Did Arroyo Grande mayor threaten staffer, opponent?

Mayor Caren Ray Russom


A former city manager and a resident considering a run for mayor both recently accused Arroyo Grande Mayor Caren Ray Russom of intimidation and making threats.

Shortly before former Arroyo Grande Manager James Bergman resigned on April 30, he accused Ray Russom of making threats and intimidation. The exact cause of the disruption will likely never become public because Ray Russom deleted her text messages after activist Julie Tacker requested copies under the Public Records Act.

In response to Tacker’s request for emails and text messages between Ray Russom and Bergman, instead of making copies of the text messages, Ray Russom transcribed the messages and then deleted them.

In addition, the mayor claims she is unable to recover the messages because her cell provider deletes all text messages 90 days after they are sent.

Ray Russom provided the following April 24 exchange to Tacker in a Word document:

Ray Russom: “Can you please give me a call soon. We need to have a difficult discussion.”

Bergman: “I need a couple of minutes.”

Bergman: “I seriously don’t have it in me to have another difficult conversation if it’s about us. I am a wreck right now.”

Ray Russom: “Well after a three hour lashing yesterday, I am too.”

Bergman: “And I played into that.”

Ray Russom: “No and yes. That’s why we need to talk.”

Bergman: “I can’t do it right now. That’s 100 percent honest.”

Ray Russom: “I am available after 2:30.”

Bergman sent a screenshot of their exchange that Ray Russom noted in her Word document, but did not provide.

Ray Russom: “Cleraly [sic] you meant to send that to someone else. That is quite disappointing.”

Bergman: “I will not be threatened or intimidated ever again. That is the boundary. I work for all five of you if you have an issue call a closed session.”

Ray Russom: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I need to talk about something directly with you and I’m requesting a call when you have time. What threat are you perceiving?”

Ray Russom: “And why are you forwarding our text exchange, and to whom?”

Bergman: “I was getting advice from a friend.”

Ray Russom: “Well. This definitely went south fast. I will refrain from text gong [sic] forward.”

After learning Ray Russom deleted the text messages, Tacker filed a complaint with the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit.

“There has got to be more damning information in those texts, I would bet an $18 shot of whiskey that there’s been omissions,” Tacker said referring to a drink the mayor charged on a city credit card last fall. “The mayor knows the law and has to know that creating a new record does not suffice for the original.”

After learning Arroyo Grande resident Lea Rigo was planning to run against her, Ray Russom sent a Facebook message that Rigo took as a threat. Rigo then dropped her plan to run for mayor.

Ray Russom’s Aug. 6 Facebook message to Rigo:

“Dear Lea

“I know it is quite unusual for a candidate to contact another candidate during the filing period, but this is too important not to discuss. You and I have corresponded before in a very friendly and constructive way, so I come to you in that spirit right now.

“Let me start by saying I respect how much you care about the dunes, and that you want to do everything in your power to help get the park back open and protect it. I would not ever pretend that I have the same views as you, but I do want you to know that I not only support them reopening, but I had my letter read by the Chamber of Commerce president at the Coastal Commission against closing the park. We are not enemies.

“I know from your online posts that you find me at least partially at fault for putting Council Member Paulding on APCD. That is not a meeting I can attend because I work full time, but I get that’s not your concern. You want the seat. It’s important for you to know that if you win, the seat is not automatically yours, nor was it mine.

“But here is the really important part. IF you were to win for mayor, and IF the council voted to put you on APCD, you would have to step down and leave the room for any vote on the dunes because your business is financially tied to it. We are not allowed to vote on issues we could financially benefit from.

“This is straight-up California state law. So the one reason you are wanting to run is to get on APCD and make a difference, and you absolutely cannot do that. It is not likely the council would vote to put you there if you couldn’t fully participate, which you cannot, due to Freedom Ropes.

“I know I have a vested interest in talking you out of running, so I understand you may not trust me here. But as Mayor, I absolutely have to say this next part, on behalf of the taxpayers.

“Right now, no one else has filed for mayor or council seats. You would be the only challenger. If you do not run, we will be able to cancel the election, and that would save the taxpayers approximately $28,000. (You can ask the City Clerk, Kelly Wetmore to verify this). If you qualify tomorrow, there is no backing out, and we spend that during this very difficult Covid 19 time where we are all hurting. That decision to spend $28,000 of taxpayer money is entirely yours.

“Lea, I honestly respect your willingness to step up to the plate and do something. Most people don’t have the guts to do that. I really want you to know that says a lot about you in a good way. But there are more effective things you can do in order to support the dunes, and running for mayor simply won’t get you there. You won’t even be able to do it. So you’ll go through all the ugliness of the election, put your kids and husband through that, air out all your dirty laundry for everyone to see and attach to your business, and all so you can’t vote on APCD if you even get there. Mother to mother, wife to wife, I just can’t sit back and not say anything to you as you make your final decision.

“Again, it’s totally unusual for us to talk during the filing period, but I think this $28,000 gamble with taxpayer money for a seat on APCD that you cannot have is just not responsible, and won’t get you the outcome you want. It will put you and your family out into the ugly world of politics, which I assure you is nasty beyond your wildest dreams. Believe me, I’ve lived it for a long time.

“Please feel free to call me tonight if you’d like to talk more as you make your decision. It is my sincere hope that you’ll reconsider, on behalf of the taxpayers and to make you the most effective activist you can be, but in a different way. My number is 805-234-1270.

“Best wishes, Caren Ray Russom.”