Democracy in Atascadero should amount to more
October 22, 2012
OPINION By MIKE BRENNLER
While studying my absentee ballot, I was reminded of the joke suggesting that democracy should amount to more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.
This is particularly true as related to the incumbents running for office in Atascadero.
Although I know that it is a citizen’s patriotic duty to vote, when considering these choices I can’t simply hold my nose and fill in the bubble. Common sense will not allow me to do this, not when I have seen firsthand, the instances of unethical behavior and mismanagement condoned by incumbents Tom O’Malley, Roberta Fonzi and Bob Kelly.
All three are mired in the Atascadero controversies involving Kelly Gearhart, FEMA fraud, questionable votes on Redevelopment Agency projects, large cash settlements to former employees and their stubborn refusal to address the vacation accrual problem wherein the city was allowing an unfunded liability of a quarter million dollars in direct violation of their own personnel rules.
Let’s break these issues of mismanagement down, one by one:
In 2007, Gearhart’s financial empire began to unravel, in part because of illegal and unethical business practices. Hundreds of North County investors fell victim, with many losing their life savings.
Currently, Gearhart awaits trial on 16 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering.
When I was on the council, I raised several warning flags, including the fact that Gearhart hadn’t paid the city certain development impact fees, that he allowed certain properties to be occupied before final inspection and that he failed to assure final inspection for certain vital infrastructure.
O’Malley, Fonzi, Kelly and Jerry Clay all chastised me for taking on Atascadero’s man of the year and suggested that I make a public apology to Gearhart.
I refused to apologize. From my perspective, it was all about accountability in office and respect for the victims.
As many citizens may know, the Department of Homeland Security has issued a report detailing that “Atascadero city officials did not expend or account for over $8 million according to federal regulations and FEMA guidelines.”
Some of the issues involved the Rotunda Building, wherein city officials falsely attributed foundation damage to the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake. In reality, this damage preceded the earthquake and was actually documented in news articles six months before the earthquake. The city’s claim for foundation damage exceeded $7 million.
Also embroiled in the FEMA controversy were grant funds attributed to the Printery building. Even though the Printery had been sold to Kelly Gearhart prior to the earthquake, city officials secured over $3 million in FEMA funds arguing that the Printery building was an active youth center. In reality this assertion was false as the building was seismically unsafe and declared so by the city.
Questionable expenditures by the Atascadero Redevelopment Agency
The city council expended RDA funds in direct conflict with RDA law. When it was brought to their attention, they blindly went forward claiming the city manager and attorney had assured them that their actions were proper.
Since then, the California Department of Finance has reeled in these inappropriate expenditures to the tune of $3.9 million.
Perhaps the most egregious issue involving RDA funds is Tom O’Malley’s votes concerning the proposed $3 million pedestrian bridge project.
O’Malley owned property within 25 feet of the proposed bridge but transferred it to a member of his immediate family who now stands to benefit greatly from any proposed improvements.
When confronted publicly of the appropriateness of his action and votes, O’Malley obfuscated. Thus far,. O’Malley has participated in and voted on the expenditure of over $1 million which is on face value, unethical and dishonest.
Cash settlements to former employees
The council has approved over a half million dollars in settlements to employees who have filed grievances or lawsuits. Unfortunately, the citizens who have posed questions as to the basis and propriety for these settlements are offered no specifics. Instead, the council has hidden behind the explanation that these matters are “personnel issues that can’t be discussed.”
In March 2011, the council was alerted to the fact that certain Atascadero management employees, including the city manager, were accruing vacation leave in direct violation of the personnel rules. These illegal accruals created an unfunded liability of over a half million dollars with the city manager standing to benefit from over one thousand hours of illegally accrued time valued over $90,000.
In March 2012, the San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury released a report on Atascadero’s vacation accrual matter, wherein one of their findings was that “The City of Atascadero has admittedly and blatantly violated its own policies on vacation time for more than 20 years”
In summary, I represent that I cannot, in good conscience, vote for Atascadero incumbents who have a track record of engaging in and condoning unethical behavior and fiscal mismanagement.
Rather than holding my nose and checking the ballot, I will simply withhold my vote and I encourage others to follow your conscience. To do otherwise is to condone a continuance of failed governance in Atascadero.
Mike Brennler is a retired police officer, a licensed private investigator and a former mayor of Atascadero.