Pismo Beach manager pick has questionable past
November 29, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
Atascadero officials announced Wednesday that Pismo Beach has selected James Lewis, Atascadero’s assistant city manager, as Pismo Beach’s new city manager.
The announcement comes before the Pismo Beach City Council officially votes to approve Lewis and his contract on Dec. 4. Nevertheless, Atascadero City Manager Wade McKinney said he expects Lewis’s contract will be approved and he will “end his service to Atascadero in mid-February and begin his new assignment shortly thereafter.”
Lewis has served as the assistant city manager and president of the Office of Economic Development since 2004.
During his time with Atascadero, Lewis instructed city staff to allow former North County developer Kelly Gearhart to skip the city’s Planning Department and deal directly with upper-level city employees. This allowed Gearhart to bypass project finalization and avoid more than $200,000 in city fees, several employees and city officials said.
Onetime Atascadero “Person of the Year” Gearhart pleaded not guilty to 16 charges of mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering at his arraignment in August in a Los Angeles federal court. He faces up to 300 years in federal prison if convicted on all charges.
Gearhart’s trial is currently set for Jan. 29. And though the federal officials and Gearhart’s attorney have been discussing a plea agreement in which Gearhart could serve less time for providing information on public officials, he has not signed a plea agreement at this time. His lender, James Miller, agreed to plead guilty to charges of fraud and money laundering in 2011 as part of a plea agreement the court then filed under seal.
In 2008, not long after issues with Gearhart and the city became public, Atascadero city officials announced that the FBI had launched an investigation into their city hall. Four years later it is unknown exactly why the city is under a federal investigation, and city officials such as Mayor Bob Kelley no longer mention the investigation or the allegations against Lewis.
“We are sorry to see Jim go,” Kelley said. “Jim is an aggressive recruiter of businesses and kept good relations with the business community. Pismo Beach is lucky to get him and we wish him luck and success in his new role.”