Why would Paavo Ogren leave SLO County?
May 10, 2014
OPINION By JULIE TACKER
Oceano Community Services District (OCSD) is set to hire Paavo Ogren as its general manager this Wednesday night. Ogren has experience managing a community services district, but fails to mention it in his resume.
He worked as interim general manager for the fledgling Los Osos Community Services District (LOCSD) for eleven months in 1999. He assisted the LOCSD board in hiring their longest serving General Manger, Bruce Buel. Ogren likely chose to skip his stint as the LOCSD manager because in a sworn statement Buel admits Ogren directed Buel to back-date a contract that ultimately landed the district in court and was integral to the district ultimately filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
In 2011 a tryst between, County Public Works Director Ogren and sitting LOCSD Director, Maria Kelly, became public knowledge. From the couples cell phone records and minutes from LOCSD board closed sessions, it appears Ogren was advising Kelly regarding decisions she was making as a board member.
Ogren is a bean-counter, a former CPA; what Ogren will quickly find is that the OCSD is flat broke. The only way to afford his exorbitant salary is to raise rates and/or sell Oceano’s most valuable asset – its water. Earlier this fiscal year the OCSD borrowed more than $850,000 to fund its water department from other district funds, depleting its reserves.
The water fund continues to run at a deficit. Plagued by mismanagement and books in disarray, the OCSD has been an easy target for opportunists with little to no government experience. OCSD has been the place where careers crash and burn. Ogren has considerable governmental experience, making one wonder why he is leaving the prestigious county public works director position.
The news of Ogren’s hire comes as a surprise to this OCSD board watcher. The OCSD last met in closed session on April 23rd and there was “no reportable action” taken. Somehow direction was given to legal counsel to negotiate and draft a contract. A tremendous amount of work went into finagling the formula in which to pay this kind of salary. How was this direction given by a majority of the board if there was no reportable action on the 23rd? The result smells of the all-to-often Brown Act violating practices that OCSD board members believe they are immune from.
Ogren’s $1 million, four-year contract exceeds his current county package by 2.5 percent, so the staff report states. This salary is roughly ten times that of the average Oceano resident. Ogren will likely be out of touch with its citizens. The contract has no probationary period and contains a one-year, $196,000 severance, which binds the next board to Ogren for the contract’s duration. Should a new board want to go a different direction, the contract requires the payment of severance in a one lump sum which could be the fatal blow to the districts solvency.
District legal counsel, Jeff Minnery, the contract attorney from Adamamski, Moroski, Madden, Cumberland & Green, calculates Ogren’s employment package by combining the inflated salaries previously paid to GM’s Tom Geaslen and Lonnie Curtis and the OCSD district accountant – a position that was never approved by the board.
Quietly hired by Geaslen, the district accountant worked just 30 hours a week until she left earlier this year when publicly humiliated by Vice President Mary Lusey. Legal counsel extrapolates the accountant’s salary, at full time and at its highest step to be $65,000 annually, an amount that was never budgeted for or intended to be paid.
For the district to combine these positions, a new job description for the GM must be developed with public review and board approval prior to the hire of Ogren. It’s called “transparency”, something quite foreign to OCSD.
“There’s not any reason why I’m seeking to leave the county,” Ogren told the Tribune. “It’s a lot of good reasons to go work for Oceano.”
Ogren is leaving the county when the $183 million Los Osos Waste Water Project is mid-way through construction; already $10 million over budget and $15 to $20 million in lawsuits and claims for damages are lining up. He masterminded the Paso Robles Ground Water District that is already embroiled in litigation. As these projects become more complicated and controversial due to rising legal costs, perhaps now is a good time for Ogren to jump ship. Deflecting blow-back from Board of Supervisor’s Chair Bruce Gibson, it is likely Ogren is being asked to leave, making him the scapegoat when the sewage hits the fan.
In Oceano, Ogren’s work as public works director at the county has been unsuccessful at getting a Habitat Conservation Plan in place for the Arroyo Grande Creek. Over a decade has passed, millions of dollars spent, with nothing to show for it. In 2010, his county crews failed to open the Sand Canyon flap gates on Meadow Creek and the “perfect storm” flooded the sewer plant and island neighborhood with 300,000 gallons of untreated sewage, triggering a $1.1 million fine from the water woard that is yet to be paid.
Ogren is as a former employee of the Wallace Group. It did not go unnoticed that the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District, under the leadership of John Wallace, failed to hold the county responsible for flood-waters rising and pouring off the county owned airport contributing to the cause of the massive sewage spill.
Ogren’s departure from the county is welcomed. His arrival in Oceano will likely bankrupt the community services district and he needs just four years to do it. The board is foolish to fall for Ogren’s puffed up resume and overinflated price. The board can expect collateral damage to be left in his wake, similar to the last two GM’s. However, this may be the final blow to a district that will be left only with the possibilities of bankruptcy or dissolution.