OPINION by MAYOR JIM HILL
The Sept. 16 Tribune editorial referred to an accusation that was lodged against me on the evening after the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney filed multiple criminal conflict of interest charges against John Wallace, the former sanitation district administrator. By the time of Mr. Wallace’s resignation from the sanitation plant, he had allowed the biological treatment process there to completely break down, and sewage was being massively chlorinated before being dumped in the ocean. The Tribune didn’t notice.
As Administrator, Mr. Wallace would tell the board that the district would do work “in house,” implying district employees would perform it, but instead Wallace’s engineering company employees were brought in. They were even provided business cards with the district logo that differed only in the San Luis phone number.
Faced with that, I attempted to divide Wallace’s contract with the objective of getting outside proposals for engineering services, but received no support from fellow board members Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara and Grover Beach Councilman Bill Nicolls. Wallace continued to parallel-engineer (i.e., duplicate engineering work done by other district suppliers) many items and projects at significant unnecessary cost.
Two District-employee whistle-blowers came forward, but were denigrated by Wallace and Nicolls and summarily terminated. The Tribune silently decided to “stay above the fray.”
The 2011 Grand Jury investigated Wallace’s 20 year contract as district administrator and engineer and concluded it had evolved into an obvious conflict, but Ferrara and Nicolls either turned a blind eye or were complicit and did nothing.
Caren Ray, appointed to the Arroyo Grande City Council by Ferrara, disparaged the grand jury report at the time. She was subsequently appointed as a county supervisor and thus to the board of the Integrated Waste Management Agency (IWMA) where she was directly responsible for oversight of public funds, but never reported any concerns.
Of course, the Tribune didn’t have any concerns either. It was Arroyo Grande Council member Tim Brown who finally did.
In 2010, there had been a massive sewage spill and the Regional Water Board proposed a fine against the district of between $200,000 and $400,000. Instead of settling, the day after the election in 2014, Ferrara, Guerrero, and recently appointed board member Marshall started a lawsuit against the State Water Board in an attempt to defend Wallace’s operation of the sanitation plant. This also escaped the Tribune’s attention.
After I left the Oceano CSD and sanitation boards, Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson tried to bring these issues to light but was in turn stifled by Ferrara and newly appointed Oceano Board member Matt Guerrero.
By the time I was elected by write-in as mayor and assumed the seat on the sanitation district board (as required by California statute), the fine for the 2010 spill had escalated to over $1 million. Delays due to resistance to ending the suit from Guerrero and John Shoals saw the legal fees alone grow to nearly another million – with a potential trial still in the future. I prevailed in stopping that law suit and ending those fees and we were allowed to apply some of the fine on local projects.
Meanwhile, when Wallace resigned, John Clemons had been engaged as plant superintendent and the proper biological process was restarted. In contrast to Wallace, Clemons, a Grade 4 licensed plant operator, ran the plant well and even built up some financial reserves during his tenure, reversing the course to near bankruptcy he inherited from Wallace. Mr. Clemons’ immediate and continuing success and plain spoken manner must have embarrassed Wallace, and in turn his supporters Matt Guerrero and Bill Nicolls, and ultimately Nicolls’ successor John Shoals.
On resuming board membership, I instigated, with continuing advocacy by Debbie Peterson and others, the investigation by Carl Knudsen into past district management practices. The Knudsen Report pointed to criminal misconduct by Wallace. A copy was delivered to the district attorney. The DA’s resultant independent investigation led to criminal conviction of Wallace not only for conflict of interest at the sanitation district but also at the Avila Beach Community Services District. Other and more serious charges at both agencies had been plea bargained or passed the statute of limitations.
Mr. Clemons, a black man, our top licensed operator, became the subject and recipient of a series of unattributed emails of an unbelievably vile and disgusting racist nature. While Board members Shoals and Guerrero did nothing, on being made aware of these emails, I immediately took them to the AG Police Department.
The AG Police Department and the sheriff’s office investigated and traced the source to a former plant superintendent under Wallace who wanted Mr. Clemons’ job. During this time, Mary Lucey, as the Sanitation District Board member from Oceano, made verbal comments during several board meetings about Mr. Clemons’ personal relationship with a female employee who is white, as being “inappropriate.”
While still a board member, Lucey also authored comments on an internet site accusing Mr. Clemons of “polluting the ocean beyond repair.” The Tribune chose not to cover these examples of interference in personnel matters. Grover Beach Mayor Shoals, perhaps concerned that Clemons’ operation of the plant was an embarrassment to Wallace, also seemed to be easily irritated by Mr. Clemons.
The sanitation district engaged a new administrator, who had a fair resume but no prior sanitation plant experience. Immediately after starting at the district, he engaged the legal firm Liebert, Cassidy, Whitmore.
Lacking both a license to operate the plant or any relevant experience, the administrator surprisingly (to me) began immediately to challenge Mr. Clemons’ operational authority and even filed a false and malicious accusation with the water board (they issued a stern written rebuke to the administrator in response). In this, the Administrator appeared to be supported by Shoals, and Lucey and Guerrero, who tag-teamed unpredictably as board attendees.
Soon, Liebert, Cassidy, Whitmore was authorized by the administrator and then Board Chair Shoals to investigate Mr. Clemons.
Grievances were filed by operating employees against the administrator, and Shoals admitted in a district board meeting he had personally interceded on three occasions with Mr. Clemons in an effort to get the grievances retracted. Of course, the Tribune didn’t report any interference in personnel matters.
Mr. Clemons asked on more than one occasion to address the board and to have a mediator help work out issues. A well-qualified mediator was hired and started work, but was summarily terminated by the administrator. Another “investigation” was started, like the others without concurrence of other than Board Chair Shoals, after a confrontation in the parking lot instigated by Mary Lucey after a board meeting.
At this point, having previously seen employees terminated without recourse, and observing legal costs to conduct and support the investigations soaring into the hundreds of thousands, I sent an email to the district legal counsel about stopping the “phony investigations” of the superintendent. I believed that mediation or even open dialog could have solved nearly all of the issues at vastly less expense.
At the Arroyo Grande City Council meeting on the day Wallace was criminally charged, I was accused by an AG resident of “sharing confidential personnel information” from the sanitation district (specifically, disclosing the Ventura address of the district administrator, which is a public record). This was an obvious political attack repeated immediately during that meeting by Mary Lucey and further encouraged there by Matt Guerrero.
Despite the easily demonstrated and subsequently proven false nature of the accusation, newly elected council member Caren Ray moved for the city to ask the Sanitation District Board to join in investigating the so-called “misconduct” and to engage Liebert, Cassidy, Whitmore, whose lucrative practice of conducting investigations instead of mediation I had previously had the temerity to question.
At the sanitation district, Lucey’s friend and successor, Linda Austin, readily joined Shoals in agreeing to do so. Without ever interviewing me, Liebert, Cassidy, Whitmore concluded that my email about “phony investigations” did constitute interference in a personnel matter. They then determined I had not violated the Brown Act, but stated that I was “likely to do so in the future.” More allegations by the sanitation district administrator were proven trivial and unfounded.
Except that I may have briefly been careless with an email password (for which I have expressed regret and protect my password since), all the allegations related to the city were determined unfounded. Without ever interviewing me on the issues, Caren Ray, Barneich, and Harmon voted to recommend the Sanitation District Board censure me. Shoals and Austin quickly put that on a board agenda, but sent their alternates, including Bill Nicolls’ wife Barbara, to actually vote for the censure.
Shared between the city and the district, this investigation and report by Liebert, Cassidy, Whitmore resulted in nearly $100,000 of charges to taxpayers. You get to decide if it was worth it.
I’m proud of my record at the sanitation district. I’m proud that I stood up against corruption and defended a good employee against vicious, concerted, personal and racial attacks and yes, Tribune editors, I’d do it again.
The district administrator resigned in disgrace and a payout I objected to. He was replaced by “technical consultants” appointed by John Shoals who threatened Mr. Clemons with termination unless he accepted a large severance payment to leave. He was forced out against my vote. The Tribune stayed silent, “above the fray.”
Now we have another new administrator but this time he is working effectively. We’re finally on an even keel and moving forward. Perhaps Caren Ray can be excused for her ignorance of the sanitation district. She probably reads the Tribune.