The Southwestern College Foundation held its annual gala on September 21. The cost for a seat ran from $200 to $15,000. The keynote speaker for the event was Nathan Fletcher, candidate for mayor of San Diego.
The college is located in Chula Vista and students and faculty who live in Southwestern’s San Ysidro satellite area are eligible to vote in San Diego elections.
The selection of Fletcher by the Southwestern College Foundation has been criticized.
Mickey Kasparian, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 135, said in a September 20 interview, “It’s rather convenient that Nathan Fletcher is the keynote speaker and Humberto Peraza is the president of Southwestern’s board of trustees. He also works for Lorena Gonzalez [Peraza is Gonzalez’s district chief of staff] and she has supported Fletcher for months.
“I don’t know the particulars of how the selection occurred, but my guess is it’s a major conflict of interest.”
In a September 22 interview, Peraza stated that he has not been attending foundation meetings for months because of his busy schedule and that Nora Vargas has been filling in for him; he is unaware when or how the choice was made.
“Fletcher was chosen months before he declared for mayor,” said Peraza, “but he is an outstanding choice because he is a veteran and a decorated hero.”
The Southwestern College Foundation is a 501c3 and is subject to the Brown Act (which guarantees the public’s right to participate in governmental meetings). Southwestern College superintendent Melinda Nish and trustee Humberto Peraza are listed as officers on the foundation’s board of directors and sit as ex-officio members.
Foundation activities in the past have been controversial. In 2010, the Reader reported that foundation monies were used to lobby for the passage of Proposition R ($389 million in construction bonds) in 2008. The Union-Tribune reported that the foundation paid for a Napa Valley junket for foundation vice president Nicholas Alioto.
Foundation minutes posted on Southwestern’s website confirm this year's establishment of a three-member gala committee and the gala theme of “supporting a Veterans Center.” April minutes do not mention Fletcher; May minutes remain unposted.
In a response to a September 20 Reader query about the selection process, Southwestern’s chief public relations and information officer, Lillian Leopold, wrote: “The suggestion to have him speak was made by members of the Gala committee of the foundation, and was made because he is a veteran.”
The committee consists of Melyn Acasio, Cynthia Rena, and Hank Murphy.
Leopold also stated that “The decision to invite Mr. Fletcher to speak does not require a vote of Foundation members, nor is there any compensation for Mr. Fletcher's appearance — both of which would have been actionable items that would have been reflected in minutes.”
Other than Fletcher, who was considered? A Reader call to the number listed on the gala invitation was not returned. The Reader confirmed that former trustee and community member Nick Aguilar, a veteran, recipient of the Purple Heart, and a crusader against campus corruption, was not invited.
Jim Mahler, president of the American Federation of Teachers Guild, Local 1931, also criticized the Fletcher invitation to be a keynote speaker on the basis of his education voting record.
“To allow Nathan Fletcher to speak at a college-sponsored event is an insult and a slap in the face to the community college students we serve,” said Mahler. “His abysmal voting record on educational issues would make it a hypocrisy of the highest level to allow him to speak at an event intended to actually help our college students. If Nathan Fletcher truly believed in helping college students, he would not have voted to the contrary at every opportunity he had while in the Assembly."
An open letter from Mahler published in a Union-Tribune September 6 article suggests Lorena Gonzalez has supported Fletcher since her days as CEO of the Labor Council. The article also intimates a link between Gonzalez and former mayor Bob Filner’s takedown. Here is an excerpt:
“And what makes all of this surreal saga even more Machiavellian is the fact that you [Gonzalez] apparently were well aware of Filner’s indiscretions with women before the Labor Council even endorsed him for Mayor yet you remained silent throughout the entire campaign. The fact that it was none other than your brother who organized the first press conference bringing Filner’s transgressions to light and calling for his resignation is clearly no coincidence.”
In the same article with Mahler’s letter, Gonzalez said she was “repulsed” by Mahler’s comments and in a letter of support for Fletcher published in the article, she wrote: “Nathan evolved into a forward looking legislator who, the more he learned about economic justice issues, the better champion he became.”
Timeline for the Filner connection: Gonzalez appointed Peraza as chief of district staff June 5. Gonzalez’s brother called for Filner’s resignation July 10. Gonzalez called for Filner’s resignation July 12. Peraza, who served as district director from 2004–2009, called on Filner to step down on July 19.
The Reader’s query to Southwestern also requested a timeline. When was Fletcher invited to address the gala?
Southwestern information officer Lillian Leopold responded, “the decision was made late May, early June.”