Devoted, honest and commendable: such words describe nearly every California public sector official. Unfortunately, a few bad apples have created a stereotype that will take years for municipal employees to shake.

Last year, the actions of certain corrupt city officials in Bell captured the attention of California’s taxpaying citizens. The so-called “Bell Eight” allegedly stole millions of dollars from the impoverished city of 30 thousand people.

Were you outraged by the Bell scandal? Keep reading.

When you compare the amount of wasted tax dollars found in the Bell scandal to the Los Angeles Community College District scandal, as described in the recent Los Angeles Times investigative report, “Billions to Spend,” by Michael Finnegan and Gale Holland, the comparison is appalling.  Yet again, a sensational failure unfairly paints the state’s entire public sector.   

The greed, incompetence, and waste of the people in charge of the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) will cost the people of Los Angeles billions of dollars. In fact, by the time the projects are done and the debts repaid, voters will reflect painfully upon their collective decision to approve the project, which with interest will cost them a whopping $11 billion dollars. It is a multi-billion dollar black eye, or even fraud, that leaves generations of tax paying Angelenos to foot the bill for the next four decades.

Why did these projects fail?

Michael Finnegan, Gale Holland, and their team of supporting writers at the Los Angeles Times had their own speculations:

“Many share responsibility for the waste, starting with the seven members of the district’s Board of Trustees, part-time elected officials with no experience in construction.

The Board relies heavily on guidance from contractors that stand to profit from its spending decisions. A management consultant urged the trustees to hire an independent construction advisor to identify the public’s best interest; they rebuffed the idea…

[The money was placed] under the control of seven of the region’s most obscure elected officials. They would be spending it with almost no public scrutiny – despite their promise of strict oversight.”

As Finnegan and Holland mentioned, one of the major problems that plagued the project was personnel.

Most public officials work to protect the public’s trust, perform their duties diligently and ethically, and are, in many ways, the public’s advocates. However, the failures of the Bell Eight and the LA Community College Board of Trustees cast doubt and taint the reputations of all public servants.

How could so many of the projects be so ill conceived, poorly constructed, or run grossly over budget?

Voters had been promised strict oversight and protections. In addition to a citizens’ commission, this oversight was to come from the self-monitoring capabilities of the district’s contractors.

Compliance of labor law and construction standards is a central tenet of Project Labor Agreement (PLA) supporters. However, the promise of PLAs fell flat. Proponents claim they reduce costs by 20 percent, but in the projects cited by Finnegan and Holland, cost overruns can be as much as 100 percent or more.

In my conversation with LACCD’s Construction Projects Manager, Larry Eisenberg, I was told that every project mentioned in the article was under a PLA. Every single one.

How can such waste be prevented?

I doubt that the LACCD will ever successfully attempt another bond-funded capital campaign. The public’s trust has already been lost. However, if other districts or municipalities have their eyes on ambitious construction programs, they must learn from the LACCD.

First, make sure the process – not just to secure the bonds but also to use them – is transparent. It must be kept free from special interest pressure and agendas. This includes controlling the influence of the labor-backed interests that make far-reaching claims (that failed by hundreds of millions of dollars in the LACCD) about Project Labor Agreements. Public officials should maintain their integrity by not soliciting or accepting donations from people who would profit from their election. Only one of the Trustees in LACCD did not accept donations from contractors working on the project.  While I’m sure that the unions will argue otherwise, this case is a virtual Exhibit A for those who oppose Project Labor Agreements.  They certainly failed miserably in this instance, calling into question their viability anywhere.

Lastly, proper, independent, and thorough inspections must be regularly conducted throughout all stages of the project. And the recommendations and penalties made by those inspectors must be honored.

By failing in their duties, the LACCD did a disservice to millions of people, squandered billions of dollars, and should be receiving the attention of, if not California’s public, its public officials.

To my readers who serve the public with honor, going above and beyond the call of duty consistently to protect the public interest, we thank you.  It’s sad that a few bad apples and special interest policies undermine the entire public sector.