OPINION by MIKE BROWN
Two weeks ago we called on the Board of Supervisors to commission an independent outside investigation of the allegations that Supervisor Adam Hill sent highly salacious emails to radio host and civic personality Dave Congalton.
Given Hill’s record of nasty outbursts over the years, it is possible that he created and sent them. It is also highly likely that similar or other harassing emails or other interactions, which have not been disclosed, have been received by citizens and officials who have been too embarrassed or frightened to reveal them. It’s like ground squirrels. Where there’s one there’s more.
On Feb. 15, Hill issued a press release which included a firm and detailed denial of sending the emails to Congalton. In part it states: “In the midst of the last election in 2016, it was brought to my attention that emails sent to a local radio host were traced to a modem registered in the name of my former wife, I had nothing to do with this, and after a response from my attorney, it was drooped.
“It occurred during my last campaign, and my former wife had been viciously slandered by this same radio host, her reputation had been continuously assailed by him and the local blog he is affiliated with, using allegations about her by a man jailed for violently attacking her. It was so horrendous and immoral, and I did not bring up the “latest claims” to her until I had to, and of course, she had nothing to do with these emails either.”
Notwithstanding the denial, it would be prudent for the board to order an investigation now. At some point, similar behavior by Hill could result in a lawsuit against the county. At deposition and trial, the board members (under oath), will be asked what actions they took when they were told of this incident and others in the past. If the answer is “nothing,” and if a complaint is proved, the county would be subject to more severe punitive damages if it loses the future case.
It is not exactly clear when and if the board will take up the issue in executive session. One can guess that there are a number of factors which may be inhibiting the board from going forward, including:
- They are wondering if there is any benefit to them or the public, as County Counsel has repeatedly advised them that they may not remove or discipline one of their members.
- Similarly, it has been opined that since the District Attorney did not press criminal charges, the board is impotent in the situation and the issue is moot.
- Psychologically, board members and their key staffers, the County CEO and County Counsel, are reluctant to open up the cesspool.
- Indeed, they all hope the problem will resolve on Election Day, March 3, 2020. They may wait to see what happens.
- They might be worrying about financial cost.
- There will be ill feeling and distraction of executive level staff and the Board during the investigative process.
While these issues are convenient excuses not to act, the general public and the rank-and-file county organization and its affiliate organizations such as SLOCOG, APCD, Integrated Waste Management Authority, and a whole network of contractors and not-for-profits will be wondering about the truth and whether or not the board can hold itself and its members to the standards that it has imposed on everyone else through a variety of anti-harassment policies, codes of conduct, contractual provisions, and rules to which they must all adhere.
If they don’t, they are subject to discipline, up to and including termination. If nothing else, Supervisor Hill, as the Chief Elected Official of the County, should be the model and be held accountable for acts which violate the standards to which everyone else is held.
As we pointed out last week, the board was swift and resolved when it investigated and then terminated former CEO David Edge for much less egregious behavior. In that case the board hired the law firm of Fitzgerald, Abbott & Bearsley LLP of Oakland California. One of its attorney’s, Sarah Robertson, conducted a detailed on site investigation and interviewed 15 County employees, including the subjects of the investigation and potential/actual witnesses.
Reportedly, that investigation cost $100,000. Edge’s Deputy, Gail Wilcox was found to have been romantically involved with a union official while she was negotiating a labor contract with that very official. Somehow, she walked away with an $180,000 settlement from the taxpayers.
A detailed 47-page report was produced and was backed up by over 50 exhibits. A redacted version was released to the public after the SLO Tribune litigated a records release in court.
One subject of a proposed independent investigation is whether or not Hill violated state law governing the conduct of county supervisors in this instance or others (which may have occurred over the years) that prohibit illegal behavior:
25042: Any supervisor who (a) refuses or neglects to perform any duty imposed on him, without just cause, or (b) wilfully violates any law provided for his government as a supervisor, or (c) fraudulently or corruptly performs any duty imposed on him, or (d) wilfully, fraudulently, or corruptly attempts to perform an act as supervisor which is unauthorized by law, in addition to any other penalty prescribed by law, forfeits to the county five hundred dollars ($500) for every such act, to be recovered on his official bond, and is further liable on his official bond to any person injured thereby for all damages sustained. (Added by Stats. 1947, Ch. 424.)
Other supervisors and some employees should be questioned by the investigator on this matter and the series of incidents which have taken place in the past. A skilled investigator can discover patterns and reveal inconsistencies which can lead to the truth.
The board should assist its investigator with its subpoena power per the statute below:
25170: Whenever the board of supervisors deems it necessary or important to examine any person as a witness upon any subject or matter within the jurisdiction of the board, or to examine any officer of the county in relation to the discharge of his official duties as to the receipt or disposition by him of any money, or concerning the possession or disbursement by him of any property belonging to the county, or to use, inspect, or examine any books, account, voucher, or document in the possession or under the control of the person or officer relating to the affairs or interests of the county, the chairman of the board shall issue a subpoena, in proper form, commanding the person or officer to appear before it, at a time and place therein specified, to be examined as a witness.
The subpoena may require the person or officer to produce all books, papers, and documents in his possession or under his control, relating to the affairs or interests of the county. (Added by Stats. 1947, Ch. 424.)
Through delegation of this power, the investigator could swear the witnesses to tell the truth.
- What would the other Supervisors report with respect to certain interactions with Hill?
- What egregious behavior would some employees report?
- What would Hill’s former wife say about the Congalton e-mail fiasco?
- What would some current and former public officials outside of the county government have to say about exchanges with Hill?
- What documents exist relating to the Congalton issue and others in the past?
If a continuous pattern of behavior is substantiated, which willfully violates the law or demonstrates actions which he performed as a supervisor but which are outside his lawfully prescribed duties, would he be deemed to have forfeited his office?
If these violations and actions outside his duties are demonstrated by the independent investigation, would the Board continue Hill in his position as board chairman? What about his appointments to other bodies?
In the end and given the ongoing record, the Board of Supervisors should conduct an outside expert investigation. This will of course, and at this point in time, be after the March 3 primary election and would thus have no bearing on that election.
There has been some public comment that a member of the County Board of Supervisors may not legally consider such action on one of its elected members in an executive session. If that is true, the board should agendize the matter as a regular business item on the public agenda and conduct its
full discussion in open session.
Whether or not a closed session is prohibited, such an open proceeding is not a bad idea.