By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer| LA Newspaper Group/Daily News
Updated: 09/30/2009 08:15:54 PM PDT
A citizens panel slammed Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines Wednesday for his efforts to revamp the district's massive building program, saying it caused the district's construction chief to resign and threatens future projects.
In a special meeting of LAUSD's Bond Oversight Committee, panelists urged Cortines to reconsider changes he's made to the district's facilities department.
In recent years, the department has earned praise for successfully building dozens of schools with $20 billion in voter-approved bond funds and overcoming a history of problems with school construction projects in the 1990s.
Cortines has ordered changes to the department that include moving its staff into LAUSD's downtown headquarters and merging its previously independent legal counsel and communications staff with existing district departments.
Panelists said those changes directly threaten the independence of the facilities division, and ultimately caused the exit of Guy Mehula, the head of construction.
"We had the best construction manager in the country," said bond oversight committee member Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney. "The question is, why did he leave?
"The answer is it was a power struggle."
Mehula resigned from his post this weekend, entering the district's early retirement program. Mehula, who was on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment, said in a letter to his staff that he was leaving to "pursue other opportunities."
Cortines publicly said that he lamented the resignation of Mehula and promised to work with the citizen's panel but also defended his changes.
"I believe this department needs to be independent and interdependent where necessary," he said.
Still, some believe that Cortines' changes could leave the agency vulnerable to the political whims and bureaucratic constraints that have plagued LAUSD and that are generally blamed for fiascoes like the Belmont Learning Complex project.
While the citizen's panel was unanimous in its criticism of Cortines, some attending the meeting in the audience said they were happy to see district officials get more involved with facilities.
Connie Oser, a spokeswoman for the Teamsters Union, said Mehula's exit could help address the issue that the facilities department has had with hiring expensive consultants - sometimes at two or three times the salary rate of eligible district employees. An audit by the district's Inspector General released in March recommended that the facilities department rein in its use of consultants and found that the district could have saved $77 million by using its own employees instead.
Oser said the Teamsters are currently in arbitration with the facilities department to address what they believe is an illegal use of consultants for district positions that include architects, project managers and construction inspectors.
"I say good riddance," Oser said. "This was cronyism. Mehula brought in his construction management friends and denied promotions to highly qualified district employees, bypassing the merit system completely."
James Sohn, currently LAUSD's deputy chief facilities executive, will step into Mehula's job after he retires on Oct. 23. Cortines said the district's current hiring freeze will not allow him to hire another deputy, so a position will be closed.