A little something on the side
February 21, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
Ask Bob Nicholson and he can point out how households and businesses are wasting water and money. He tells people how to save.
Whether Nicholson’s advice is going to cost you anything depends on which hat he’s wearing that day.
Nicholson makes up to $66,352 a year giving advice to people on their water and sewer usage as a San Luis Obispo utilities conservation technician. But Nicholson also offers to sell the same services to people through an unlicensed private consulting business.
Nicholson says that there is nothing wrong with what he’s doing. However, SLO’s municipal Code says “employees must avoid conflicts of private interests with public duties and responsibilities and shall not do indirectly what may not be done directly.”
In June 2010, Nicholson conducted a city-sponsored water conservation clinic at the Farm Supply in San Luis Obispo.
Before the clinic took place, he sent an email to Mary Moloney, a local realtor, asking her to spread the word about his clinic. He noted that he is with the City of San Luis Obispo’s utility department and provided his private consulting business’ phone number.
Maloney posted the email on the Central Coast Real Estate website.
“Given the cost of utilities, this short clinic should provide the attendee with the tools to help keep costs down,” Nicholson wrote in his email. “Recently, the first three businesses I visited during the day had significant water leaks – Totaling about $3,000 per month in water and sewer charges. That can be a huge hit, and two of the businesses were restaurants who were not aware of the ongoing leaks.
“Mary, I would appreciate it if you would pass the word around to friends and colleagues, and your customers,” Nicholson wrote.
Nicholson, a contributor to the San Luis Obispo-based Information Press, writes about water conservation and gets advertising for his private consulting business.
“Bob Nicholson has a degree in natural resources management from Cal Poly, SLO with more than 20 years of experience in water conservation, irrigation consultation and leak detection. Bob is available for residential and commercial consultation. Call him evenings and weekends at 805-440-6977 and ask about his services,” the Information Press says in blurbs at the bottom of Nicholson’s articles on water issues.
Nicholson, who admits his private business is unlicensed and uninsured, says it really is a non-story because no one has yet called him to request his private consulting services.
“I was talking about doing it but I haven’t done it yet,” Nicholson said. “I have not done anything for money.”
However, a city employee who works with Nicholson said he has been conducting his private consulting business for several years using information he gets from city computers. The employee asked to remain unnamed to protect his employment.
Dave Wesolowski, who owns Sprinkler King, has been in the water consulting business for more than 25 years and says having access to city water usage information provides Nicholson an unfair advantage.
As a private water consultant, Wesolowski pays for contractor and city business licenses, insurance and marketing, while Nicholson markets his business through the city and is not licensed.
“That is totally inappropriate and a total conflict,” Wesolowski said. “This guy walks up to the door with no overhead using the fact that he works for the city. He comes to the table with all these securities such as health insurance that small businessmen have to pay for.”
In addition to questions of fairness, state and local laws prohibit employees from using government resources for private gain. The city municipal code also requires employees get permission from the city administrative officer before engaging in outside employment.
The city has approved his private consulting business, Nicholson said.
“The city manager gave me permission to do it outside of my local jurisdiction,” Nicholson said.