By KAREN VELIE
At a contentious South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District Board meeting on Sept. 6, an attorney for Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill asked the board to apologize to Hill for conducting a publicly funded inquisition.
In a Sept. 5 letter to the sanitation district board, attorney Stew Jenkins says the investigation into Hill was politically motivated. Hill then asks the board to reject the “seriously flawed advice” of the investigator.
In March, shortly after the district attorney’s office lodged criminal conflict of interest charges against former sanitation district administrator John Wallace, two long-term supporters of Wallace asked the Arroyo Grande City Council to investigate Hill for Brown Act violations. Hill had strongly advocated for an investigation into Wallace.
“It soon became clear that the intent of the exercise was to publicly fund an open ended fishing expedition to please hidden detractors of Mayor Hill when your board commissioned that expensive law firm to conduct the vaguely described investigation of recent allegations focused on Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill,” Jenkins says in his letter.
Following the lengthy investigation that did not include interviewing Hill, the legal firm of Liebert, Cassidy & Whitmore determined Hill had not violated the Ralph M. Brown Act. However, the investigator found that Hill shared a confidential email and discussed personnel issues, according to the investigator’s report.
In his letter, Jenkins questions the motivations for the investigation as well as its findings. The letter also chastises the investigator for not interviewing Hill.
“Your board compounded this wrongdoing by choosing a firm that expressly refused to comply with basic due process,” Jenkins says in his letter. “When asked to supply a list of charges against Mayor Hill, and the identities of the accusers, as a precursor to meeting with an agent of Liebert, Cassidy & Whitmore, that firm refused in a letter that can only be described as a tantrum. That firm broke contact rather than comply…”
Jenkins goes on to rebut the investigator’s finding that Hill interfered in personnel matters and disclosed confidential attorney client information.
The investigator determined Hill acted inappropriately in sending a letter to the Federal Trade Commission regarding the city’s only full service grocery store. In response, Jenkins argued that it is a mayor’s duty to seek information about “critical matters affecting the common good”. In addition, because Hill has no financial interest in any grocery store, he has no legal conflict of interest, Jenkins said.
For several years, former board member Mary Lucey has voiced her disapproval of a romantic relationship between two sanitation district employees. At a time that district superintendent John Clemons was dating district secretary Amy Simpson, because of staffing changes he was temporarily assigned as her supervisor.
The investigator criticized Hill for sharing an email in which Hill asked the board to agendize a discussion over the alleged harassment of Clemons, a black employee, by a board member.
“And what was Hill defending Clemons against? Public disparagement and public comments criticizing him for his personal relationship with a white woman by Oceano’s representative on the sanitation board, Mary Lucey,” Jenkins says in his letter.
Jenkins letter argues that Hill’s email request to agendize the issue of employee mistreatment was not a discloser of confidential work product. In addition, Jenkins argues Hill was not interfering in personnel matters by asking to have the issue placed on the agenda.
“Instead of interfering with personnel matters, it supports and preserves personnel relations,” Jenkins said.
On Sept. 6, about 40 people attended the sanitation district meeting held in Arroyo Grande. The vast majority of speakers supported Hill with many asking the board to apologize to the Arroyo Grande mayor.
During the meeting, a supporter and a person critical of the mayor had a verbal confrontation, the meeting was stalled while Arroyo Grande police officers spoke with the parties.
During public comment, former sanitation district board member Matt Guerrero said malfeasance had been proven. Guerrero went on to chastise Hill for sending opinion pieces to CalCoastNews.
In the end, the sanitation district board voted 3-0 to bring the issue back for further discussion.
On Sept. 12 at an Arroyo Grande City Council meeting and on Sept. 20 at a sanitation district board meeting, a representative of Liebert, Cassidy & Whitmore will discuss the investigation and present three recommendations.
“These options include, but are not limited to, public censure, enhanced training on the Brown Act and government ethics, and/or updates to city policies,” according to a Arroyo Grande staff report.