Democracy in Atascadero should amount to more

October 22, 2012

Mike Brennler


While studying my absentee ballot, I was reminded of the joke suggesting that democracy should amount to more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

This is particularly true as related to the incumbents running for office in Atascadero.

Although I know that it is a citizen’s patriotic duty to vote, when considering these choices I can’t simply hold my nose and fill in the bubble. Common sense will not allow me to do this, not when I have seen firsthand, the instances of unethical behavior and mismanagement condoned by incumbents Tom O’Malley, Roberta Fonzi and Bob Kelly.

All three are mired in the Atascadero controversies involving Kelly Gearhart, FEMA fraud, questionable votes on Redevelopment Agency projects, large cash settlements to former employees and their stubborn refusal to address the vacation accrual problem wherein the city was allowing an unfunded liability of a quarter million dollars in direct violation of their own personnel rules.

Let’s break these issues of mismanagement down, one by one:

Kelly Gearhart

In 2007, Gearhart’s financial empire began to unravel, in part because of illegal and unethical business practices. Hundreds of North County investors fell victim, with many losing their life savings.

Currently, Gearhart awaits trial on 16 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering.

When I was on the council, I raised several warning flags, including the fact that Gearhart hadn’t paid the city certain development impact fees, that he allowed certain properties to be occupied before final inspection and that he failed to assure final inspection for certain vital infrastructure.

O’Malley, Fonzi, Kelly and Jerry Clay all chastised me for taking on Atascadero’s man of the year and suggested that I make a public apology to Gearhart.

I refused to apologize. From my perspective, it was all about accountability in office and respect for the victims.

FEMA Fraud

As many citizens may know, the Department of Homeland Security has issued a report detailing that “Atascadero city officials did not expend or account for over $8 million according to federal regulations and FEMA guidelines.”

Some of the issues involved the Rotunda Building, wherein city officials falsely attributed foundation damage to the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake. In reality, this damage preceded the earthquake and was actually documented in news articles six months before the earthquake. The city’s claim for foundation damage exceeded $7 million.

Also embroiled in the FEMA controversy were grant funds attributed to the Printery building. Even though the Printery had been sold to Kelly Gearhart prior to the earthquake, city officials secured over $3 million in FEMA funds arguing that the Printery building was an active youth center. In reality this assertion was false as the building was seismically unsafe and declared so by the city.

Questionable expenditures by the Atascadero Redevelopment Agency

The city council expended RDA funds in direct conflict with RDA law. When it was brought to their attention, they blindly went forward claiming the city manager and attorney had assured them that their actions were proper.

Since then, the California Department of Finance has reeled in these inappropriate expenditures to the tune of $3.9 million.

Perhaps the most egregious issue involving RDA funds is Tom O’Malley’s votes concerning the proposed $3 million pedestrian bridge project.

O’Malley owned property within 25 feet of the proposed bridge but transferred it to a member of his immediate family who now stands to benefit greatly from any proposed improvements.

When confronted publicly of the appropriateness of his action and votes, O’Malley obfuscated. Thus far,. O’Malley has participated in and voted on the expenditure of over $1 million which is on face value, unethical and dishonest.

Cash settlements to former employees

The council has approved over a half million dollars in settlements to employees who have filed grievances or lawsuits. Unfortunately, the citizens who have posed questions as to the basis and propriety for these settlements are offered no specifics. Instead, the council has hidden behind the explanation that these matters are “personnel issues that can’t be discussed.”

Vacation Accrual

In March 2011, the council was alerted to the fact that certain Atascadero management employees, including the city manager, were accruing vacation leave in direct violation of the personnel rules. These illegal accruals created an unfunded liability of over a half million dollars with the city manager standing to benefit from over one thousand hours of illegally accrued time valued over $90,000.

In March 2012, the San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury released a report on Atascadero’s vacation accrual matter, wherein one of their findings was that “The City of Atascadero has admittedly and blatantly violated its own policies on vacation time for more than 20 years”


In summary, I represent that I cannot, in good conscience, vote for Atascadero incumbents who have a track record of engaging in and condoning unethical behavior and fiscal mismanagement.

Rather than holding my nose and checking the ballot, I will simply withhold my vote and I encourage others to follow your conscience. To do otherwise is to condone a continuance of failed governance in Atascadero.

Mike Brennler is a retired police officer, a licensed private investigator and a former mayor of Atascadero.



Holy Toledo, Mike. This is a very good op-ed.

Thank you for mentioning the following:

“Please, people, think about becoming involved to make our towns better before they go bankrupt, or in Paso’s case, run out of water.”

This is the impending disaster NO ONE in Paso Robles government wants to talk about. If you’ve seen the maps outline the land subsidence centering on Paso Robles, indicating massive over-pumping sufficient to collapse part of the underling aquifer, you know what I mean.

Yet the city continues to okay building projects hither and yon, like they were sitting on an unlimited water supply, and promotes vineyards like they were a sustainable source of city income–which they most certainly do not.

I appreciate that you gave four examples of issues of concern regarding Atascadero’s governing decisions.

I just want to point out that the reason government agencies make cash settlements with employees is because they don’t want the reasons for grievance/lawsuit to become public knowledge.

If there are enough cash settlements that you are aware of the process, then I would question whether Atascadero City is an abusive workplace. If this is the case, you might want to make friends with those who have filed griavances people because, while the settlement probably precludes you from revealing the nature of their grievances against the city, they might know of others who have also filed grievances and would be willing to talk about the other cases.

The reason for confidentiality regarding employee matters is to protect both the worker and the employer.

As a police officer, didn’t you have the same kind of protection? If so, I’m sure you’ve seen workplace examples of why this protection is important to employees.


@ MaryMalone:

You have no argument from me reference a reasonable degree of confidentiality for the employee and employer, except in instances where large amounts of public money is used to settle a matter in close proximity to the employees departure from the agency, whether voluntary or otherwise.

From the public’s perception it becomes even more problematic when one of the stipulations to the settlement is that the employee will not bring a law suit. This language leaves the public to believe that the employee may have had merit in their complaint or grievance, but there is no way for the public to address potential malfeasance on the part of their public officials.

To use an example aside from Atascadero, does anyone really feel that the quarter million dollar settlement paid to the former Chief of Paso Robles does not deserve some type of public scrutiny and explanation?


Well said! I was born in Paso Robles 48 years ago. As I was growing up, I realized there was a “good ole boys” network running everything. The Schwartz brothers, the big ranchers and farmers whose names escape me right now, and the contractors as well, were the most known ones. A few years back, I started to wonder what the difference between the good ole boys back then and the new ones now.

I came to the conclusion that the obvious is the first set of good ole boy oldsters seemed to really care about the town and wanted it to succeed. I am sure they probably profited a bit from the deals that were made back then (i.e. the builders of the Niblick Bridge and other items like that), BUT they were still very proud of their town and truly seemed to want what was best for it. They were willing to invest their own $$ and lots of their time volunteering to get things up and going (i.e. recreational sports for kids and adults, schools).

Today’s good ole boys seem to have only one goal, and that is to put as much $$ in their pocket as possible, legally or not. They do not give a whit for the town they are robbing or the townsfolk made to pay the price for it (i.e. roads that need repair badly, etc). To my knowledge, there is not any volunteerism going on by the “network.” If there is any volunteerism happening by these people, it is only to advance themselves monetarily or politically.

We do need to change up all the people currently involved in local goverments for both Paso and Atascadero. Lots of people out there are very able to become part of the process to change things in the positive direction. We need more than one person, we need several.

Please, people, think about becoming involved to make our towns better before they go bankrupt, or in Paso’s case, run out of water.

If I lived in the right town, I would be right there trying to get onto the coulcil to change things. I live in Templeton. We moved there in 1998 when my children started school so they could have top notch public education.

As an aside, in case you didn’t know and care about it, the current board of supervisors is trying to do some very questionable moves with Templeton now. It is happening everywhere. I hope this is truly not what they call “Progress.”



Thanks Mike for keeping it real. Here’s more on Gearhart, Pe Ji Ho Ta casino rip off and another Atascadero Chamber of Commerce man of the year

Because of Grigger Jones forging our father’s signature, essentially taking over (stealing) our family trust the estate had to pay $219,000 in a judgment against our dad’s estate for the illegal sale of property performed by Attorney Grigger Jones. Thanks Grigger Jones. And thank you Mike Brennler for keeping it honest.

Atascadero city council needs an enema badly!


TERM LIMITS – TERM LIMITS – TERM LIMITS (All should serve no more than two terms – and in no case no more than three terms if mixing the office of council and then mayor). These old farts keep doing the same old mistakes and running the back room deals for family and friends. I will help if someone knows how to start a measure for term limits.


Agreed, well said Mike!! The good ole’ boy network has run Atascadero far too long. How has it come to this, not one single DECENT choice for city council?


That’s not true It is my understanding you have several decent people running for council. It would be nice if Cal Coast News would post something about each candidate so when the votes are cast people will know who they are voting for.


Well, maybe there is no network. Maybe the author is just a disgruntled former city official who still can’t get over the fact that most were tired of his antics.

Was this the guy that had people thrown out of council meetings because they smirked?


What can the citizens do ? Nobody wants to run especially in A-Town where the good ole boys get their heckler friends to disrupt the meetings with their hours of name calling and personal attacks that they perpetuate.

The Gimlet Eye

Every town needs its own watchdog group, independent of any government influence, a fierce, totally determined body of local citizens who will get involved, investigate, uncover, disclose, reveal, and generally shine the light of truth on EVERYTHING that public officials do.

They must make those public officials realize that they are living in a glass cage and WILL NOT be able to get away with corruption no matter how hard they try.


Think I’m gonna grab a bag of popcorn and sit back and enjoy what is comimg


Well said, Mr. Brennler. You had me at Kelly Gearhart… *sigh* “Man of the Year”?! ha ha ha


Yea Atascadero and Paso councils are both starting to STINK pretty bad. Just like a babies diaper, when it starts to stink, it is time to change it.


“Starting” to stink?! Unfortunately, under the leadership of two ethically-challenged city managers, A-town and Paso have stunk for a loooong time. Residents are finally starting to take notice–me, included. ALL council incumbents should be voted out and both city managers should be replaced.

And who’s partially to thank for uncovering stories like Chittygate in PR and Kellygate in A-town?

NOT the Fibune or NewTimes, that’s for sure! CCN broke both stories so take THAT you whiny Shredder!