Oceano district doesn’t get it
July 20, 2012
OPINION By JULIE TACKER
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If the Brown Act is not followed and no one is there to observe it, was it violated?
In Oceano, if no one cries foul, then it must be OK to violate California’s state law governing public meetings. The most recent example is the Friday the 13th special meeting to adopt a final budget. The agenda was posted as required 24 hours in advance of the meeting, but was amended to add a resolution to formally adopt fiscal year 2012-2013 budget only hours before.
Did it matter? Probably not.
Would proper noticing have changed anything? Unlikely.
Why mention it? It’s the principle and pattern of disregard for the law. The rules governing open meetings are in place to allow for the public to have full and open access to their representatives. Without properly noticing the resolution, the nearly $4 million budget was adopted even with its revenues overstated, expenses understated, and other errors and omissions.
There wouldn’t have been a special meeting at all if CalCoastNews reporter, Karen Velie, who while researching her June 26, 2012 story “Oceano Attempting to Muffle public comment” tipped off the inexperienced Oceano Community Services District General Manager, Tom Geaslen, letting him know that he was just days away from being unable to spend any district funds.
State law requires a 15-day noticing of the budget adoption and that a budget be adopted before the end of each fiscal year (June 30). Geaslen and Hall, Hieatt and Connelly attorney, Molly Thurmond, at $220.00 per hour, scrambled to post a special meeting agenda for the day after the regular meeting of June 27 to “extend the current budget,” apparently re-adopting last year’s budget and formally posting a 15-day legal notice in the local paper as required by Government Code Section 61110.
Geaslen scoffed at the idea that he was at all late in presenting the budget, claiming he was “waiting for solid numbers,” which never came.
First presented in May the preliminary budget was discussed but not adopted with the Board asking few questions. At a finance committee meeting on June 1, the Brown Act was also violated when public comment regarding the budget’s shortcomings were denied.
One question that has come to the forefront for the district is the administrative fees paid to OCSD for their staff’s time mailing and processing the sanitation district’s (SSLOCSD) sewer fees that pass through the agency each year.
Historically the SSLOCSD has paid $4,980 each year to OCSD. While this seems low, the OCSD also collects sewer fees, as described in the districts 2011 rate increase, giving them the ability to recoup what they need to cover costs on these matters.
This year’s adopted budget anticipates $30,000 in revenue from SSLOCSD for these services. Geaslen has incorporated this number without a SSLOCSD Board action or corresponding OCSD Board action.
Sister agencies Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach would likely follow suit, increasing their charges to the SSLOCSD and corresponding actions by both city councils could take months, perhaps years, if ever approved by the SSLOCSD customers in a Proposition 218 protest process. Considering an increase six times the current revenue would likely trigger the need for the already strapped SSLOCSD to raise rates to the very same customers served.
Geaslen suggested “we hold the check” in order to negotiate the increase and the board approved billing some 10 percent of pass through payments in April and May.
Additional overstated revenue of $25,000 was adopted for something Geaslen calls “over the road fees.” May as well call them “over the rainbow” fees, these are the approximately $160,000 in off highway vehicle in-lieu fees realized by the County from the State for the Oceano Dunes state Park.
The San Luis Obispo County Parks and Recreation Commission recently adopted a program that would allow agencies and non-profits to apply for small grants to provide or enhance off highway recreational operations, habitat restoration, law enforcement and/or education and safety.
Some years ago, the OCSD received one time monies from this source to purchase equipment related to their fire department’s response to beach emergencies. The system of allocation has been changed to be more transparent as to how the funds will be distributed; OCSD will have to get in line with others to compete for these funds.
They will be required, if they qualify (which is questionable due to the history of missing audits and damaging findings pointed out by independent auditors) to show a clear nexus to the legislation allowing disbursement of these funds.
If Geaslen’s grant application withstands the competition, the funds won’t be dispersed until the SLO County Board of Supervisors approves the June 2013-2014 budget. It is premature to count these chickens until next year’s budget, if ever.
Increases to OCSD expenses are largely relate to staffing. Geaslen’s goal is to return to four in the office and four in the field, a level the district enjoyed before the recession and before the district joined the Five Cities Fire Authority JPA. The personnel line item is up $180,000 over last year. That includes Geaslen’s inflated salary which is 45 percent more than his predecessors.
Overall, the OCSD 2012-2013 budget expenses are understated, it is this lame duck, mostly appointed, board’s fiduciary responsibility to insure the district has the reserves set aside should they need to invoke the six-month severance in Geaslen’s contract for termination without cause, some $60,000 plus.
If it turns out that Geaslen is found to have wrongfully terminated former employee, Stephen Langstaff, or was negligent in rescinding the entire staff’s tenure status, perhaps the board can invoke the ‘termination for cause’ clause and avoid the financial hit to the district.
Furthermore, Geaslen is under the impression he can get the district out of the controversial 5-year computer software contract with Tyler Technologies, Inc. the board entered into in 2010, to save on the annual $37,000 system. Tyler Technology is a respected and powerful company, their product is trusted. But, garbage in means garbage out, and the numbers on start up of the system can’t be verified. To try to wriggle out of the $240,000 contract now and start over with something else would be very costly to the district.
It took a year, but Geaslen was able to complete two of the outstanding audits. He hired two teams of auditors, Moss, Levy & Hartzheim, LLP., and Caliber Audit & Attest, LLP., accounting firm, Pressley & Associates, two independent consultants familiar with the district’s previous accounting system, to do them; a lessor paid general manager could have done the same.
By the time all is said and done, the district will have spent upwards of $100,000 to get past this chapter of the districts history, coupled with Geaslen’s salary the district will have paid dearly.
Within the 2009-2010 audit Geaslen chose not to have a management letter written by the auditor claiming “we know what it would say and we didn’t want to pay for it.” This is the letter that grant and loan providers will be looking for to show the auditors findings and recommendations with managements answers as to how it will change its way of operating. Without this letter the district will have a difficult time showing it has improved the way it does business. Grants, loans for needed water system upgrades or refinancing current debt rely on this letter.
Speaking of letters, after three letters from the County Clerk Recorder reminding Geaslen, he has finally fulfilled his duty to the public by filing his Conflict of Interest statement on July 6. The “Form 700” is required upon taking and leaving office. The County Clerk waived his late fees based on his request for waiver wherein he claims, “constant unwarranted outside attacks on the OCSD and me personally. These irrational and relentless attacks put my decision on continuation with the OCSD in doubt The uncertainty alone questioned the need to file had I made the decision to terminate my contractual relationship.”
If Geaslen was considering resigning as he claims to the clerk, he would have to file two of the required forms. But, Geaslen has no intention of resigning, in a lengthy diatribe to his board just five days later at the regular board meeting of July 11 he vowed, “I promise you I’m going to continue.”
This whole scenario playing out at the OCSD reminds me of the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen fairytale; as the story goes, a vain Emperor who cares for nothing but his appearance and attire hires two tailors who are really swindlers that promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “just hopelessly stupid.” The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same.
When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor then marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretense. Suddenly, a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but holds himself up proudly and continues the procession.
Apparently. Mr. Geaslen does not subscribe to the moral of the story and I feel like the child in the crowd. Who else is going to admit the Emperor has no clothes?
Julie Tacker is an advocate for the Ralph M. Brown Act who lives in los Osos.