Emails expose alleged misconduct by Arroyo Grande officials
December 1, 2014
Editor’s note: A video of Arroyo Grande Council Member Kristen Barneich noting her reasons for voting against an independent investigation into the July 3 incident is at the bottom of this story.
By DANIEL BLACKBURN and KAREN VELIE
Several public officials in Arroyo Grande unsuccessfully instructed members of the city’s police force to take official action against political opponents and critics in apparent violation of state and city laws prohibiting elected officials from managing staff. Many of those demands are documented in emails, texts, and voice messages obtained exclusively by CalCoastNews.
Then-mayor Tony Ferrara and city council member Kristen Barneich demanded members of the police force and administration prevent police officers from speaking during the council’s public comment period. The pair also attempted to use law enforcement to stop members of the public from carrying signs favoring different political candidates; to remove political opponents’ campaign signs; and to initiate multiple investigations into ultimately unsupported allegations against critics. None of these requests were granted.
Tensions between the city council and police surfaced after officers found then-city manager Steve Adams and Teresa McClish, a subordinate employee, in darkened city hall near midnight on July 3. In their reports, officers said McClish was partially dressed and that Adams initially lied to officers claiming McClish was not at city hall.
In supporting the city manager, Ferrara claimed McClish was not partially undressed and that the officers had lied in an attempt to manipulate salary negotiations. The controversy led to a police officer association vote of no-confidence against the mayor and city manager, and a campaign to elect write-in-candidate Jim Hill.
On Sept. 24, following a city council meeting in which several officers spoke during public comment about their dissatisfaction with Ferrara and the need for an independent investigation, Ferrara sent an email to Commander Kevin McBride. In the email, Ferrara asserted McBride was the only person at the police department to whom he could speak in confidence. Ferrara then asked to meet with McBride to discuss stopping officers from speaking to the council during public comment.
“Last night’s show was viewed by many in the community as a negative, union-sponsored demonstration,” Ferrara wrote. “It was not even close to a public comment period. That’s not what AGPD is about and it is not what we’re about. It has to stop.”
In response to a CalCoastNews request for the email, City Clerk Kelly Wetmore initially said she had talked to McBride and that he told her he had deleted all emails he received from the mayor during the past month. Though the practice appears to violate public record laws, Arroyo Grande had adopted a city policy requiring employees to delete all emails shortly after reading them.
Nevertheless, McBride later told CalCoastNews he had not been asked by city staff about the email, which he had not deleted. Following a second request, city officials provided the email to CalCoastNews.
After volunteers in the campaign to elect Hill began placing campaign signs around the city, Ferrara and Barneich began emailing, texting, and calling police officers and Chief Steve Annibali. Officers said Barniech often called the police department more than a dozen times a day requesting officers remove “elect Jim Hill” signs, or to go to homes displaying the signs and verify the Hill campaign had permission from the home owner.
In addition, both Ferrara and Barneich claimed to have been threatened or in fear of their safety in emails to Annibali. Ferrara said he had received threatening and intimidating phone messages at his home, although he claimed he had deleted all of them.
On Oct. 18, Barneich emailed the chief asking him to mount an investigation into alleged actions of an officer after hearing third-hand information about the unnamed officer. The officer reportedly asked a friend during a casual conversation if her mother, Peggy Hoobery, had been hassled at her business because of the election.
Hoobery, owner of Burdine’s Printing, then mentioned the conversation to Barneich. Hoobery told CalCoastNews she never mentioned Barneich or any other city council person or staffer by name while talking with Barneich.
Barneich then asked for an investigation into the “incident.” In her email to the chief, Barneich surmised that the officer was speaking about her, and that the officer knew she had been to Burdine Printing.
“To have officers spreading completely false information about myself is extremely disappointing and worrisome,” Barneich wrote in the Oct. 18 email to the chief. “I also have no idea how they knew I contacted Burdines…this concerns me as well. I appreciate your prompt response in this ever growing frightening situation. I am beginning to feel very uncomfortable and unsafe in my hometown.”
On Oct. 19, Annabali emailed Barneich, explaining proper procedures for requesting a police investigation.
“If you, or any other party, have specific information regarding alleged misconduct on the part of any member of the Arroyo Grande Police Department, I urge the person to come forward with a formal complaint. That being said, please be assured I take these matters seriously and once a complaint is received, I will ensure the matter is properly investigated by either the Arroyo Grande Police Department or an outside investigator.
“Although the AGPOA may be politically active at this time, as of this writing, I have no evidence that any member of the Arroyo Grande Police Department would put your safety in jeopardy and any comments to the contrary are without merit.
“Once again, there is an absolute need to balance the public’s right to free speech and expression with the duty to maintain peace and order. I have worked diligently and successfully to preserve the impartiality of the Arroyo Grande Police Department. I ask all parties to remain calm during these turbulent times.”
Barneich, in several more emails, acknowledges she received his response. Nevertheless, Barneich tells Annibali in the emails to get in touch with her after he interviews Hoobery and her daughter.
Both Ferrara and Adams also contacted the chief, asking him to investigate the incident even though a formal complaint had not been made.
On Oct. 22, the chief sent a letter to Hoobery in which he asks her to file a complaint if she has information about police officer misconduct.
Hoobery responded in a voice message saying, “Absolutely nothing happened.”
Hoobery’s voice message to Annibali:
In addition to requesting Hill campaign signs be removed by officers, Ferrara also directed Annibali to take action against people he had spotted holding Hill signs. In an Oct. 19 email, Ferrara wrote that he saw Arroyo Grande resident Mike Byrd at the corner of Courtland and Grand streets a day earlier holding a Hill sign. Ferrara said a city ordinance regarding retail signage also applies to political signs.
“I know we make exception in our sign ordinance for fundraising efforts, however, I don’t recall extending that exception to human signage of a political nature,” Ferrara wrote. “I am requesting that our officers exercise consistent enforcement to the extent that enforcement actions are permitted within the scope of the ordinance.”
Annibali responded in an email to Ferrara explaining that political, protest and labor issue signs are permitted under freedom of speech laws.
Byrd, who worked on the Hill campaign, said Ferrara knows that people have a right to demonstrate and carry political signs.
“After a career in law enforcement Mr. Ferrara knew perfectly well that I have the right to stand on a street corner and share my political views,” Byrd said. “And after so many years on the city council he also knew that it is a violation for him to personally issue instructions to any city employee. That he would feel so entitled to simply ignore laws for his own political benefit is just one more reason why he had to go.”
City Attorney Tim Carmel initially refused to comply with several public records requests for the emails from Barniech and Ferrara to Annibali terming the exchanges privileged attorney-client communication or police investigation reports.
However, there have been no police investigations as the result of the emails, and the city attorney was not involved in the exchanges that appear to show elected officials violating the law. City council members and mayors are specifically prohibited by state and city laws from directing city employees to do their bidding. That prerogative is the city manager’s under Arroyo Grande municipal law.
Under a second records request, Carmel released the emails.
Kristen Barneich explains her reason for voting against an independent investigation into the alleged Steve Adams Teresa McClish tryst:
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