While state investigates origin of three “Yes on Measure E” checks, board of trustees and local Realtor turn up the heat.
Steve Petzold is a one-man opposition crew, a crusading skeptic who doesn’t trust anyone’s word and continually digs and researches for what he considers the truth.
Petzold, 63, has filed numerous public requests seeking documents of all kinds: tax forms, letters, disclosure reports, emails – you name it, Petzold has probably requested it. When he finds something he thinks is amiss, he usually forwards it to a city attorney, a district attorney or the Fair Political Practices Commission.
His success rate is uneven. Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s office often refused to file any charges, and Petzold has had a restraining order filed against him, has had to defend himself in court, and has been interviewed by the FBI, among other things.
But he’s had some victories, too. He led the charges to defeat two school district bonds, correctly showed a local school district had violated state open-meeting laws, and succeeded in getting the College of the Canyons Board of Trustees to move public comments for non-agenda items to the start of the meeting.
His doggedness in investigating the COC Foundation led to the FPPC determining the Committee For College of the Canyons – Yes on Measure E and former treasurer Robert McCarty failed to file statements, reports, notices and disclosures, resulting in a $9,000 fine (the foundation’s annual audit lists $14,500 in “legal services” and “fees”).
Within that victory, Petzold claims he discovered something possibly bigger: The foundation tax forms show $150,000 paid to the Yes on E committee in 2016, yet the payments are written on district checks signed by President Dianne Van Hook. A district or college cannot use funds to support or defeat any ballot measure, per Section 7054 of the state Education Code.
“What threw me off was when I saw the filing by the treasurer about the $150,000, it said ‘Santa Clarita Community College District,’” Petzold said. “I never in my wildest dreams expected that. Rule No. 1: Public agencies can’t support or oppose bond issues.”
Both faculty union president Nicole Faudree, and Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, head of the union’s political action committee, texted a statement saying they supported Measure E but were concerned about what is happening with the foundation. “Transparency and following the law are needed,” they said.
Foundation co-president Jill Mellady referred all questions to the college, which surprised Brill-Wynkoop and board President Edel Alonso, although there’s board and administrative policies that allow it (the foundation audit says the foundation and college are “financially interrelated organizations”). Neither McCarty nor co-president Steve Corn returned calls for comment, although Corn contacted college spokesman Eric Harnish. Harnish said that would be answered once the FPPC announces its findings. Corn has previously said Petzold was spreading “misinformation” but hasn’t specified.
“It could be on the March agenda. I think we’re getting close,” Harnish said. He later emailed the following: “We look forward to a timely resolution of this case, which we are confident will show the (f)oundation’s support of Measure E was proper under state law, and in keeping with its mission to enhance educational opportunities for students at College of the Canyons. However, because the case is still ongoing, we can’t provide any more details at this time.”
For now, the college Board of Trustees seems content to wait for the FPPC, which Petzold said disappoints him. Alonso said counsel advised her not to comment.
A changing relationship
Established in 1987, the foundation is a nonprofit auxiliary organization that generates philanthropic support, according to the foundation page located within the college website. It’s raised millions of dollars in scholarships and programs, all in the name of helping students, and there is no doubt that the foundation has done some phenomenal work.
“When you look at what the foundation has done, it’s incredible,” trustee Michael Berger said. “The makeup of the board is a who’s who in the city of Santa Clarita. When we needed to build the university center, the performing arts center, the culinary building, we went to the community. The people stepped up.”
It could also be said that the foundation has a rich relationship with the college. The trustees donate about $1 million annually in operating expenses, board Vice President Joan MacGregor said, but she and others aren’t sure how the money is being spent or who has check-signing authority. In the past, boards rubber-stamped whatever the foundation decided to do with the funds. MacGregor and Alonso have often asked questions and made comments during board meetings. This led to Mellady writing a letter (obtained by Petzold) to the two in August, expressing her objections.
Alonso said additional questions sometimes come to her during the meetings. MacGregor said the letter troubled her and expressed surprise that Mellady painted her as unsupportive.
Measure E — for Enigmatic
Measure E was a $230 million bond measure passed in 2016. Petzold, a Realtor Associate with Keller Williams VIP Properties, has turned investigating COC and the foundation into his own cottage industry. His opposition to Measure E started early: upon seeing the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee’s annual report in 2018, he questioned why carpets were placed in the university center and performing arts center when these weren’t specific projects listed in the bond description.
After he was several times denied the chance to voice his opposition at board meetings, he posted a video on Facebook in which he called the community college district taxpayers “nothing but targets” and, to illustrate his point, fired an air rifle at a map of the community college district. He appeared in the video clad in a black T-shirt with an illustration of a helmet from the movie “300” and two machine guns crossed to look like a skull and bones.
The video caused a college attorney to file a one-year restraining order against Petzold on Van Hook’s behalf. The FBI also got involved after a sheriff’s department report was analyzed and concluded it contained “a nexus of terrorism,” according to the agent who interviewed Petzold.
Petzold said he regretted posting the video, but he has never regretted his open-government advocacy. In 2019, he accused the college of breaking state law when it signed a lease to use space in the Westfield Valencia Town Center to support the measure (the FPPC is currently investigating).
His current focus stems from three $50,000 donations made in March, April and May 2016, but the foundation failed to file the proper contribution reports, according to the FPPC.
When Petzold read the FPPC’s findings, it identified the college as a campaign contributor. This made no sense to Petzold. He thought the foundation was the culprit. Why was the college involved? “Why won’t they say where the $150,000 came from?” Petzold said. He filed public requests to see the checks. Three months later, he had the checks.
Richard Michael, a school bond activist based in Pomona who runs the website Big Bad Bonds, a clearinghouse of tips to defeat various school bonds, said he has seen the three checks. “It looks pretty incriminating,” he said.
He said he thinks the foundation and college know exactly what is going on, but until the FPPC is done, “We can only make assumptions. … Why is it being hidden in an FPPC investigation? One call could reveal it, if there’s nothing to see here.”
At the COC board’s Feb. 24 meeting, Sharlene Coleal, who serves as the school’s vice president of business services and the foundation’s treasurer, told the board that COC-authorized electronic signatures are on file to be used on the foundation’s behalf. For example, money that comes into the foundation for a student scholarship gets transferred to the college, which then writes the check to the student getting the scholarship.
“Where’s the law that says a nonprofit corporation can do that?” Michael said.
Now that Alonso and MacGregor are part of a new board majority, and with Petzold still demanding to know who’s responsible for the $150,000 (he has filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office), the questions and pushback are likely to continue. The board president picks the liaison and Alonso chose MacGregor during the board’s Dec. 16 meeting.
Since the foundation existed, one board member has served as a liaison; MacGregor was the first. But fellow board member Michele Jenkins objected, claiming foundation board members would quit in protest.
“I feel very strongly that it is not the best thing for the foundation for Joan at this time to serve as a liaison,” Jenkins said, according to the meeting’s video. “And I think that would result in loss of foundation board members who work very hard and have worked very hard to earn many, many, many dollars in support of student scholarships.”
The board nonetheless voted 4-1 in favor of MacGregor.
Neither Alonso nor MacGregor said Petzold’s findings were the reason to have MacGregor be liaison. Alonso said she named MacGregor because the other board members had either more recently served or were just elected in November. MacGregor said she wants a more careful audit of where the money given by the board went. She also wants backgrounds on scholarship applicants and financial aspects as they relate to ongoing FPPC investigations.
In January, Jenkins repeated her claim that foundation people would quit, although she didn’t name anyone. Berger said he knows the liaison has caused foundation board members to quit in the past. While refusing to name names, he said it wasn’t “this time around.”
“Joan I don’t believe understands and accepts the role of what a trustee member is,” Jenkins said. “The college has numbers of people with specialized degrees, Master’s degrees and doctorates. We hire these people to run the college, and they should be free to do that without the board micromanaging. Joan, she attempts to get in there and have a lot more input, and it causes difficulty. And it causes difficulty on the foundation board.”
MacGregor responded that Jenkins likes to use “micromanaging” whenever someone asks questions. Jenkins, she said, subscribes to the belief that “anything Dianne [Van Hook] wants, Dianne can do.”
“I feel I am elected by the taxpayers and the community. I will represent them,” MacGregor said. “I have questions, and the board is not able to get the information. We’ve been told it’s not our business. I need to know.”
In February, Jenkins didn’t respond to follow-up calls.
The foundation has twice denied MacGregor access to closed-session meetings, although other past board liaisons said they, too, were barred. MacGregor took offense and Alonso promised to review the policy.
In the meantime, MacGregor questioned foundation treasurer Coleal about the audit’s $14,500 in FPPC fees stemming from the Measure E campaign during the Feb. 24 meeting.
“I thought the Measure E campaign would pay for something like this,” MacGregor said. “Not sure why that came through the foundation.”
Coleal said she wasn’t sure she could speak to that, “but the Measure E campaign committee has not existed since June of 2016, so they’re not a legal entity currently.”
“There’ll be more questions about that coming,” Alonso told The Proclaimer.
For all the mystery and uncertainty surrounding the college and foundation while the FPPC takes its time, MacGregor acknowledged mistakes have been made, held McCarty blameless and made her final wish in these matters known.
“The district would like all these matters to be settled, and whatever information comes out, and we move on,” she said. “This can’t bring down the college and the foundation.”