Insurance carrier claims hostility in Arroyo Grande
January 6, 2016
By KAREN VELIE
The California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (JPIA) is claiming that comments critical of the Arroyo Grande city manager could be deemed hostile and lead to financial risks for the city, according to a Dec. 21 letter to the Arroyo Grande City Council from the JPIA. The comments by two public officials were regarding Manager Dianne Thompson’s refusal to place extending the closure of the Brisco Road ramps on a regular meeting agenda.
The JPIA is one of the largest municipal self-insurance pools in the state, with nearly 120 participating members. It provides liability protection for its members from losses and lawsuits.
Several residents are now questioning if the JPIA’s letter was a political move to help pave the path for a run for the mayor seat by former San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Caren Ray. JPIA Assistant Executive Officer Norman Lefmann said the letter was not political on the part of the JPIA.
“Without checking the veracity of the charge, you wrote a letter to the mayor, which could be used as an issue in an upcoming election,” wrote Patrick Dempsey, a resident of Arroyo Grande, in a letter to the JPIA. “The fact that it is unfounded, and that you took no action to investigate the charge, could be considered as an attempt to interfere in an election.”
For the past year, since former mayor Tony Ferrara lost the election, City Council meetings have been contentious with former constituents of Ferrara and Ray at odds with Mayor Jim Hill. Thompson spends about 8 percent of her work week meeting with council members Jim Guthrie and Kristen Barneich while regularly canceling meetings with Hill, according to Thompson’s calendar.
In December, Thompson refused to allow Hill to put an extension of the Brisco Road closure on the agenda before the permit was set to expire in January. An action that could have cost the taxpayers about $100,000 to open and then close the ramps.
Hill responded by calling a special meeting and the council voted unanimously to keep the ramps closed until they determine which of several options to move forward on.
On Dec. 15, Councilman Tim Brown questioned Thompson’s lack of an open door policy on Dave Congalton’s KVEC radio show.
During the special meeting on Dec. 17, Hill said he called for a special meeting at a cost to residents because he couldn’t get the item placed on a regular meeting agenda.
On Dec. 21, the JPIA sent a letter to the City Council saying the city’s insurance carrier can help “return members to good governance” through implementation of an action plan.
“We have recently learned of and observed derogatory comments made by council members towards the city manager and members of staff,” Lefmann said in the letter. “Our concern is such comments made in a public setting could lead to allegations of harassment and a hostile workplace at your city. We consider these practices, if continued, to be serious in nature and inconsistent with good governance.”
Lefmann was not aware of who brought the issue to a local JPIA representative who then brought his concerns to Lefmann. Lefmann said the concerns were based both on comments made on the radio and at the council meeting. Lefmann is seeking a meeting with city officials to discuss putting together a team building workshop.
Hill said his comments were appropriate for a council meeting.
“My comments in that forum were absolutely appropriate,” Hill said. “They were not intended to be and in fact were not derogatory toward anyone. I think people have a right to know why they have to pay for special meetings and endure the attendant inconvenience when a regular meeting could have addressed the issue in a more timely fashion.”
When asked what comments were deemed hostile, Lefmann said he could not comment until he has a chance to meet with city staff and officials to look into the allegations.
“We need to look at what is going on,” Lefmann said. “We do not want to overstep our bounds.”
Congalton also challenges the JPIA’s evaluation of his show.
“I recall my interview with Councilmember Brown as being an open and candid discussion about the issues facing the city of Arroyo Grande,” Congalton said. “I am not aware of any statement made by either one of us that might be misconstrued as harassment of the city manager. It is the right of the media to engage in conversation about public officials and certainly any city hall employee is welcome on my show to provide a different point of view.”