COLUMN: A thorough thumping

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By David Giuliani

Last week, the voters had a clear message for Luna Community College: They’ve lost confidence in its leadership.

Just 17 percent of voters — and less than 10 percent in Las Vegas itself — approved a tax increase that would have meant a $52 annual property tax hike for the owner of a $100,000 house. If the tax had passed, it would have paid for new buildings and capital improvements for Luna.

That’s an undeniable thumping. So why did it happen?

Luna’s leaders may point to voters worried about a declining economy. To an extent, these leaders may be right. But that can’t entirely explain the huge defeat.

After all, just a month ago, 70 percent of voters in the East and West school districts approved renewals of property taxes. And in the last couple of years, voters in the city of Las Vegas and San Miguel County approved sales tax increases to pay for water projects and road improvements respectively.

Besides, Las Vegas hasn’t taken quite the economic hit as many other areas in the country. Neither the state hospital nor Highlands University have made any major cuts or laid off anyone.

Just two years ago, people seemed fine with Luna’s leadership. Board of Trustees member Jerry Maestas ran unopposed in his re-election, and members Levi Alcon and Ambrose Castellano cruised to victory, both getting 56 percent in their respective districts. Fending off three opponents, incumbent Abelino Montoya grabbed nearly half the vote.

Look at the races for Board of Trustees this time around: Incumbent Kenneth Flores lost badly to Frankie Tenorio, while Tony Valdez had a fight on his hands with two opponents, getting 44 percent of the vote.

So what’s happened since the 2007 election?

The quick answer is that Luna’s leaders were out of touch with their constituents.

Since the last election, the Optic has run a number of stories on spending that raised many voters’ eyebrows. A few examples:

• A few years ago, Luna’s then-president and then-academic dean took a train trip — sleeper car and all — to Chicago for hundreds of dollars more than it would have cost to fly.

• A few Luna officials got together during a conference in Seattle and went to an upscale steakhouse, spending $88 per person. Conveniently, they didn’t have an itemized receipt to show for it, so the voters have no idea whether they were drinking it up on the public dime.

• Luna’s then-president got $8,000 extra on top of a $112,000 salary as part of a grant for a high school leadership academy. The president admitted to the Optic that he did no real work for the academy, instead delegating it to a subordinate. Many other high-paid Luna officials got a bump in pay in this questionable scheme.

• And we’ve documented many of the top officials’ travel expenses, many of which seem egregious.

What was the trustees’ reaction to our stories? Either indifference or anger.

Of course, it hasn’t helped that Luna has seen the swift exits of two presidents within an eight-month period, both under the cloud of sexual harassment allegations. The trustees even had the nerve to reimburse the second one for his legal bills, even though he never filed a claim against the college.

In the last year, the biggest controversy was the hiring of state Sen. Pete Campos as Luna’s president. He was hired at $150,000 a year for five years — and he gets his full salary, even though he’s gone for months at a time because of his legislative duties.  

This means he couldn’t put any real effort into pushing the tax hike because he’s been in Santa Fe since mid-January.

How can you ask us to fork over more in taxes when you pay a guy $150,000 to work only 10 months a year? Doesn’t Luna deserve a year-round president?

C’mon, guys, let’s get real.

David Giuliani is managing editor of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 425-6796 or dgiuliani@lasvegasoptic.com.