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AG council members ask mayor to step down from sanitation district board

Chris McGuinness Sep 14, 2017 4:00 AM

After publicly releasing the results of an investigation into alleged misconduct by Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill, members of the City Council have asked him to relinquish his seat on the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District's board of directors.

Photo By Chris Mcguinness
OVER THE HILL? The Arroyo Grande City Council voted 3-2 on Sept. 12 on a number of recommendations in the wake of a misconduct investigation against Mayor Jim Hill, including asking the him to step down from his seat on the South SLO County Sanitation District's board of directors.

The council voted 3-2 to request that Hill voluntarily give up his position as one of three members of the sanitation district's board and appoint Arroyo Grande Mayor Pro Tem Tim Brown to serve in his place. Hill and Brown voted against the recommendation at the council's Sept. 12 meeting. Councilmembers Caren Ray, Kristen Barneich, and Barbara Harmon voted in favor of it.

"When [Hill] is serving on the sanitation district, he is serving for the citizens of Arroyo Grande," Barneich said. "He is not serving by himself in a vacuum."

The independent investigation, conducted by the Liebert Cassidy Whitmore (LCW) law firm, examined allegations of misconduct against Hill at both the city and the sanitation district. The findings substantiated allegations that Hill disclosed confidential personnel matters as well as privileged attorney-client information and documents to third parties in his role as a member of the sanitation district's board, and that he overstepped the bounds of his role as a board member by interfering with the personnel matters, which were supposed to fall under the authority of the district's administration.

The investigation's findings also stated that there was sufficient evidence to show that Hill overstepped the bounds of his role as a mayor when he sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission without consulting other members of the council, and raised concerns that Hill's wife, Lin, may have access to his city email account and iPad.

Of the eight allegations raised in the report, the investigation found that four of them were sustained, while two others lacked sufficient evidence, and two others were unfounded.

"In my humble opinion, four [sustained allegations] is too many," Barneich said. "This is alarming due to the fact that it shows a pattern of behavior that is not likely to change. It also makes me wonder how many other times it's happened."

In addition to calling on Hill to step down from his seat at the sanitation district, the council's majority also voted to recommend that he attend one-on-one risk management training. The motion also opened up the availability of that training to the other council members, directed city staff to come up with a new email and password policy for all city employees, develop a voluntary code of ethics pledge for City Council and commission members, and conduct a comparison of ethics policies between the city and the sanitation district.

Hill's attorney, Stewart Jenkins, attended the meeting and spoke in defense of the embattled mayor, who did not participate in the investigation or an interview with the LCW's investigator. Jenkins disputed the investigation's findings, and called into question the impartiality, conduct, and credentials of LCW and its investigator.

"Mayor Hill has been devoted to transparency and making sure government is open ... . There's been absolutely no impropriety," Jenkins told the council.

In the past, Hill indicated that he believed the investigation was politically motivated. Many of his supporters characterized his actions, particularly those on the sanitation district's board, as attempts to address corruption and waste in government, pointing to his vocal campaign to investigate former sanitation district administrator John Wallace, which resulted in pending criminal charges.

"It was only Jim Hill's effort and energy that led, after years and years of conflict, to get this issue to even be investigated," Brown said. "You need to take Jim's actions in context"

But Ray indicated that, while Hill's motivations and concerns might be genuine, it was still important to follow rules and guidelines of good government.

"I assert that this investigation's findings tell us not that he's wrong, but that the ends don't justify the means and that good governance is following policy and following protocol," she said.

The question remains as to whether Hill will comply with the suggestions made by the council. In an email response to questions from New Times on Sept. 13, Jenkins said that Hill was currently attending a conference for the League of California Cities, which is offering training on the issues raised at the council meeting.

"Mayor Hill attended and took advantage of the opportunity to receive all required ethics, Brown Act, and conflict of interest [trainings]," he wrote.

Jenkins did not respond directly to questions about whether Hill planned to comply with the council's recommendation that he step down from his position on the sanitation district's board. But he did say they would be at the Sept. 20 sanitation district board meeting.

The sanitation district board has received the report on the investigation's findings but had not taken any action against Hill as of Sept. 13. Δ