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"It sure doesn't fit what we're talking about. If you do have contract negotiations, then certainly the idea that you want the government's money to be spent prudently without waste, fraud, or corruption means that how it's spent, and the decisions leading to its being spent and the roads taken and the roads not taken should be open to public scrutiny.

"There is no exemption in the California Public Records Act for documents that show how a contract was negotiated. If anything, the policy would tend to be in the opposite direction, because it has to do with who gets public funds and how wisely public funds are spent.

"I have simply never heard of anyone even going to court maintaining that they were not required to make public records showing how a professional-services contract was negotiated. If the district were to stick with this and go into court behind that flag, as far as I know it would be the first time, and I think it would be foolish for them to do so."

La Mesa architect Ed Oremen represents the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects on the school district's Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, set up by the district's board of trustees to monitor how the $1.5 billion in Prop MM bond proceeds are being spent. Provided a description of the contract without the names of the parties, Oremen said such arrangements are rare but sometimes employed when the ultimate scope of the project is not known.

"I guess you might use a system like that if you went into the preliminary design without a really clear understanding of the project requirements," Oreman says. "I can't think of anything other than a new school that might represent that kind of a problem. I don't know if the district is doing that or not. I'm not familiar with any situations like that."

But the secretly negotiated cost increases are only the beginning of the story. What makes the case especially intriguing is the identity of Roesling's partner, Kotaro Nakamura, a well-known local architect whose wife, Katherine Nakamura, is currently running to replace outgoing trustee Sue Braun. Mrs. Nakamura, a well-connected San Diego attorney and assistant secretary of the Corporation, Board of Trustees of the University of San Diego, is running against Jeff Lee, an ex-Navy commander who has been sharply critical of district superintendent Alan Bersin and his controversial reform agenda.

Late last month, the Union-Tribune slammed Lee for failing to disclose that he had once been relieved of command during his Navy career for allegedly abusing two crew members and then lying to the newspaper about it. The newspaper said it had obtained documents from anonymous sources. Soon after its disclosure of Lee's record on its news pages, the paper ran an editorial attacking the candidate's suitability for office. Lee denied that the allegations led to his retirement from the Navy, and his supporters claim he is being railroaded with trumped-up charges by the newspaper.

Nakamura, on the other hand, is regarded as a Bersin supporter who has the presumptive endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce and the Union-Tribune, which strongly backs Bersin and what it considers his reform program. Bersin has close ties to the University of San Diego. His first job after moving here from Los Angeles was as a visiting USD law professor. Since taking over as superintendent, he has guided the district into a close contractual relationship with the university through which USD oversees an $8 million principal-training program. That operation is run by Elaine Fink, a close personal friend of Bersin's hand-picked chancellor of instruction, former New York City school administrator Anthony Alvarado.

Questions about conflicts of interest and school contracting are not new for Bersin and the district. In August, television news reports broke the story of a district attorney's investigation into an alleged kickback scandal involving an unnamed district employee and a computer supply company, Mac Exchange, in Eugene, Oregon.

Another recent irregularity is the failure of acquisitions manager Robert Kiesling, a close aide to district construction czar Lou Smith, to file a personal financial disclosure statement, as required by state law. Following a reporter's request to review Kiesling's Statement of Economic Interests, which was due in April of this year, Joanne SawyerKnoll, the district's general counsel, responded in a letter dated August 29, 2002. "Mr. Kiesling has not yet filed the 2001 annual statement, and we will be following up with him to obtain it." Kiesling subsequently filed a disclosure claiming that he has no reportable assets or income.

The Lee-Nakamura race, already nasty as a result of the Union-Tribune revelations and editorial, is expected to get even more intense, especially in light of its widely perceived importance to the tenure of Bersin as school superintendent. Ever since he was hired, Bersin has been shadowed by the fact that two of the five members of the board of education have been highly critical of his administration; should Lee win his race and incumbent John de Beck be reelected, Bersin faces the very real possibility he might be fired.

For his own part, Kotaro Nakamura is also linked to some of Bersin's key allies in the business community. Last December the Union-Tribune reported that Roesling Nakamura had been picked to design a $25 million downtown parking garage for JMI Realty, a company belonging to Padres owner John Moores. Two years ago, Moores and a group of other wealthy businessmen, including Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and real estate mogul Malin Burnham, put up close to a million dollars in a failed attempt to defeat incumbent school board member Frances Zimmerman.

At that time, it was widely believed that the Moores group had designs on school-district property. In 1999, Zimmerman and other Bersin critics had attacked Bersin for establishing an informal committee within the district offices to discuss selling off and otherwise developing some of the district's vast land holdings. The committee was chaired by Bersin's father-in-law, Stanley Foster, a wealthy local real estate investor who died earlier this year.

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