Oceano troubles persist
March 14, 2012
OPINION By JULIE TACKER
Oceano residents and District Board members of the Community Services District seem enamored with Interim General Manager, Tom Geaslen, so much so that they rushed to hire him last June. Admittedly the district was in need of new management after a tumultuous relationship with the previous General Manger, Rafeale Montemurro.
Mr. Geaslen sold himself and his plan of action to “right the ship” of the fledgling Board (made up of mostly newly appointed members). In a series of Closed Session interviews with several qualified candidates, Mr. Geaslen prevailed. In their haste, the Board overlooked California Government Code provisions requiring a public process and the public’s ability to view and comment on the new IGM’s employment contract. Worse yet, Mr. Geaslen has worked for more than six months without a contract. Written contracts are entered into to protect both parties and to spell out the job description; tasks, scope and measurable expectations. With no such contract in place, both the district and Mr. Geaslen are at risk.
Additionally, Mr. Geaslen never took the oath of office; swearing to “protect and serve the District from enemies foreign and domestic, etc.” Government code section 1367. No compensation nor reimbursement for expenses incurred shall be paid to any officer by any public agency unless he has taken and subscribed to the oath or affirmation required by this chapter. Should the code be applied, Geaslen should not have been paid until doing so. This simple omission in process is symptomatic of Mr. Geaslen’s inexperience and has exposed the district to possible litigation on this and other matters.
In public discussions prior to Mr. Geaslen’s unusual hiring, it was understood that the cash- strapped district would offer the position at the salary that had been budgeted; $87,000 per year. It appears Mr. Geaslen is receiving considerably more; again with no public review or opportunity to comment on the salary.
Mr. Geaslen and his personal attorney began renegotiating his new contract in January, mistakenly posting negotiations to an open agenda one week Jan. 15, then allowing his Board to take action in closed session the next Feb. 8. The report from closed session announced a $10,000 a month salary in spite of limited accomplishments. Mr. Geaslen’s budgets are abbreviated and reflect continued deficit spending. Leaving the public to ask myriad questions; how can the district afford an increased salary? How does it compare with other districts of similar size? What qualifications and experience do other General Managers have that Mr. Geaslen doesn’t?
Regardless of the procedural misstep, the Board and public have continued to show support for their IGM. He appears to have fixed or repaired things in the District that have been neglected for some time. But, Geaslen’s “can do attitude” has led to mistakes in running the small governmental entity. Gealsen may have experience in the private sector, but government has checks and balances that are absent in the private sector. For example, these checks and balances are to ensure qualified contractors get a fair opportunity to work for government and the public gets the most for its dollar.
Another recently revealed Geaslen oversight is the repair, resurface and restriping of the District/Sheriff’s Dept./Fire Dept.’s shared driveway and parking lot that was completed in January. The OCSD’s bylaws state in Section 1.6 A roll call vote shall be taken upon the passage of all ordinance, resolutions, and other matters established by Board policy or state law require solicitation of bids, and upon all matters involving more than five thousand dollars ($5,000.00) expenditure by the District. At a minimum this matter should have come before the Board and public with a Request For Proposal and bid process let to available/qualified contractors.
It appears Mr. Geaslen’s unfamiliarity with the District’s own bylaws led him to sole source a contract for $11,690.00 by Toaste Paving. Toaste Paving has a good reputation, but another, equally qualified paving firm may have been able to do the same quality work at a lower price. The IGM’s failure to follow process puts the district at risk for litigation from another paving company that could challenge the process.
Mr. Geaslen, as the representative of the district, signed a letter to the County Public Works Department from the Northern Cities Management Area Technical Group that perpetuated the Oceano sweater intrusion myth. Saying, “I wouldn’t have signed it if I’d known it would go public,” flies in the face of his continuous claims of “transparency and sunshine.”
The OCSD Board directed Mr. Geaslen to bring a draft letter to them addressing the seawater intrusion anomaly. Over the course of several agenda’s, Mr. Geaslen failed to do so and in a “dog-ate-my-homework” moment, Geaslen claimed the districts computers had been “hacked” rendering him unable to draft that letter and other work expected on that agenda. The Board President ultimately had to write the letter himself during the meeting.
Mr. Geaslen, should know more than his Board about process and procedure including the governing laws that the district is bound to uphold. The Board has strayed from the Brown Act provision. For instance, Mr. Geaslen required public comment take place before he had presented staff reports and recommendations, leaving the public at a severe disadvantage for participation. The board corrected this error only after threats of litigation from famed Brown Act authority, attorney Terry Francke, of California Aware.
Just last week, Mr. Geaslen, as the district’s “go to” representative, inappropriately represented (former OCSD Board member Barbara Mann) in her appeal before the Board of Supervisors of the proposed Medical Marijuana Dispensary (MMD). The OCSD Board never broached the MMD subject and as a district that has no land use authority rightfully shouldn’t. Mr. Geaslen’s mere presence and advocating for a former OCSD board member, gave the appearance that the Board was in opposition to the dispensary. Did Mr. Geaslen deploy any district resources in his opposition to the proposal?
In an attempt to discourage access to public records, Mr. Geaslen has implemented a new policy (without Board/Public input), claiming he needs confirmation or a return receipt for records furnished. Refusing to supply records in electronic format that would have little to, no cost to the district; he began sending replies via certified mail, costing the district more than 200 times the cost recovered in copying charges.
Yes, I’m from Los Osos, so why do I care? As nearly a lifelong County resident and longtime government watchdog, I see many parallels between the Los Osos community and the community of Oceano. While some issues are very different, others are uncannily similar. The more I learn, the more I care about those who are misplacing their trust in local government. Those who are underrepresented; 47 percent of households who make less than $35,000 a year, 47 percent of individuals who are Hispanic (not necessarily the same population) who often don’t participate in government. These residents are busy with their lives and expect government will properly conduct the people’s business. In the instant case, government is not taking care of them — it’s taking care of itself. Mr. Geaslen has spent more time on his own contract than on other matters of the district. Sometimes it takes an outsiders view of what is going on right in front of one’s nose, I hope to offer that perspective.
It appears Mr. Geaslen’s employment arrangement is back on the OCSD Board agenda March 14, 2012, but the agenda is unclear and there is no staff report to explain. Again, the board appears to not be following proper protocol, without the ability of the public to see a contract or opportunity to comment on salary or other terms.
Mr. Geaslen’s inexperience in government and pattern of errors, omissions and oversights should color his consideration for the permanent General Manager position. A search for a qualified GM who may better serve the District is in order. Coincidently, Geaslen promised the Board a broad search for a permanent GM in his plan of action presented last June, the only search has been in the mirror.