Brickbat misses target
December 30, 2013
OPINION By JULIE TACKER
The Dec. 20 Tribune Brickbat levied at the newly hired Oceano Community Services District General Manager Lonnie Curtis, while completely warranted — missed the target.
Plagiarizing another man’s work as one’s own for a job application is foolhardy at best, but a PowerPoint presentation accepted as a writing sample should have garnered a hefty brickbat to the OCSD Board of directors, especially Vice President Mary Lucey. Lucey is the chair of the district’s personnel committee and holds herself out as an expert in human relations. In the case of Curtis, she too, overlooked the district’s hiring criteria in tapping him for the position.
Curtis was hired by the OCSD board on Oct. 9. The Board had seen the PowerPoint months before the plagiarism was brought to their attention — something any one of them could and should have checked. Under the California Public Records Act, I promptly requested his resume and application package. Weeks went by. Excuses were plentiful including, “my computer, which failed last week and is being repaired and should be operational this week.”
I was certain the documents were on the man’s home computer, so any delays due to district computer glitches did not hold water. Photocopies had to have been provided for the board. Why a hard copy not in a personnel file and easy to access? I did not buy it and hadn’t experienced this type of unprofessionalism from OCSD staff since former general manager Tom Geaslen was terminated. I was persistent and enlisted the assistance of Board President Matt Guerrero in acquiring the long overdue request.
No one wanted to see Oceano pull itself out of the Geaslen ashes as much as I did. But, the moment I saw they were hiring Curtis at the same rate of $126,000 annually, plus benefits, just because that was what had been budgeted, I became skeptical. While I hoped for a GM with engineering experience, as his resume indicated, I did not expect they would hire one whose license is about to expire. Neither did I expect the board, especially Lucey, to overlook their own goals in a candidate and hire someone who has worked in the private sector for the last 10 years.
Their April 24 resolution adopting a revised general manager job description requires someone with 5 years of management experience in a public agency, which Curtis does not have.
Oceano is a disadvantaged community, having the highest unemployment rate in the county and twice the national average. They also have very high water rates with infrastructure that suffers from years of deferred maintenance. Mismanagement has put the water fund into serious debt, some $770,000 in just the last three years (most of which was spent during Geaslen’s tenure, with every dollar approved by a board that ignored warnings from the public). The deficit spending continues; budget adjustments for cost overruns and unforeseen expenditures are the norm for this district, and depleting reserves leave the district vulnerable in an emergency.
From 1997 to March of 2011, OCSD didn’t raise its water or sewer rates. When the district realized funds were rapidly dwindling, they slashed expenses dramatically, from cutting staff to freezing salaries to “share the pain” board members ceasing to take their stipends. Yet, legal bills mounted as Director Lori Angello was improperly appointed and a citizen ballot initiative aimed at preventing a proposed 100 acre foot, $2 million water sale to a development in Pismo Beach became a reality. The OCSD Board’s only option was to raise rates. Rate increases were based on a formula that included a general manager salary of just $87,500 and smaller staff of lesser paid individuals than the district (thanks to Geaslen) employs today.
The little community of 7,600 people is in for a rude awakening in 2014. Rate increases are concurrently being discussed at the OCSD for water and sewer system upgrades, at the Five Cities Fire Authority for increased personnel and apparatus and at the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District to cover the $1.1 million fine levied by the water board for the 2010 sewage spill, over $500,000 in legal bills and upgrades at the waste water treatment plant.
Lucey has been involved in all the hiring and personnel policy decisions since being elected to the OCSD board in 2008. Recently, the OCSD staff, feeling uncertain through the management turmoil, felt it necessary to seek union representation. Lucey and Curtis are now the labor negotiators representing the district in negotiations with the union. I predict, legal costs will be incurred, and as history repeats, as it often does in Oceano, the outcome will not be good for the ratepayers.
At the exorbitant salary Curtis is being paid, his learning curve should be ever so small. Yet, he recently asked the district for an all-expense paid trip to Los Angeles to go to a water conference as part of an extended Thanksgiving weekend and suggested the district offices close for the holidays from December 20 through January 5. He provided no cost analysis to the board in either case. Thus far, he has not only violated district policies, but also the Brown Act and Public Records Act. He’s been called into closed session three times for performance reviews. Still the board majority, including Lucey, rally behind him, giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Three seats on the OCSD Board come up in November, two 4-year terms and one 2-year term. Candidates who are willing to stand up to VP Lucey and haven’t lost touch with the community need to be seated to serve the public, not simply exist just to pay the salaries and benefits of staff.