From the Publisher: The School Board Comes Clean (or Not)

Arnold G. York

The members of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board have been taking some heat lately with the disclosure, in several recent Los Angeles Times stories and follow-ups in other newspapers, that one or several of their board members may have been involved in some serious conflict-of-interest problems, which could be both morally wrong and possibly illegal to the point of criminality. The Times outlined that one of the longtime members of the School Board, Maria Leon-Vazquez, had voted on a number of School Board contracting items—nine times, it later turned out—where her husband Tony Vazquez, who also happens to be a longtime member of the Santa Monica City Council and a political consultant, was or had been representing the people seeking substantial contracts from the school district. She voted for them without disclosing the possible conflicts, and then, in the annual filing that all elected officials are required under the law to make to the state, she neglected to mention any of this. In fact, she hasn’t bothered to file anything with the state since 2008, again a violation of law. After this story broke, the School Board, in their public pronouncements, said that they take conflicts of interest very seriously and in fact they were going to launch their own investigation into this and other possible conflicts with Ralph Mechur, an architect and also a School Board member, who had done some work for the Vazquezes in which he claimed he was just paid the prevailing fee for the work he did. In fact, Mechur was quoted as saying to the newspaper that he would produce the paperwork to prove it was all above board. Least you think conflicts of interest are just a trivial issue, the public integrity unit of the LA County District Attorney’s office is currently investigating the possible violations.

So we all held our breath and initially gave School Board the benefit of the doubt and waited for its report of its investigation to be finished and released. Last week, it released the report, which we all anxiously grabbed and read. You might say there are several types of investigations they could have conducted. One would involve an honest, in-depth look, talking to everyone, writing an honest and complete report, and let the chips fall where they may. This most certainly is not that investigation and that report. They board could have done an investigation that we might call “investigation light,” where you just sort of skim the surface but really don’t disclose anything that isn’t already in the public press. The third type of investigation it could run I would characterize as “investigation nonexistent.” After reading their report a few times, I would say it falls somewhere between “investigation light” and “investigation non-existent.” The interesting part is that the report released to the public is not the full investigation report. Rumor has it the board members are claiming they don’t have to show the complete report at all since the investigation was conducted by the board’s own attorneys and not some outside independent counsel, and they are rumored to be claiming that the report is covered under the attorney-client privilege, which is an interesting position. I’m sure I’ll be hearing about that from some lawyers.

To give this some perspective, you have to understand the relationship between the City Council of Santa Monica and the Santa Monica School Board. They are both independent entities not related to each other and each has its own budget. However, the City of Santa Monica, which is a very wealthy city, gives a substantial amount of money to the school district; by substantial, I mean about $26 million per year. They do this by renting school property, like pools, theaters, fields and buildings to the tune of about $10 million per year for use by the citizens of the city. This is perfectly legal and legitimate, and frankly, shared use is a good idea. Additionally, the citizens of Santa Monica have voted in two sales tax measures in years past which gives the School District about $8 million on each measure for a total of an additional $16 million—again all perfectly legitimate. Still, you can begin to see that when a member of the council is a paid lobbyist for someone wanting a contract from the School Board, I might speculate that it would be hard to say no, particularly if his own wife is on the School Board.

Now, if you were doing a serious investigation, the first thing you’d want is all the letters and emails to and from Maria Leon-Vazquez related to the issue.

  • Did the contracts that were awarded to Tony Vazquez’s clients go through a bid process or is this outside of that process? 
  • Was there a request for proposal (RFP) so other people could bid, or is this just an old boy network?
  • If there is a bid process, was this unusual, or is this the way the School District handles all of its contracts?
  • In connection with the architect Ralph Mechur, just produce the paperwork and time sheets, and show that the work was reasonably charged for.

When it’s all over and done with, there may be little to this other than a bunch of people who have gotten sloppy over the years and don’t pay too much attention to rules or procedures. On the other hand, I’ve heard rumors that the full report was given to the board to look over and then collected after the meeting so no one would have a copy other than the attorneys and perhaps the Superintendent’s office, which, I must admit, doesn’t give me a great sense of confidence in the report. I certainly hope the District Attorney’s office gets the full report with whatever evidence is attached to it, rather than the sanitized version they have passed out to the public and the press before they make any decisions.

P.S. In case you’re wondering why we should care about Santa Monica politics, it’s because we want to become our own school district and their politics are suddenly very relevant to us and our objective.