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Evening Roundtable: Trouble At UCAN And Schools

Evening Edition

Above: Dave Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat, and Jeff McDonald, watchdog reporter at UT San Diego, talk with Joanne Faryon about the week's news.

Aired 3/2/12 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Roundtable: UCAN and SDUSD

Guests: Jeff McDonald, Watchdog reporter, UT San Diego
Dave Rolland, Editor, San Diego CityBeat

The full Midday Roundtable can be heard here.

— The week began with news that the ratepayer advocacy organization UCAN was dissolving amidst an investigation. An anonymous author posted a press release on the organization’s website declaring “persistent legal challenges” prevented it from continuing.

Jeff McDonald, a watchdog reporter with U-T San Diego, and Dave Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat, spoke with KPBS about the news.

McDonald said the next step in the UCAN drama will be when “the chairman of the board is ordered to appear in federal court next week with a whole wheel barrel full of records.”

The legal challenges against UCAN were brought by two employees, who are represented by former City Attorney Mike Aguirre.

McDonald said Aguirre attempted to negotiate privately with board members, but “that hasn’t satisfied either the employees or Mr. Aguirre.”

Rolland said Michael Shames, UCAN’s executive director, works very well with the media and has been doing it for 30 years in his battles with utilities. Rolland said Shames is affable, fun to talk to and “a really nice guy.”

“And I have personally great admiration for the work that he’s done,” Rolland said. “So when you hear this news, it’s almost like a ‘say it isn’t so’ kind of thing, and personally, I’m pulling for the guy. I’d hate to think he did anything wrong, for him, for one thing, but particularly for the consumers of San Diego.”

“If we lose UCAN, there’s a huge hole in the defense of ratepayers in this city,” Rolland added.

Shames made a Facebook comment responding to the UCAN events that said Aguirre has been terrorizing UCAN for a year.

“The UCAN Board finally reached the end of its patience (my patience had run out long before) and are now forcing Aguirre to come public with whatever imagined claims he has about UCAN through a Petition of Dissolution process,” he wrote. “We are pretty sure he has nothing, but he now has 30 days to put up or shut up. And then we are fully prepared to slug it out with him in the courts and the floodlights of the public theater, so to speak.”

Rolland said Shames “would not be the first person to ever say that Mike Aguirre is waging a terror campaign.”

Rolland also discussed his recent story about the San Diego Unified School District, which began with the line, “Scott Barnett is considering the nuclear option.”

The “nuclear option,” Rolland said, is deciding not to lay off 1,100 district employees and instead purposely run the district out of money. That step, called insolvency, would mean the state would send a trustee to take over the district and loan the district money to keep it afloat.

But, Rolland said, “they don’t have to do that. Insolvency is not required here.” That’s because the district has proposed budget, which involves laying off 1,100 employees and selling real estate.

“There’s no good option here,” Rolland said.

McDonald discussed his story that found the school district chose not to save money by changing the way it administers its health insurance.

McDonald said the district has an exclusive deal with a trust that “they’ve enjoyed for 20 years.” While school board members wanted to put the health insurance out to a competitive bid, McDonald said the district’s unions opposed the idea.

“One competitor said they could do the job for $10 million less a year,” he said.

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