SLO police chief travels on the family plan

January 21, 2015


San Luis Obispo Police Chief Steve Gesell attended 13 conferences during 2014. Expense records show that some of the conferences turned into family trips and the city footed the bill.

A two-month investigation by CalCoastNews has uncovered multiple violations of city policy and what appears to be abuses of taxpayer money.

In one instance, Gesell took his wife and daughter to a convention in Orlando, disguised that fact on his travel and meal reimbursement requests, and was repaid with city taxpayer funds. City policy does not permit city employees to charge taxpayers for a spouse’s travel and meals.

Gesell, who recently started his third year as the city’s top cop, has not responded to requests for comment. As the CalCoastNews investigation began to wrap up, rumors began about whether Gesell was still in his $157,508 position. SLO Police Lt. Bill Proll said Tuesday he has been instructed not to answer CalCoastNews reporters’ questions, and was not permitted to say if Gesell was still the city’s police chief.

Steve Gesell

Steve Gesell

City Manager Katie Lichtig said late Tuesday, “There is no change in his employment status.”

A public records probe into Gesell’s travel expenses during last calendar year revealed multiple apparent violations of city policy and misuse of public funds. Gesell, like other department heads, approves his own expenses; the city’s financial expense policy does not include oversight of these individuals. The Finance Department’s Barbara Hage processes reimbursement payments, but she does not review the claims, according to City Clerk Anthony Mejia.

In September, the city agreed to reimburse Gesell for the cost of attending the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Conference in Orlando the following month. In his request, Gesell said attending the training would help him to “better plan for issues facing law enforcement and facilitate the implementation of the department’s strategic plan.”

U.S Airways confirmed Gesell purchased a “special” where one higher-priced, base-rate ticket would allow two others to fly for $46 each, plus tax.

The city’s Financial Management Manual specifies “air travel on city business should be coach class.”

Gesell also demonstrated a taste for upscale hotel accommodations. Of 19 hotels offering special rates to chiefs attending the IACP convention, Gesell chose one of the most expensive, the Rosen Center Hotel.

The event’s host provided a list of discount room rates from $75 to $205. Gesell elected to spend $225 to stay in a VIP room, his own receipt shows.

But city rules call for officials to stay in less expensive lodging.

“In general, you should stay at the most reasonably priced accommodations available consistent with the purpose and goals of your travel,” city policy says.

Travel during the event was provided at no charge by event sponsors. Nevertheless, Gesell’s wife rented a car in Orlando. The city then reimbursed the chief over $400 for the rental car and parking.

City policy also limits reimbursable meal purchases to city employees only. The city authorizes $10 for breakfast, $15 for lunch and $35 for dinner. Gesell regularly requested amounts exceeding the per diem limit, and the city reimbursed him for two to three entrees in a single meal.

The city Financial Management Manual requires employees to eat in moderately priced restaurants when planning to charge the city for their meal.

Gesell got the city to pay $39 for an Oct 26 lunch at Mei Asian Chinese Buffet. The lunch buffet at Mei Asian Chinese Buffet costs $8.50 per adult. The reimbursement paperwork appears to show that the bill was charged on one of the Gesell’s personal credit cards at 2:19 p.m.

The conference was in progress when the chief’s lunch bill was being paid. The city paid $3,322 for Gesell to attend the conference.

As an additional perk, the conference included an evening at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park for the chiefs and their families.

“We’ve reserved the entire Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park just for you!,” the conference website says. “All night long, you’ll have unlimited access to incredible rides and attractions like the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Jurassic Park River Adventure, and the magic and excitement of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter- Hogsmeade. It’s an entire universe of action and thrills—and it’s all yours!”

Though required to provide itemized receipts, Gesell often substitutes his personal and city credit card slips. In some cases, the chief claimed to have lost records, providing no receipts while asking for reimbursement.

Though the Orlando event lasted only four days, Gesell spent eight days in Florida.

On Oct. 29, the day after the event ended, Gesell and his family drove to the Everglades, a three hour drive from Orlando. In the evening, Gesell purchased two meals at Quinn’s on the Beach for $58.83, and then billed taxpayers, city records show.

Gesell attended another training event in February, this time sponsored by the California Police Chiefs’ Association. Gesell and SLO Police Capt. Chris Staley split expenses paid for with city credit cards.

Although the conference had an association board meeting on Sunday, Oct. 23, and did not officially begin until Monday, Gesell checked into the Monterey Portola Inn and Spa the Friday before.

Gesell charged the city $46.34 for breakfast on Sunday, Oct. 23. During his stay at the hotel and spa, Gesell regularly exceeded the permitted per diem rate with purchases that included items from the children’s menu.

Staley did not arrive until Oct.21, gas purchase records from an Atascadero service station show.

Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson, told about the apparent problems with Gesell’s travel reimbursements, declined to look into the matter. She told CalCoastNews that she “has a full time job” and has “no interest” in reviewing Gesell’s records and violations of policy.

“Each employee is responsible for following these practices,” city policy says. “Violation of this policy may result in disciplinary action, termination of employment or criminal prosecution.”

Gesell and San Luis Obispo City Manager Katie Lichtig did not return requests for comment before this article posted.

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Giselle reimbursement requests by karen velie


I was the Admin Sergeant when Jim Gardiner was Chief. I processed his travel paper work and caused his per deim checks to be issued in the same manner as with everyone else. He insisted that he only receive the same amounts as other City employees per City Policy. When he retuened, he turned his receipts and expense reports in to me, again, just as with our other employees. That was what leaders do.


I feel the need to clarify something I repeatedly continue to hear the public say, and that is the desire to clump ALL government employees together. That is completely unfair.

The abuse of power you see is NOT from your average worker/employee, who does NOT get six figure pensions, huge annual raises, six figure salaries, or abuse their “power”. What you see here is the “white collar executive” yet again abusing their ability to rubber stamp their own paperwork and abuse that trust they have been given.

There are rules when travelling. Usually there are limits an employee can spend on breakfast, lunch, dinner, hotels, flights, as this article specifies. Rank and file employees are usually required to keep receipts. If a spouse is going to accompany an employee on a business trip (so they can sightsee afterwork and perhaps continue a trip that ends on a Friday), NEVER would a rank and file employee expect the employer to pay ANY expense of their spouse. The spouse cannot ride in a company car if one was taken for trip. If the spouse is to use a rental, the FAMILY pays. This is common sense, and the “rank and file” employee on the Central Coast does not make $157k a year. More like $65k.

At the very least, the Police Chief should have to repay those funds. If this is habitual, perhaps suspension Without pay should be an option while the policies are verified. If he violated policy, does SLO city REALLY want a Police Chief that cannot follow rules? What example does that set???


Thank you for making my earlier point in a much more concise, salient manner. I agree with everything you wrote. Not only is the situation that not ALL government employees abusing their positions or authority, but the actual percentage of those who do so is very small, and as you have pointed out, it is usually done by those in a management or supervisory position.


Exactly Centralcoast RN and Bob!


Cheating, lying and stealing, but it doesn’t count because it is only the Police Chief stealing taxpayer dollars. Of course, if a taxpayer stole something from the Chief, now that would be a criminal act.


This is a perfect example of government and government employees never getting enough. Chief Gessell makes $128,000 annual salary ($62.00 per hour) and yet scams the Citzens of San Luis Obispo to provide a first class vacation for his family. Everyone knows when you travel to these conferences FREE breakfast and lunch are part of the agenda and at least one banquet dinner is provided if you are in attendance and not taking a tea cup ride at Daisy World. A four day conference turns into an eight day vacation at the expense of our citizens who fight and struggle o keep their businesses a float, pay their taxes and continue to get regulated and obstructed for the likes of these government a$$ho$@s. He should have a full and complete audit for his three years with the City and then fire him. What a jerk!

And, since Katie Licktig is the City Manager and condones this illegal behavior from her home in Mailbu as she and Jan Marx sit sipping wine I would suggest she be audited and fired as well.

How is that sales tax increase working for the taxpayers…


I forgot to mention that in addition to the $128,000 salary, the City pays his retirement benefits, medical-vision-dental insurance, vacation time-off, sick leave, 13 holidays, and a matching 403/457 retirement fund.

The culture at the City of San Luis Obispo is without doubt one of corruption and greed!


His compensation for 2013 is listed on the state controller’s site as $163,563 not including benefits.


That possibly includes the value of the insurance, pension and time off. The City Salary Schedule says $128,000. ???


I have only thing to say. And that is to the commentator that accused Gesell of being a “cheap tipper”. Looks like 12% to me. This raising of the tip from 10 to 12,to 15, then 18, then 20, then 25% is B.S. A tip is like a tax. As prices go up the damn tip goes up! And you are now expected to tip no matter how crappy the service. Thank you for listening.


Fret not! I, too, noticed the tipping… didn’t think it was cheap, per se. Not generous, but definitely not cheap. Your point on tip as a percentage is spot on, too. Perhaps I’m being miserly, but a friend once told me, “my tip to them is I’m bringing them my business!” (we differed on tipping).


Don’t get me started. Years ago my parents called and offered up dinner at a high end place in SLO with my aunt and uncle (all wonderful people) after the Morro Bay birdwatching whatever on a Sunday. I met them there and the little snot-weasel waiter immediately copped an attitude as they didn’t not order alcohol and were casually dressed. I was going to follow him down the hall and pin him against the wall but thought better of it. Plenty was spent on food but the little s**t remained rude. At the end I saw my Dad putting 15% on the bill and told him he should should tip nothing and double the tip the next time he went out and got GOOD service.. Nope, 15% no matter what. O.K., it was Cafe Roma.


tip my taxes!

slo Fact Finder

I really wonder if other San Luis Obispo City senior staff members are doing the same alleged illegal acts as the current police chief ? If the current city manager is allowing self verification of all department expense records, including travel related expenses, then she may also being following the same slippery slope of violating the public trust, existing laws as well as adopted city policies which provide for proper fiscal oversight………………………..

Usually when theirs smoke, theirs fire and in this case signatures on charge card invoices that can easily be traced by anyone from the public (including reporters interested in an important story) in our new electronic age of fiscal transparency and “accountability” !!!!!


There’s = There is

Theirs = not mine.

You’re probably right about the smoke and fire, as corruption is often institutional.


What is most important is, that this is happening all over California, and throughout the country. It’s time to put a stop to this waste, fraud, and abuse!


Pelican says “waste, fraud, and abuse”.

I nominate such Pelican Wisdom as the new motto for the Irons troika of the Morro Bay City Council. Just capitalize the first letter of each word and emblazon it onto the city seal.

Tomfoolery and catastrophic blunders is just too wordy for the seal.


Department Supervisors approve their own travel expense reports? That’s what I call oversight.

Issuing city credit cards makes this kind of abuse too easy and convenient. The old system of paying the bills personally and issuing receipts for reimbursement may still be the best way.