South County billing dispute erupts with allegation of racism
July 17, 2015
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
Amid a discussion on a multi-month billing dispute that is pitting South County cities Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach against the Oceano Community Services District, an elected official stormed out of a board meeting, alleging she was the target of a racial slur.
In June, the Oceano CSD, led by General Manager Paavo Ogren, demanded the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation district sign a contract pertaining to billing services. The OCSD has since threatened to stop acting as a bill collector for the sanitation district if the South County agency does not agree to pay approximately $22,000 a year to Oceano.
The cities of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach also provide billing services for the sanitation district. Both cities bill many more sewage customers than Oceano, yet they charge less in totality than what the OCSD is demanding.
The sanitation district board, which is comprised of a representative each from Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano, twice rejected the contract Ogren proposed. Yet, sanitation District Manager Rick Sweet placed Ogren’s proposal back on the agenda for Wednesday’s board meeting.
At the meeting, Jeff Edwards, a frequent critic of the OCSD, spoke during public comment and criticized Sweet for siding with Oceano in the billing dispute.
“This is another example of your general manager going off the reservation,” Edwards said at the beginning of his public comment.
OCSD board member Mary Lucey, who was serving on the sanitation board Wednesday, then cut off Edwards. Lucey left the dais saying Edwards had made a racial, slanderous remark towards her even though the comment was clearly directed towards Sweet.
Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals, who was chairing the meeting, then called for a five minute break. When the board reconvened, Shoals let Lucey speak.
“Racism comes in many, many different ways, and I’m Blackfoot Indian, and I was born in Montana, and I was born on a reservation, and my grandmother was raised in an orphanage. So when someone says to me you’ve wandered off the reservation, it is the most bigoted comment you can make to a Native American, and it’s insulting, and what’s really insulting is when you do it in front of a room full of adults, and they allow that type of bigotry to continue. So, Mr. Ewards, you’re a bigot,” Lucey said.
When Lucey finished her remarks, Shoals said he was surprised by her comments. He also said the sanitation board might need to call in the League of Women to help with civil discourse.
Shoals then allowed Edwards to continue his public comment.
Edwards did not respond to Lucey’s remarks. He said Sweet was acting against the will of the board by continuing to push for the agreement with Oceano.
“Who is Mr. Sweet working for,?” Edwards said. “Is he working for this district. Or is he working for Paavo Ogren at the OCSD?”
Edwards also alleged that Oceano’s representatives on the sanitation district board have been pushing for the billing agreement because the OCSD is strapped for cash.
“Oceano needs the money. That’s why they keep begging for it. They have to pay Paavo,” Edwards said.
Oceano pays Ogren a base salary of approximately $200,000.
Lucey later responded by saying Oceano is not begging the sanitation district for anything. Lucey said the sanitation district stands to lose $84,000, the revenue from a two-month billing cycle, by not signing the agreement with the OCSD.
On Wednesday, Lucey filled in for Oceano’s representative on the sanitation board, Matt Guerrero. Both Guerrero and Lucey have argued for the contract with the OCSD, while representatives of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach have opposed it.
Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill was also absent from Wednesday’s sanitation board meeting. Hill has criticized Ogren’s payment demands, calling them outrageous.
Hill’s absence could have swayed the vote Wednesday. But, Arroyo Grande Councilman Tim Brown, who filled in for Hill, would not support the agreement with Oceano, either.
“I don’t believe it’s correct to basically be told by one jurisdiction it’s our way or the highway,” Brown said.
Brown called for the sanitation district to hold off signing an agreement for one month. Shoals agreed, saying Ogren should reconsider his demands.
The board voted 2-1 against signing the contract. The board directed sanitation district staff to attempt to construct a deal on billing rates with all three of its member agencies.
The sanitation district is also considering asking the county to serve as its bill collector.