Two years after Peralta Community College trustees ousted inept and ethically challenged Chancellor Elihu Harris, they have finally hired a permanent replacement.
We hope the recruitment of José Ortiz away from his job as president of Santa Maria's Allan Hancock College marks the beginning of a new era for the Peralta system -- one that focuses on academic excellence, realistic financial planning, ethical standards and transparency.
"I'm not beholden to anyone. My only agenda is to make the Peralta colleges serve the community," Ortiz told us Monday. "I don't make deals. I don't play favorites. I am ethical. I have integrity and I try to do the right thing."
If he walks that talk, it would be a major change from the Harris era, which was marked by cronyism and financial abuses.
Harris, the former Oakland mayor and state assemblyman who was never qualified to lead a community college district, awarded contracts to his business partner, handed out salary raises to his friends and ran up extravagant charges on his district credit card -- all while the district's financial system crashed and burned.
Since investigative articles by reporters Matt Krupnick and Thomas Peele led to Harris' ouster in 2010, Interim Chancellor Wise Allen has tried to undo the damage his predecessor left behind.
Allen has made progress and deserves credit for steadying a ship that was in danger of flipping over. Accreditors have taken the district off probation. But they continue to warn of concerns about its long-term financial stability.
The district -- which serves 30,000 students at four campuses, Laney and Merritt Colleges in Oakland, Berkeley City College and College of Alameda -- is run by a seven-member board that has contributed to the district's problems with its own culture of meddling in hiring decisions, secrecy and abusive perks for trustees.
The excesses include medical and dental benefits, $100,000 life insurance policies, $5,000 travel budgets, laptop computers and printers, phone lines in their homes and a $100 annual cellphone allowance. Trustees also used to have district credit cards with $2,000 monthly limits, a practice discontinued after publicity about abuses. It's time to put an end to the rest of the perks.
We hope Ortiz and the board can find a professional balance, in which the board sets policy and oversees the new chancellor and Ortiz, in turn, professionally manages the district on a day-to-day basis.
We must say we were saddened to learn Ortiz's new contract includes a provision extending him lifetime health benefits that the district stopped offering most employees after 2004.
It doesn't send the signal of fiscal responsibility we hoped would mark the beginning of this new era.
We will be watching Ortiz to see if he can lead the district to fiscal stability and academic excellence. It's been a long wait.