COMMENTARY: Bugs on the wall in City Hall
April 7, 2008
By KAREN VELIE and DANIEL BLACKBURN
There’s a tight clamp on information coming out of Atascadero City Hall, what with the FBI hanging out and all, so it’s been tough to get information out of those hallowed confines, stuff like this…. While city officials have been going 12 rounds with each other, mediators have been brought in to suppress probable knockouts.
That and other reports about hush-hush stuff going on in The Colony’s inner sanctum have been gleaned from a gaggle of reliable sources, all of whom are seeing and hearing all that we report here.
These sources include elected city officials, city employees, and a few highly connected individuals.
So what you read here has been confirmed by numerous sources, but is unverifiable in the classic news story sense. That’s why this piece is clearly labeled “commentary.”
Anyway, with national security and all, there’s a lot of stuff that just must remain secret. Or so we’re told. This is what we have now:
The ongoing FBI investigation of Atascadero’s city government is said by our sources to be focusing on possible under-the-table payoffs to, or overly-cozy relationships between, upper level city management, some elected, some not, and some private individuals. FBI officials won’t acknowledge any investigation, but sources tell UncoveredSLO.com that numerous city officials, staff, and one particular land developer have been interviewed by the federal gumshoes. City sources say they are informing FBI agents when the opportunity arises that FEMA and taxpayers really did get screwed by phony-baloney applications for the Youth Center.
The FBI’s current interest in Atascadero is just one of the city’s serious ongoing problems. Disputes between the city’s Community Development Department and management have been brewing for more than two years. A common staff complaint is that certain individuals in management demand that specified projects — some of which have been red-tagged –- simply be rubber-stamped, green-lighted.
“Things have not changed,” said one “It just gets worse every year. Staff is disgusted and disappointed.” Community Development director Warren Frace regularly reminds his minions at meetings that the Printery was in active use during the San Simeon Earthquake, even though most seasoned employees quietly acknowledge that they know it was not.
Employees allege they have been stripped of authority to do the regulatory jobs they were hired to do, and that contractors and management inform them of what projects will be approved with little or no scrutiny.
Late last year, officials hired Creative Mediations to help iron out internal problems with the city’s development workforce, at a cost of approximately $7,500. Chief Executive Officer Jesses Sostrin of that group met with staff from Community Development on four separate occasions, ending earlier this year.
The mediating consultant’s Website describes his function thusly: “When dialog escalates into argument and agreement seems hopeless, there is a way to get through it all… Welcome to Creative Mediation.”
Following the final session, McKinney, Assistant City Manager Jim Lewis, and Assistant to the City Manager and City Clerk Marcia McClure Torgerson met with other staff to discuss some of the issues raised during mediation.
“We have a culture of tell no one and look the other way,” one employee said. “McKinney was upset with staff over things discussed with the mediator. Jim gave his ‘Wade and I cannot tell a lie’ speech.”
A city-sponsored “ethics meeting” intended to foster trust was a must-attend last week for city council members and upper management staff. It quickly turned into a forum for council members Tom O’Malley and Jerry Clay to attack Mayor Mike Brennler, according to some who attended. Brennler ran for office last year on a platform of addressing corruption in City Hall.
O’Malley and Clay alleged that Brennler did not trust city staff. Brennler flushed, and O’Malley shouted, “Look at how red he is! He is angry.”
Shanks pointed out O’Malley’s body language, rocking back and forth, and suggested he was angry, too. O’Malley then became disrespectful to the facilitator.
Clay and O’Malley charged Brennler with reporting on KVEC’s Dave Congalton Show that the community center was built on a toxic waste dump. In fact, Brennler never took a stand, one way or the other. A podcast of the show in question is available on the station’s Website.
After hurled charges of mutual disrespect, O’Malley commented to attendees that Brennler would not survive the next election.
And that’s what’s been happening in SLO County’s most divisive little city.