SLO County administrator touched women first week on the job

December 10, 2023

John Nilon


Two San Luis Obispo County employees lodged complaints of inappropriate touching against John Nilon four days after he began working as interim administrative officer, according to county documents that detail the alleged misconduct.

More than six months later, on Nov. 17, the SLO County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to fire the controversial administrator. A recent complaint from a woman affiliated with Cal Poly spurred the decision to terminate Nilon.

Nilon, whose first day was May 1, was appointed on a 3-2 vote, with supervisors Debbie Arnold and John Peschong opposed. Arnold felt the county had not properly vetted Nilon, while Peschong felt his salary was too high.

History based on notes of the investigation, interviews, emails and texts:

2018 – An unidentified woman involved in the California State University system reported that Nilon had touched her arm in a manner that made her uncomfortable and then sent her inappropriate text messages. A resolution was then reached in which Nilon apologized. Nilon was a member of the CSU Board of Trustees from 2016 through 2018.

May 2, 2023 – A female employee said that Nilon grabbed a pen out of her hand while saying, “I need that.”

May 3 – During a meeting, Nilon explained the direction he was headed in and said, “If folks aren’t on board then they can self-direct themselves to Santa Barbara County.”

May 4 – Two women working in the SLO County Administrative Office complained to their supervisor that Nilon had touched their backs and behaved in a manner that made them feel uncomfortable.

The supervisor informed then-Assistant County Administrative Officer Rebecca Campbell that two employees lodged complaints about Nilon’s uncomfortable touching. Campbell shared the information with an unnamed county employee, likely either the head of the Human Resources Department or the County Counsel’s Office.

May 5 – Nilon called Campbell by a nickname she does not use, and she told him it was inappropriate and to not do again. Campbell informed Nilon that employees had lodged complaints over unwanted touching. Nilon wanted to know who complained, but Campbell said she could not say.

In an email to the unnamed high-level employee, Campbell described how Nilon allegedly touched an employee’s back, and then bent down into her personal space to discuss what they were having to eat. He allegedly came back later, again touched her back and bent down into her personal space.

May 6 – “For the record, I spoke to John Nilon about the issue I spoke to you last night regarding the two employees feeling uncomfortable and with him touching their backs,” according to an email Campbell sent the unnamed high-level employee.

May 9 – Nilon continued to refer to some employees as “young lady.” He also said, “There she isss,” when certain females entered the room.

May 16 – Nilon called a woman by a nickname in a hallway. Campbell then shook her head no at him.

Over the next three months, Nilon primarily changed his behavior, though on several occasions he called women by nicknames, such as Becky instead of Rebecca.

Aug, 21 – Nilon sent an affiliate of Cal Poly an email saying, “So thoughtful and kind of you to provide such a lovely bag of goodies and sweet note! You are keenly aware of my sweet spot…I’ll have to keep my eye out to discover yours…Again, big thank you.”

He later texted the same woman, “I keep reflecting on an outstanding visit. The immediate connection was remarkable. Also, I plan on submitting an employment application but want to be solely compensated with beef snack sticks!”

Aug. 28 through Aug 29, in a text message thread that started at 9:03 p.m. on Aug. 28 and ended at 7:57 a.m. on Aug. 29. Nilon asked the unnamed recipient to send him a selfie.

Unknown date – Based on a complaint from the Cal Poly affiliate, the county opened an investigation.

Nov. 14 – SLO County Counsel Rita Neal sent an email to Nilon explaining that both she and Human Resources Director Tami Douglas-Schatz wanted to discuss complaints received and look at next steps.

“I would like to see the complaint in advance, redacted of course,” Nilon responded in an email.

“There are no written complaints,” Neal replied.

Nilon then asked Neal to transcribe the complaints. Neal told Nilon he was not entitled to the information and that they planed to hold a special Board Of Supervisors meeting to discuss possible discipline or termination.

Nov. 15 – Nilon submitted a letter of resignation per his contract, which required him to work an additional 30 days after resigning.

Neal emails Nilon asking him to send a draft letter of his resignation. She noted that the entire board would need to consider letting him continue working.

“The entire board will need to consider if they want the contract to continue for the next 30 days. As such, we will be proceeding forward with the closed session on Friday. It is solely your decision if you would like to attend. During our discussion today, I explained to you how the process would proceed.” Neal said in her email.

Neal’s email to Nilon continued with her appearing to describe a previous discussion with Nilon: ” ‘Using consideration of public employee discipline/dismissal/release seems punitive to me.’ As I wait outside in the hall everyone knows, I’m the public employee under discipline/dismissal/release even after I’ve resigned per the contract. Is this not embarrassing enough? Is the board really going to consider to immediately terminate with cause: if 1)felony; 2)civil, criminal, or monetary penalties are likely; or 3) gross negligence; I’ve already resigned. I can work at home for the 30 days and not be disruptive in the office if that is a concern. I’ll be there if the board chair wants me to be there.”

Nov. 16 – Nilon responded to Neal in an email saying, “You have me at a disadvantage as I don’t know the will and desire of the Board. If it’s their wish that I don’t spend an additional hour at work, then I don’t want to spend an additional hour at work. If they want an organized departure wrapping up loose ends, I would be pleased to do so in accordance with the contract and if desired, from home with other provisions.

“Just to be clear on yesterday’s discussion and in preparation for tomorrow’s closed session, please confirm or clarify:

“1. The internal complaints were not written complaints gather over time when the alleged incidents occurred.
2. No internal complaints were ever presented to HR or to Counsel prior to the investigation.
3. All internal complaints were solicited during the investigation.
4. What question were asked during the investigation?
5. How many individuals responded that my alleged conduct made them feel uncomfortable?
6. How many individuals responded that my alleged conduct didn’t make them feel uncomfortable?
7. How many women were interviewed? How many indicated that my alleged conduct made them uncomfortable?
8. How many men were interviewed? How many indicated that my alleged conduct made them uncomfortable?
9. Isn’t it true that men and women may have different standards and criteria for conduct they find uncomfortable and that one comment may be perfectly acceptable to one person and uncomfortable to another?
10. Even within the same gender, isn’t it true that employees may have different standards and criteria for conduct they find uncomfortable and that one comment may be perfectly acceptable to one person and uncomfortable to another?
11. Even within the age groups, isn’t it true that employees may have different standards and criteria for conduct they find uncomfortable and that one comment may be perfectly acceptable to one person and uncomfortable to another?
12. Isn’t it true that Early Resolution and other systems like informal processes are designed to resolve
differences of standards and criteria for conduct that may be found uncomfortable.
11. How many of the internal individuals interviewed attended county training regarding sexual harassment?
12. The training clearly states that if they are subjected to behavior they feel makes them uncomfortable, then they are to report it. Why did they not report it at the time of the incident? Was this question asked?
13. Based upon the subject document, “Statement of Early Resolution” which you say is “is a pattern of behavior,” if presented to me that a certain conduct was uncomfortable, what would have been my reaction? The document states, “took immediate corrective action as soon as he learned about (redacted name’s) discomfort.”
14. Did you contact the CSU Chancellor’s Office to receive a copy of the October 18, 2018 “Statement of Early Resolution?”
15. If not, how did you verify that the copy of Statement of Early Resolution you received was accurate and complete?
16. When earlier offered by me to provide you with a copy, you declined.
17. Is it County Policy and Practice to take an unrelated confidential documents (possibly not verified) from
five years ago and do an investigation of a current employee’s conduct without any history of complaints?
18. Is it true that you are not presenting me with any formal bill of particulars nor providing me with a list of allegations prior to a disciplinary meeting?
19. Is it true that discipline has already been decided without my opportunity to defend myself?
20. You are aware and I want the record to show, I am compelled to attend a disciplinary meeting even though I have already resigned, per the provisions of the contract.”

Nov. 17 – Nilon offered to resign immediately and forgo the extra 30 day contract requirement.

“I understand that this all stems from an incident five years ago where I inadvertently and unintentionally made someone feel uncomfortable, apologized, and the apology was accepted,” Nilon wrote. “Instead of respecting the person’s wishes that the matter is resolved, closed, and private, there are those who chose to ignore the facts and the wishes of individual in the hopes to make this a cause celebre.”

Neal responds, “Lastly, in reviewing your below email to the board, you appear to be under the impression that the 2018 CSU Resolution document was the origination of our investigation. On the contrary, we received complaints about your behavior separate and apart from that document. Thus, the investigation focused on your behavior and conduct while you have been employed by the County of San Luis Obispo.”

During a more than two hour special Board of Supervisors meeting on Nov. 17,  the board voted unanimously to fire Nilon for cause.

Text messages and emails

Campbell May 5 email to unnamed high-level employee:


Nilon’s Aug. 21 text message to Cal Poly affiliate:


Nilon’s Aug. 28 text message to unnamed person:



Nilon’s Nov. 16 email to Neal:


Nilon’s Nov. 17 email to Neal:

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I’m not going to rush to judgement on this one. In the professional world it is generally a good rule to never touch anyone unless you are shaking their hand or giving them first aid. Not to sound like a victim-blamer, but this story smells a little bit fishy to me. The complaint about the pen sounds petty to me, but I guess taking a pen from someone could be done in an offensive way. Whatever the case he’s out now isn’t he?

Well said. He’s gone but the stench of the rotten fish remains…

I’m older and retired, and I remember quite well the time when men could get away with quite a bit of harassment of women with no negative consequences.

I think that an issue not touched on by previous comments is that women generally know which men are being sexually aggressive and which are not. You can just tell.

I had one manager who didn’t touch the women, but who was very clearly interested in more than professional relationships with women in the department. He bragged about his extramarital affairs, and made it clear, in a subtle fashion, that given any encouragement, he’d be interested in starting yet another affair. The women tried to avoid being alone with him.

On the other hand, the department director, on special occasions, would shake the hands of the men, and kiss the women on the cheek. None of the women ever took offense at his actions. He was a gentleman of the old school, a devoted husband, and meant no harm.

In summary, it doesn’t take a really obvious act of aggression for most women to figure out that a man has bad intentions. The subtle signs are enough. It is unwise and unnecessary to ignore the first signs of potential trouble. Any well-intentioned man will back off once his actions are flagged as offensive, and will not repeat them.

I learned in first grade to keep my hands off others, while pushing on the back of a kid in line to go out to lunch. The teacher grabbed my ear lightly twisting as she guided me back to the end of the line.

I guess Mr. Nilon didn’t have the quality education I received, and I fear he will never get it.

Fortunate for you that you learned about touching as a kid, although I would guess your push was a tad different than what is being discussed here. Interestingly, Mr. Nilon touched two employees on the back his first week of work, and according to the story, at no other time was he alleged to have touched an employee again. Hm maybe he adjusted to his new workplace’s expectations.

This guy is the head administrator and his conduct should be beyond reproach. That said, I remember a time when men and women working in the same office sometimes engaged in workplace romances; often these bloomed into successful marriages. In today’s culture women are taught that anything could be a micro aggression regardless of intent and men are afraid to even look a female co worker in the eye. What I hear in passing from female employees is their complaining about not being able to find a good man to date and the young men are complaining that they have another Saturday night in front of the TV gaming.

He is all set to go, for they will certainly give him a good reference, but Santa Barbara County is not a place he should mail a resume.

Monterey County is a possibility for “Mr. Touchy-Feelie” since they love taking in disgraced SLO County employees and the courtesy is mutual for their disgraced staff too.

This assumes facts not in evidence, namely that SLO can claim the high ground of moral purity. 

It doesn’t take much research time to find that in the recent history, two members of the Board of Supervisors (one current Supervisor) have had sexual affairs with their employees. One these employees was sent to work at another department while the affair continued. Also, the Administrative Office’s culture includes a recent history of a former CAO being fired for covering up a sex scandal within the office. 

It also doesn’t take much research to find that a different but current Supervisor is quite “handsy” as well as extremely vulgar. 

SLO Culture/practice? What do they say about glass houses and thrown stones?

AS a female in a Man’s industry, I agree he probably had zero intent to sexually harass anyone! Not too many years ago, I had men call me “Girly” while doing trade shows! Most had no idea how to approach women. But I wasn’t so easy to be so offended nor whine about it. Things were different back in the day. And just touching someone’s back was not a sexual advance. Actually, it was a sign of care and acceptance. Seems these women are not privy to the old ways and they lack understanding. And although I do agree, He needed to learn the new ways to survive in this new world. These Women seem to over exaggerate and lack tolerance and understanding on what IS sexual harassment and what is just kind intent. Seems absurd he has to loose his career over this! Especially when other County employees really did practice Harassment and intimidation and STILL have their jobs! ??