By KAREN VELIE
An investigation into alleged misconduct by Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill has ballooned from an originally approved expenditure of $15,000 to nearly $50,000 and that number is still climbing.
In March, a resident of Arroyo Grande claimed Hill had violated the Ralph M. Brown Act and that he had shared an email password with his wife. Several Arroyo Grande Council members with a history of political conflicts with Hill then voted to spend $15,000 on an investigation into the allegations, in which the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District agreed to pay $7,500.
However, officials provided no clear direction for the investigation. An investigator with the attorney firm of Liebert Cassidy, Whitmore reviewed more than 3,700 pages of documents from critics of Hill, many of which had nothing to do with Hill or the earlier allegations. For example, included in the documents the attorney charged to review was a poster of a missing dog.
Because of the expanded allegations and the redaction of the more than 3,700 pages for a public records request even though most of the documents were public records, cost overruns exceeded the original proposal, said Shelline Bennett, an attorney with Liebert, Cassidy, Whitmore.
Following the lengthy investigation that did not include interviewing Hill, Liebert, Cassidy, Whitmore determined Hill had not violated the Ralph M. Brown Act. However, the investigator found that Hill shared a confidential email, discussed personnel issues and overstepped his authority, according to the investigator’s report.
In a letter describing actions the city council could take, Bennett suggested public censure, enhanced training on the Brown Act and government ethics, and/or updates to city policies.
Prior to a Sept. 12 Arroyo Grande City Council meeting in which Bennett gave a presentation on the investigation, Hill’s attorney Stew Jenkins sent a letter to the council disputing the findings; noting his client was denied due process because he was not interviewed and alleging a political motivated attack on Hill’s reputation.
“Your council, without the vote or consent of Mayor Hill, used poor judgment hiring the Fresno law firm of Liebert, Cassidy, Whitmore to investigate your fellow council member, Mayor Hill, and his spouse based on outlandish claims made during public comment,” Jenkins says in his letter. “Council members who may have policy differences with Mayor Hill should keep their disagreements focused on policy instead of engaging in an obvious waste of city funds. Had someone accused Mayor Hill of tinting his hair, the council had commissioned public money to be spent investigating that claim.”
The report included multiple inaccuracies including a statement that the sanitation district board consists of three board members and two alternates, while the board actually consists of three board members who each have an alternate who fills in when they are unable to attend a meeting.
Under the false assertion, Liebert, Cassidy, Whitmore determined Hill violated the Brown Act by conducting a serial meeting, which means he discussed an issue with a majority of the sanitation district board members before a vote. However, discussing information with Arroyo Grande Councilman Tim Brown, who does not sit on the sanitation district board with Hill, is not a serial meeting violation.
In the firm’s report, the investigator said the allegation that Hill exceeded his legislative role in sending a letter about tenants for a grocery store location was not sustained. Then in the attorney’s conclusion, Bennett said the allegation was sustained.
“Their report is internally inconsistent,” Hill said.
On Sept. 12, following Bennett’s presentation about her investigation and findings, the majority of public speakers supported Hill with many questioning the legal firm’s report and calling the investigation a politically motivated witch hunt.
Council Member Caren Ray then made a motion to recommend Hill step down from the sanitation district board and take additional Brown Act and ethics training courses. The council then voted 3-2 to approve Ray’s motion with council members Barbara Harmon and Kristen Barneich voting with Ray and council members Hill and Tim Brown dissenting.
Even though the city council does not have the power to require Hill to step down or take ethics or Brown Act courses, on Sept 13, Hill completed ethics and Brown Act courses at a League of Cities Conference in Sacramento, classes he had previously signed up for.
Hill said he is not planning to step down from the sanitation district board.
“I have no plan to step down from the sanitation district board,” Hill said. “The statute is very clear; the mayor sits on the sanitation district board. I have diligently served to protect city residents and sanitation district ratepayers and to make sure that wastewater is treated properly, that it meets state requirements and that the operation is run economically.”
On Sept. 20, Bennett will again give a presentation about her firm’s investigation and present the three recommendations, this time to the sanitation district board.