Arroyo Grande council votes for investigation into mayor
February 15, 2017
The Arroyo Grande City Council voted Tuesday to launch an independent investigation into allegations of misconduct raised by members of the public against Mayor Jim Hill. Political opponents of Hill have pushed hard in recent weeks for an investigation.
Certain public speakers, including two of Hill’s former colleagues on the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District board, have accused the Arroyo Grande mayor of violating the Ralph M. Brown Act.
The allegations pertain primarily to Hill’s service on the sanitation district board. Hill has denied the allegations, publicly refuted them and characterized them as a political attack.
On Tuesday, Hill recused himself from a council hearing on the issue. The council then voted 4-0 to allocate $15,000 for an investigation into Hill’s purported Brown Act violations. Arroyo Grande is going to try to share the cost of the investigation with the sanitation district.
Council members defended their decision to pay for an independent investigation by saying the city would be at risk of a lawsuit if it did not investigate the allegations.
The controversy surrounding Hill began on Jan. 24, when Arroyo Grande resident Patty Welsh spoke at a city council meeting. Welsh claimed that Hill shared his email password with his wife and distributed an employment contract that had yet to be approved by the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District Board.
Welsh also accused Hill of revealing information discussed during a closed session hearing. She then accused Hill of serving as puppet for other interests at the sanitation district.
“The biggest problem I have is I no longer feel that this council member is looking out for what is in the best interest of the city of Arroyo Grande or the ratepayers of the sanitation district,” Welsh said at the Jan. 24 meeting. “I am no longer sure if it is our council member setting policy on the sanitation district or someone very close to him.”
Welsh is a controversial figure who has disrupted city meetings in the past.
Welsh’s evidence that Hill shared confidential records is an email Hill sent her on April 6, 2016 with an unsigned contract for sanitation district Administrator Gerhardt Hubner. Welsh claims the contract was confidential at the time Hill sent it to her, and that his sharing of the contract is a violation of the Brown Act.
The Brown Act exempts agencies from discussing several issues in open session, such as litigation, employee reviews and real estate and labor negotiations. However, proposed management contracts and other agency business are not exempted.
On Feb. 1, Welsh repeated her allegations at a sanitation district board meeting where she handed in a copy of the April 2016 email string showing Hill shared the contract with her on April 6.
And while Welsh claims the email string is proof of wrongdoing, the unsigned contract was available to the public on April 3, when it was published in an agenda packet.
Former Oceano CSD directors and sanitation board members, Mary Lucey and Matt Guerrero, followed Welsh during public comment last month and, too, attacked Hill. Lucey called for the city council to intervene to prevent Hill from abusing his position as a sanitation district board member. Guerrero called for an investigation into Welsh’s allegations against Hill and for the mayor to possibly resign from the sanitation board.
Welsh, Lucey and Guerrero raised the allegations on the same day SLO County District Attorney Dan Down indicted former sanitation district administrator John Wallace on conflict of interest charges. For years, Lucey and Guerrero defended Wallace, while Hill fought to let the conflict of interest case against Wallace unfold.
Hill wrote in a CalCaostNews opinion piece that it was no coincidence Lucey and Guerrero raised the allegations after, earlier that day, Dow brought criminal conflict of interest charges against Wallace. Hill went on to refute Welsh’s accusations.
The Arroyo Grande mayor said he has not given anyone his password, but he routinely converses with his wife about issues. Hill also said he has spoken generally but not specifically about confidential information raised during closed session. Likewise, Hill said he has never distributed closed session documents.
The firm that may received a $15,000 contract to investigate Hill’s actions is Liebert Cassidy Whitmore. Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Liebert Cassidy Whitmore reviewed the tape of the Jan. 24 meeting and said the allegations against Hill “warrant an independent investigation.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, six members of the public addressed the council about the issue. One of the public commenters spoke in favor of an independent investigation, while the other five speakers opposed the idea. Opponents said the push to investigate Hill’s actions is a waste of money.