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Comments by Arroyo Grande elected official against city staff raise lawsuit concern 

A very public spat featuring Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill and City Councilmember Tim Brown on one side and city staff on the other might leave the city open to legal action.

At least that’s the concern raised by the city’s insurance provider in a Dec. 22 letter addressed to Hill.

The letter, penned by the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (CJPIA)—which consists of more than 120 members including the city of Arroyo Grande—raised alarm over alleged derogatory comments made by council members toward AG’s city manager and members of the staff. The letter does not name who made the remarks, but notes the consequences of such comments could hurt the city financially.

“Our concern is that such comments made in a public setting could lead to allegations of harassment and a hostile workplace at your city,” the letter, penned by the CJPIA Assistant Executive Officer Norman Lefman, stated. “We consider these practices, if continued, to be inconsistent with good governance.”

Those allegations could turn into costly lawsuits. Speaking to New Times, Lefman declined to say just what the remarks were and who made them, but he noted that because the CJPIA is an insurance pool, a risk to one participating municipality is a risk to all.

“They jointly share in the cost of risk,” he said. “So if there’s a liability exposure and it turns about to be founded, all the members share the cost.”

The letter comes after both Hill and Brown took city staff to task in very public venues. One instance occurred at a televised Dec. 8 City Council meeting, when Hill expressed frustration over not being able to get a discussion of the closure of the 101 ramps at Brisco Road on the agenda. Hill said he asked city staff to agendize the item for discussion before January 2016, when the closure of the ramps was set to expire. 

“That would have allowed enough time for the council to discuss it, but I was met with resistance from the staff,” Hill said during the meeting.

Hill also called out the staff for failing to provide a progress report on the project in a timely manner, characterizing the issue as “a disaster from a planning and implementation standpoint.”

“What I see in the whole Brisco thing is excuses as to why it can’t be done and kind of blaming the process,” he said.

At the meeting, Hill also raised concerns that city staff was giving some land developers preferential treatment over others and that worries over parking in the city were not being addressed.

The council eventually called a special meeting to deal with the Brisco Road issue. In an email to New Times, Hill said he wasn’t told that it was his comments that sparked the letter. Hill defended what he said at the meeting, and stated he did not believe it was derogatory. 

“My comments in that forum were absolutely appropriate,” Hill wrote. “They were not intended to be and, in fact, were not derogatory toward anyone. I think people have a right to know why they have to pay for special meetings and endure the attendant inconvenience when a regular meeting could have addressed the issue in a more timely fashion.”

Councilmember Brown also directed comments at city staff during the same December meeting, saying it was inappropriate for the staff to tell the mayor that he couldn’t add an item to a meeting agenda.

“To say I’m frustrated is an understatement,” Brown said. “I think it’s highly disrespectful to the mayor, what has happened.”

Brown elaborated on the situation further on the airwaves during a Dec. 15 appearance on local news talk radio station KVEC. In a lengthy segment with host Dave Congalton, Brown specifically named recently hired City Manager Dianne Thompson as the staff member who refused Hill’s request to put a discussion of Brisco Road on an agenda. Brown was at a loss for a motive behind Thompson’s alleged stonewalling.  

“The only explanation that I heard was that staff doesn’t want it, so [Thompson] doesn’t want it,” Brown said during the segment.

Thompson was hired in April 2015 to replace longtime former City Manager Steve Adams. Adams resigned in 2014 after a high-profile incident where he was found alone with a subordinate employee at Arroyo Grande City Hall late at night. Thompson was hired after serving as city manager for the small Northern California city of Cotati from 2007 to 2014. In the radio interview, Brown declined to chalk up the issue with Thompson to any kind of personal or political vendetta, but noted that Thompson came from a “no-service” city, and said she was “in the middle of a learning curve.”

“We knew full well that she hadn’t come from a full-service city, and there might be a learning curve,” Brown said. “And that’s OK … the question really becomes how long will it take?”

Thompson also has a clause in her contract, which states that any “critical observations” about staff members would be taken up privately with the city manager.

Similarly to Hill, Brown said he was not aware if his comments at the meeting or on the radio were the catalyst for the letter, but stood by what he said in both instances.

“I stand by everything I said,” Brown told New Times. “I think people are reading way too much into it.”

Whatever the comments were, they not only caused the CJPIA to issue the letter of concern but pushed them to actually intervene as well. In the letter, Lefman asked to schedule a phone call to address the issue.

“It is my hope that during the call I can suggest ways in which we can help and then, to identify an action plan,” Lefman wrote.

According to the letter, the CJPIA has a “healthy member protocol,” which identifies actions by members that put the pool of entities at risk and allows for progressive intervention should the troubled entity fail to correct those concerns. The protocol calls for an impairment action plan, and with approval, gives the municipality 24 months to complete that plan.

Councilmember Kristen Barneich said the letter was worrying. 

“It does concern me as I’m fairly sure we haven’t received a letter like this before,” Barneich wrote in an email response to questions from New Times. “The City Council isn’t always going to agree with staff, but of course when we do disagree, I would hope that we can be respectful and courteous of each other.”

As of Jan. 5, the CJPIA had not met with anyone from the city, according to Hill. Brown said he had no desire to meet or talk with the organization and sent a blunt reply to the letter via email.

“To say I was offended by the letter is an understatement,” Brown wrote in reply to the CJPIA. “Not only is the letter not accurate, it’s irresponsible. You were delving into issues that you should not be.” 

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness. 

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