Port San Luis commissioners ordered to stop bullying whistleblower

By KAREN VELIE

The Port San Luis Harbor District has served cease-and-desist letters on two commissioners ordering them to stop bullying, harassing, slandering and threatening a staffer.

The district hired attorney Susannah Galiano with the Ventura based law firm of LightGabler after learning of allegations that commissioners Bob Vessely and Mary Matakovich were harassing an employee. That employee, Karen O’Brien, had discovered Vessely’s violation of the Brown Act. In her cease-and-desist letters, Galiano outlined the alleged violations before telling Vessely and Matakovich not to retaliate.

“On behalf of the Port San Luis Harbor District, I am directing you to cease-and-desist contacting Ms. O’Brien  and all other actions that have constituted threatening, bulling and intimidation,” the letters say. “Finally, understand that it is illegal and inappropriate to retaliate against any person who has participated in or provided information regarding the issues provided in this correspondence.”

After participating in a closed-door meeting regarding the annual performance review of the harbor master, Vessely emailed confidential documents to his wife Susan Devine, through his public email. Vessely was not able to open his email, and asked O’Brien, a non-management employee, to assist him.

While working to help Vessely, sometime around Jan. 11, O’Brien discovered the commissioner had violated district policies, which she reported to her supervisor.

Robert Vessely

“Ms. O’Brien determined these actions of forwarding confidential emails was highly improper and suspected it violated the Brown Act, various district polices, and applicable law,” according to the cease-and-desist letters.

Even though district policy forbids commissioners from contacting a non-management employee regarding operations, Vessely and Matakovich attempted 13 times in four days to contact O’Brien. O’Brien found the behavior hostile.

“Your repeated efforts to contact Ms. O’Brien asking to speak to her regarding operational policy via telephone, hand-written letter, email, on several occasions in an harassing and intimidating manner arguably appear to be retaliation for whistleblowing in an effort to intimidate her,” according to the cease-and-desist letters.

In addition, during a Jan, 26 district board meeting, Vessely and Matakovich accused O’Brien of monitoring their emails, a claim that Vessely repeated during the Feb. 23 district board meeting.

“You publicly characterized her lawful actions as improper thereby slandering her,” the letters say.

On Feb. 23, the other three commissioners — Jim Blecha, Bill Barrow and Drew Brandy — voted to reprimand Vessely, who at first said he was unaware of the accusations. Vessely then claimed spousal privilege, before he blamed staff for reading his emails.

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