Costly disputes plunge sanitation district into the red

March 23, 2017

Sanitation district board members Jim Hill, John Shoals and Linda Austin

By JOSH FRIEDMAN

Claims of juvenile behaviors are mounting at the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District, with at least five investigations launched over the past year. The ongoing squabbles have become increasingly costly to rate payers.

Over the last 14 months, the sanitation district has launched investigations into alleged acts of racism and code of conduct violations by the district administrator, alleged threats made by the sewage plant chief operator and an alleged Brown Act violation by a board member.

In addition, earlier this month, plant administrator Gerhardt Hubner placed plant superintendent John Clemons and district secretary/bookkeeper Amy Simpson on paid administrative leave. Hubner has not publicly disclosed why he placed Clemons and Simpson on leave.

Nevertheless, in early February, Clemons filed a grievance against Hubner alleging the administrator’s behavior violated the sanitation district’s code of conduct rules. An investigation into the allegation is ongoing.

Clemons is a grade four wastewater plant operator. He took over as chief plant operator in May 2013. Less than a year later, the plant was operating cleaner at less than 50 percent the cost, according to district financial reports.

Clemons is currently being replaced by Shannon Sweeney, a grade five wastewater plant operator who has worked for the district in the past. But unfortunately, Sweeney is now permanently confined to a wheelchair, making it impossible for her to meet the supervisor job requirements, according to the sanitation district’s policies and procedures manual.

The sanitation district provides sewer services to about 38,000 customers in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and the unincorporated town of Oceano. Its three member board includes a representative from each of its member agencies.

During the current fiscal year, the district has spent about $50,000 on investigations into staff and board members. The majority of the investigations have been launched without board approval.

Arroyo Grande mayor and sanitation district board member Jim Hill said that of the five investigations launched in the past year, only two had come before the board.

With several investigations ongoing, the sanitation district has increased spending to cover additional legal counsels, a contract human resources company, a contract human resources law firm and a mediator. There are just nine full-time employees at the district.

Last April, the district board hired Gerhardt Hubner to be the agency’s full-time administrator at a salary of $12,500 a month, more than three times what the former district administrator was paid.

In the first quarter of the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the cost of running the district skyrocketed from approximately $625,000 a quarter to $1.3 million a quarter. District expenditures exceeded district revenues by $300,000.

The district has continued to operate in the red over the first seven months of the current fiscal year. As of Jan. 31, total expenses for the fiscal year were $2,730,447, and total revenue was $2,343,930, according to a district staff report.

Last year, two employees filed grievances against the district and another one made a verbal complaint of discrimination. In each case, the district board went into lengthy closed sessions and then backed Hubner.

In January, the wife of former board member Mary Lucey yelled at Clemons outside a board meeting, saying she would not pay to wash his dirty underwear. The comment referenced Clemons’ decision to purchase a $666 washing machine for plant workers’ undergarments that get splashed with sewage.

An argument ensued, and following the meeting, Lucey and her wife contacted the SLO County Sheriff’s Office and filed a report claiming Clemons had threatened Lucey’s spouse. Though the sheriff’s office examined the allegation and opted to take no action, Shoals, on behalf of the sanitation district, contracted with an outside agency to conduct an investigation.

On March 1, the sanitation district board voted 2-0 to join an investigation launched by the city of Arroyo Grande into an alleged Brown Act violation by Hill. Earlier this year, an Arroyo Grande resident claimed Hill violated the Brown Act by distributing an employment contract that had yet to be approved by the sanitation district board.

Simpson, who remains on administrative leave from her district secretary position, has since defended Hill, saying he did not violate the Brown Act.

“I take complete responsibility for not resending the board the new version of the board pack with the redacted contract,” Simpson wrote in a letter to the city of Arroyo Grande. “The reason for this statement is to clear Mayor Jim Hill of any Brown Act violation regarding the sharing of Mr. Hubner’s un-redacted contract. This contract was part of an agenda and not a closed session item. I believe this is a personnel matter and not a Brown Act violation.”

Nevertheless, the joint Arroyo Grande-sanitation district probe into Hill is ongoing.

The flurry of investigations has come in the aftermath of the sanitation board forwarding a case against former district administrator John Wallace to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office. After a 10 month investigation, prosecutors filed criminal conflict of interest charges against Wallace, who allegedly funneled money from the sanitation district to his private engineering company.


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Jorge Estrada

The dispute will end when the rate payer’s money does.


pensatore

What do you expect? Gerhardt Hubner worked with Roger Briggs and Mike Thomas at the Regional Water Quality Control Board.


c.d.cox

Once again the Creme Of The Crap rises to the top.


Julie

As many of you know, I am always interested in the new manager/administrator’s resume. It took Gerhardt Hubner four months to turn his over to me, repeatedly suggesting it was not public record and had “personal information” in it. He only gave to me (during a dramatic presentation on camera at a board meeting) because the founding attorney for CalAware, Terry Franke, also asked for it. The “personal information” was his physical address in Ventura- where he and his family still live. (An address easily accessible on the Internet/Worldwide Web).


Currently Hubner is denying me the right to look at how much money he’s been paid since he began work at the South San Dist. Public officials income is completely and totally and public record…in fact, I was able to access his payroll date from Jan. 1, 2015 thru the end of his employ at the County of Ventura (April 9, 2016), wherein Hubner made exactly $224,232.79. This included his holidays, flex credit, vacation pay and his stipend from his Bachelor’s Degree MGMT pay, an “additional pay” (incentive) for management employees who have a qualified Bachelor Degree (or equivalent License or Certificate). It is paid at a rate of 3.5% of base pay. (I guess his license as a geologist qualifies him for that little perk).


Once I thoroughly read his resume, and a bit of Googling, I was surprised to notice that he had absolutely NO wastewater experience — except perhaps during his tenure as a custodian at Disneyland. His regulatory experience is well known. He was a “hero” in the Avila oil clean up and a “bully” in the Los Osos sewer matter.


I also noticed, I have no opinion on this, but it took him about 10 years to get through college, getting his Bachelor’s Degree — Field Of Study Geological Science — with an emphasis in Engineering Geology. Then it took another 10 years to actually get his geology license — the state website sates he originally got it in Y2K. What a geologist can do in a wastewater setting is still a mystery to me.


The real question is where is the board now? They wanted a full time administrator to do “project management” of the Redundancy Project and others, but so far this guy has out$ourced about everything one could. Hubner was hired in April 2016, he almost immediately hired Liebert Cassidy Whitmore in June (retroactive to May) and LCW has been on the dole ever since. WTHeck? Now look at all these personnel matters, did he have some prediction? Or did he make them?


Right now the district is paying all these HR consultants and attorneys AND keeping Clemons and Simpson on paid leave, hiring others to fill their positions, the money from this district is running out as swiftly as it would through a hole in a dyke. This boy can’t fix it when he’s the problem.


There is clearly something wrong at SSLOCSD. The citizens served by this district need to wake up and demand transparency and that the district “get out of the litigation business.”


pensatore

Look into his history with the regional water quality control board with mike thomas and roger briggs.


Julie

pensatore,

I have lived that history. The Los Osos sewer debacle was enough for me.


Snoid

Round two of stupidity brought to us by incompetent leaders. In both cases you had a perfectly able staff who could everything from construction work, operations, trouble shooting to environmental reports to detailed and lengthy state required reports. Greed, fear and arrogance eliminated them from the District. Now you have, or had, another fully capable staff who saved the tax payers millions, turned the plant around and did what needed to be done to regain integrity. Hire arrogance once again (Hubner) and round two kicks in. Hubner has no intent to remain as the Administrator, he does not live in the area and will jump ship with 100% live time medical for his family once his time is up. Show us what you have done to better things Hubner, let us see it better numbers and saved expenses.

With regard to washing somebody’s underwear, listen up former wanna be politician. Rule #1 in sewage industry is do not take sewage soiled clothing or shoes home, especially if you have children. The uniform companies service pants and shirts, they do not service jackets, socks, undergarments, safety vests or any other items one might wear. If you dont think clothing gets soaked with raw sewage, it again shows your ignorance of the work necessary to maintain a facility or run it. This Circle jerk need to stop, this is nothing more than a power grab and has nothing to do with public service or doing whats best for the tax payers.


RonHolt

While the financial figures in this story ignore some complexities, the situation is still very troubling and does not look to get any better in the near future. You do not need to use biased reporting to make a case here.


Julie

The numbers do look bad. The fact that paying the $1.1 fine was budgeted for and the district to go this far over budget is despicable.


jimmy_me

What brings out the best in SLO county power brokers? Water and sewage.


Frederick1337

??? Is it that difficult to run a district that people are fighting like little children. Perhaps the big bad collegiate skipped kindergarten and do not know about respecting other people and also never learned how to be nice to each other. Lmfao. These people are rediculous. If I were to get into a fight at work, I would get fired. No questions. F-i-r-e-d.