behalf of all students to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities I had in this school district. I am open to working with parents, students and elected officials in Malibu to continue to provide quality public schools for all. Lets build together a better future for our children.”

For Mechur, this was his first competitive election. He was appointed to fill a seat made vacant by the departure of Emily Bloomfield in 2007. Mechur was the lone candidate two years ago in the election to finish the term. He said this election was a stressful experience.

“With the number of possible voting combinations with eight candidates, it really made it unclear as to who was going to get elected,” Mechur said. “I’m pleased and delighted to spend four more years on the board.”

Mechur said he believed the voters supported him because “I do research the issues and try to make my decisions based on facts and what is best for our students.”

Patel is a former CPA and current attorney. He serves on the SMMUSD’s Financial Oversight Committee and has stressed the need for the district to find new revenue sources to deal with the struggles. He said voters supported him because “my background was something that was unique that was needed on the school board to complement the other school board members.”

Patel was the top campaign fundraiser, collecting $72,000 as of Oct. 16, more than twice the amount of second place Lieberman. He said he needed to raise that amount because he was facing opponents with the backing of well-funded organizations such as Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) and the district employee unions.

“As a result, my money was to keep myself in the game and keep up with them,” Patel said. “So I don’t think I overpowered it. I was keeping up.”

Snell and Cady ranked sixth and seventh in campaign funding, with Snell collecting $2,640 and Cady spending approximately $850 of his own money. Both said their anemic funding was likely a factor in losing the race, although both did have independent expenditure campaigns on their behalf from the district employee unions, and Snell was backed by SMRR.

“The dream was what I’ve done would be enough to impress lots of people,” said Cady, a former SMMUSD teacher. “But I see now that I have to reach out to find more people. And to do that I guess you need money.”

Cady and Snell said they both might run in 2012. Either way, they will remain active in local education issues.

“Just because I didn’t get re-elected, it doesn’t mean I don’t care about education issues,” Snell said. “Education is my focus.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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