Viewpoint: does the Courier really care about fiscal discipline?

By Jim Belna | Special to the Courier

As someone who has publicly criticized wasteful spending in Claremont on numerous occasions, I welcome Courier Editor Mick Rhodes’ newfound respect for fiscal discipline — as related in his January 5 column, “Special election price tag confirms its idiocy,” which harshly criticized Claremont residents for insisting on a special election to fill a vacant school board seat.

That is, of course, if Mr. Rhodes really means what he says.

Does the Courier really care about the school district’s budget? In 2018 the Claremont Unified School District was sued for illegally boycotting Riley’s Farm, a popular field trip venue, in retaliation for the owner’s personal political views. The district could have settled this case almost immediately at little or no cost, without compromising its educational standards.

Instead, the school board decided to contest the lawsuit, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees — and potentially more than a million dollars to reimburse Riley’s expenses. As CUSD has already reinstated Riley’s Farm as an acceptable field trip venue, and as a federal appeals court has found that the district violated Riley’s constitutional rights, the district has flushed all of this money down the drain. Neither the Courier nor a single member of the school board has criticized this colossal — and completely avoidable — waste of money.

Does the Courier really care about special election expenses? In 2019 the city paid tens of thousands of dollars to hold a special election for Measure CR, a ballot measure to increase Claremont’s sales tax rate. There was no need to pay for this special election; the city council could have simply included Measure CR on the next regular election ballot. Again, no one at the Courier or on the council raised any objection to this nonessential expense.

Does the Courier really care about wasting public funds? In October 2020, immediately prior to the city council election, city manager Tara Schultz abruptly resigned her position. As the Courier reported at the time, Ms. Schultz received a generous severance package valued at more than $100,000.

The Courier failed to report that under the terms of Ms. Schultz’s contract, she was not entitled to receive any severance pay if she resigned. The Courier also failed to report that the council could not have legally terminated Ms. Schultz’s employment before the council election. Was the unauthorized severance pay a bribe to get Ms. Schultz to resign, an illegal gift of public funds, or something else? The Courier didn’t seem to care.

Does the Courier even care about a $14 million waste of money? Ten years ago, the City Council asked the law firm of Best, Best & Krieger to advise them if it was feasible to acquire the city’s water system by eminent domain. Not surprisingly, as BBK stood to collect millions of dollars in fees if the city initiated an eminent domain lawsuit, the firm advised the council that it would be financially advantageous for the city to do so.

After the suit was filed, a court determined that the city could not legally acquire the system by eminent domain. Claremont was ordered to pay $7.8 million to reimburse the water company’s legal costs; BBK collected $6.2 million from the city for its fees.

A responsible City Council would have at least tried to hold BBK accountable for the consequences of its inept legal advice, but our council decided to “turn the page” and made no effort whatsoever to recover the $14 million loss. The Courier was happy to “turn the page” as well.

Perceptive readers may notice a pattern here. When a Claremont official is responsible for the loss of public funds, the Courier carefully avoids the least criticism — even when millions of dollars are wasted; but when ordinary citizens simply insist on the right to choose our own representative to the school board, the Courier calls us idiots.

If and when our officials take responsibility for their own costly mistakes — and the Courier has the backbone to hold them to account — citizens may trust them enough to fill a vacant seat by appointment. Until then, we’ll keep our right to vote.

Jim Belna is a retired Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who served from 1986 to 2022, and a longtime Claremont resident.

Editor’s note: CUSD has not paid “hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees” in relation to the Riley’s Farm lawsuit. Rather, Alliance of Schools for Cooperative Insurance Programs, a public entity risk pool to which CUSD belongs, has paid the entirety of the associated legal bills thus far. Also, Riley’s Farm has been on CUSD’s list of approved field trip venues since 2011. It could not have been “reinstated,” as it was never removed.


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