Arroyo Grande mayor accused of threatening staffer, opponent

August 9, 2020

Mayor Caren Ray Russom


A former city manager and a resident considering a run for mayor both recently accused Arroyo Grande Mayor Caren Ray Russom of intimidation and making threats.

Shortly before former Arroyo Grande Manager James Bergman resigned on April 30, he accused Ray Russom of making threats and intimidation. The exact cause of the disruption will likely never become public because Ray Russom deleted her text messages after activist Julie Tacker requested copies under the Public Records Act.

In response to Tacker’s request for emails and text messages between Ray Russom and Bergman, instead of making copies of the text messages, Ray Russom transcribed the messages and then deleted them.

In addition, the mayor claims she is unable to recover the messages because her cell provider deletes all text messages 90 days after they are sent.

Ray Russom provided the following April 24 exchange to Tacker in a Word document:

Ray Russom: “Can you please give me a call soon. We need to have a difficult discussion.”

Bergman: “I need a couple of minutes.”

Bergman: “I seriously don’t have it in me to have another difficult conversation if it’s about us. I am a wreck right now.”

Ray Russom: “Well after a three hour lashing yesterday, I am too.”

Bergman: “And I played into that.”

Ray Russom: “No and yes. That’s why we need to talk.”

Bergman: “I can’t do it right now. That’s 100 percent honest.”

Ray Russom: “I am available after 2:30.”

Bergman sent a screenshot of their exchange that Ray Russom noted in her Word document, but did not provide.

Ray Russom: “Cleraly [sic] you meant to send that to someone else. That is quite disappointing.”

Bergman: “I will not be threatened or intimidated ever again. That is the boundary. I work for all five of you if you have an issue call a closed session.”

Ray Russom: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I need to talk about something directly with you and I’m requesting a call when you have time. What threat are you perceiving?”

Ray Russom: “And why are you forwarding our text exchange, and to whom?”

Bergman: “I was getting advice from a friend.”

Ray Russom: “Well. This definitely went south fast. I will refrain from text gong [sic] forward.”

After learning Ray Russom deleted the text messages, Tacker filed a complaint with the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit.

“There has got to be more damning information in those texts, I would bet an $18 shot of whiskey that there’s been omissions,” Tacker said referring to a drink the mayor charged on a city credit card last fall.  “The mayor knows the law and has to know that creating a new record does not suffice for the original.”

After learning Arroyo Grande resident Lea Rigo was planning to run against her,  Ray Russom sent a Facebook message that Rigo took as a threat. Rigo then dropped her plan to run for mayor.

Ray Russom’s Aug. 6 Facebook message to Rigo:

“Dear Lea

“I know it is quite unusual for a candidate to contact another candidate during the filing period, but this is too important not to discuss. You and I have corresponded before in a very friendly and constructive way, so I come to you in that spirit right now.

“Let me start by saying I respect how much you care about the dunes, and that you want to do everything in your power to help get the park back open and protect it. I would not ever pretend that I have the same views as you, but I do want you to know that I not only support them reopening, but I had my letter read by the Chamber of Commerce president at the Coastal Commission against closing the park.  We are not enemies.

“I know from your online posts that you find me at least partially at fault for putting Council Member Paulding on APCD. That is not a meeting I can attend because I work full time, but I get that’s not your concern. You want the seat. It’s important for you to know that if you win, the seat is not automatically yours, nor was it mine.

“But here is the really important part. IF you were to win for mayor, and IF the council voted to put you on APCD, you would have to step down and leave the room for any vote on the dunes because your business is financially tied to it. We are not allowed to vote on issues we could financially benefit from.

“This is straight-up California state law. So the one reason you are wanting to run is to get on APCD and make a difference, and you absolutely cannot do that. It is not likely the council would vote to put you there if you couldn’t fully participate, which you cannot, due to Freedom Ropes.

“I know I have a vested interest in talking you out of running, so I understand you may not trust me here. But as Mayor, I absolutely have to say this next part, on behalf of the taxpayers.

“Right now, no one else has filed for mayor or council seats. You would be the only challenger. If you do not run, we will be able to cancel the election, and that would save the taxpayers approximately $28,000.  (You can ask the City Clerk, Kelly Wetmore to verify this). If you qualify tomorrow, there is no backing out, and we spend that during this very difficult Covid 19 time where we are all hurting. That decision to spend $28,000 of taxpayer money is entirely yours.

“Lea, I honestly respect your willingness to step up to the plate and do something. Most people don’t have the guts to do that. I really want you to know that says a lot about you in a good way. But there are more effective things you can do in order to support the dunes, and running for mayor simply won’t get you there. You won’t even be able to do it. So you’ll go through all the ugliness of the election, put your kids and husband through that, air out all your dirty laundry for everyone to see and attach to your business, and all so you can’t vote on APCD if you even get there. Mother to mother, wife to wife, I just can’t sit back and not say anything to you as you make your final decision.

“Again, it’s totally unusual for us to talk during the filing period, but I think this $28,000 gamble with taxpayer money for a seat on APCD that you cannot have is just not responsible, and won’t get you the outcome you want. It will put you and your family out into the ugly world of politics, which I assure you is nasty beyond your wildest dreams. Believe me, I’ve lived it for a long time.

“Please feel free to call me tonight if you’d like to talk more as you make your decision. It is my sincere hope that you’ll reconsider, on behalf of the taxpayers and to make you the most effective activist you can be, but in a different way. My number is 805-234-1270.

“Best wishes, Caren Ray Russom.”

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If Lea thinks Caren Ray’s missive was a threat or harassment in some way, she clearly was never on the receiving end of one of Adam Hill’s scathing hateful emails! Adam was one of Karen’s political mentors though . . .

So I continue to be confused. The city manager says he will no longer be intimidated in text string. The mayor says she will no longer be using text to communicate since he was making some unspecific accusation. Then shortly after that he quits. Can’t the Bergman texts be requested through freedom of information since he was an employee at the time? That seems to be the easiest way to remove the innuendo and show facts. I remember FB postings on Facebook from Bergman being supportive of the mayor and council and then offering to help people run against them. If there was actual claims of intimidation or threats why didn’t he make a claim against the city. He walked away from a lot of money.

Sounds like Bergman may be a bit unstable. There is surely more to the story.

It is absurd to believe the mayor is going to do her job in a more ethical manner, or with more of a moral compass than she uses to guide her personal life.

We are talking about a woman who (until she scrubbed the crap off the internet) had some pretty raunchy sh*t posted and considered it “normal adult behavior” or some such nonsense.

After wasting nearly $100k on a sham investigation of the sitting mayor she’s adopted a penny pinching attitude when it comes to spending funds on an election?

This woman has got some nerve.

The City of Arroyo Grande has a history of mistreating people. Check out all the litigation against the City since the 1990’s and note how much money they have paid to plaintiffs.

Ray Russom is the disingenuous one here. “Save taxpayer’s money . . . . ” Since when does she REALLY care about saving taxpayer’s money when she votes herself a raise and thought she could get away with charging the city $18 for one shot of whiskey? Since when does she really care about saving taxpayer’s money when she and the rest of the council members vote to nuke a neighborhood by cutting down ALL the trees (58) that provide sustenance to wildlife and the people in the community instead of taking down the ones that might need to come down (12). The City of Arroyo Grande is embarking on a program to eliminate entire tree lined streets in the name of safety (buckling sidewalks) instead of localized targeting of the problem areas. An entire ecosystem will be systematically wiped out and the neighborhood charm and character lost for a generation.

She says ‘we’re all hurting . . . ‘ yet she completely ignores the quintessential value of trees and their place in the community. That is callous.

I also recall at the city council meeting when raises were discussed, when Mayor Russom saw she was not going to get her raise until 2022 her big concern was to increase the raise even more to cover the extra years.

With all that’s going on, you need to just make stuff up too. It really only hurts the cause.

Wow! 58 trees. Where the heck is that? I thought Barnich was the tree lady.

She only is when the city is spending money on more trees and she is get a new plaque and her picture taken

Sounds eerily like a similar situation that occurred in Morro Bay and number of years ago with then Mayor Jamie Irons, trying to bully staff into doing his wishes. This is exactly how you lose good employees

Jamie Irons. Caren Ray Russom.

Birds of a Feather.

Of course it’s well known that the city manager was not really killing it on his end. I know lots of people who felt he was a nice guy who was way over his head. Ask anyone at the county, they were happy to see AG take their problem

Dude, let your wife fight her own battles.

Ray is a proud graduate of the Adam Hill School of Local Politics. And her husband works for a company that provides no useful services other than political connectivity.

So let’s get this straight – ray Russom provides transcripts and Bergman provided screen shots, are there discrepancies? None were noted just innuendo. Reading this it sure sounds like stuff is left out of the transcription of Bergmans stuff more than anything. How about we see the screen shots instead of doing the same thing Julie Taker accuses Ray Russom of doing. This all smells a lot like another Julie Taker – I hate Caren attack with no substance.

Ray Russom’s transcript cannot be verified against her own screenshots.

It sounded like Bergman provides screen shots. Perhaps I misread.

Jim Hill for Mayor