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Leftover shoe goo 

Arroyo Grande's elected officials need to lead in a more mature manner

Is the city government of Arroyo Grande an unpleasant, even nasty place to work?

Some people seem to think so. But the city leaders, Mayor Jim Hill and City Councilmember Tim Brown—who have supposedly encouraged such an environment—don’t agree.

They think everything is hunky-dory in the workplace over which they preside.

The question became public in January when Brown denigrated new City Manager Dianne Thompson on local radio. The remarks and the tone alarmed many in the city. Then, the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (CJPIA), the city’s insurance carrier, called out the city, basically saying that bad-mouthing employees had the potential to lead to a lawsuit based on a hostile work environment.

The derogatory remarks were not limited to the radio show in question, that of Dave Congalton, a personal megaphone for Mayor Hill and his posse. They also, in various elaborations, could be found on the website CalCoastNews, another ghastly nest of Hill partisans; and among Hill’s other devotees, who write pro-Hill letters and extol him at meetings in a sort of Greek chorus, and I apologize to Greeks and choruses everywhere for the comparison.

One of the most telling remarks Brown made was to suggest that Thompson might grow into her job. First, Thompson came from Cotati and its Sonoma County environs, whose politics and governance are far more sophisticated than those of our little burg.

Secondly, that remark is dripping with condescension, although I doubt Brown realizes it.

The chief issue that had Brown and Hill in a tizzy was about meetings regarding the Brisco Road interchange. It involved agendas, committees, who was supposed to notify whom about which meetings and when, and all that sort of boring government stuff.

In context, it was routine, and they eventually sorted it all out.

But the specter of a bullied city staff remains.

I’m not going to lecture on management, but I will make an important observation, which comes from my own years as both manager and subordinate: If you chew people out publicly, and unfairly, the harangue filters throughout the entire workforce. The message they all receive is this: My boss doesn’t have my back.

That’s not good. I learned it the hard way when I was a bullying city editor before I reformed, and I experienced it as a subordinate, most notably at my last job. The lack of support there from above created a newsroom work environment where morale was sub-basement.

It hastened my retirement and the departure of others. That could happen to Arroyo Grande’s employees.

This, alas, is a lesson lost on Hill and Brown. I asked them at a recent City Council meeting to consider the morale of the people who report to them and suggested they participate in a workshop on how to manage people in a way that is fair and also productive.

I didn’t hang around until the end of the meeting to hear their response (there was a must-see Matlock marathon on the Geezer channel). But I’m told they did nothing.

That’s disturbing, especially given the context.

Remember, this is the city that drove out its last city manager over baseless insinuations that he was involved in hanky-panky with a city employee. Hill was cozy with that pitchfork-waving crowd.

Hill’s very existence as a city leader is sort of weird. I call him the phantom mayor because his name was not on the 2014 mayoral ballot. The only name there was veteran Mayor Tony Ferrara, and because it was the only name, some people who might have put a check next to it passed, thinking it unnecessary. They should have been paying more attention; Hill’s guerrilla write-in candidacy succeeded.

I’m told that Hill and his disciples are darkly suspicious of Ferrara, who, when last heard from, had moved to Palm Springs, where he spends his time lining up 30-foot putts, not plotting to overthrow the Hill regime.

Maybe I’m expecting too much of Hill, a shaky choice to fix morale in Arroyo Grande. He only moved here a couple of years ago, and his chief previous governing experience was with the Oceano Community Services District, a notoriously dysfunctional agency until Matt Guerrero joined the board in 2010 and the highly experienced Paavo Ogren later became general manager. They and others are bringing long-missing stability.

Hill, who left Oceano in 2011, was part of the dysfunction.

I expect more from Brown. He can be an empathetic public servant, as he showed when he supported a local man who came to the podium to ask for help with his Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Brown was open and sympathetic.

But he can also trot out an “I’m the boss and you’re not” persona, as he did with Thompson and with the insurance carrier, whom he basically told to mind its own business.

It’s also galling that when confronted with their behavior, the Hill-Brown followers puffed up like a blowfish and huffed that they were not about to let anyone interfere with their freedom of expression.

That’s disingenuous.

This isn’t about freedom of expression. Brown and Hill and their groupies have the right to say whatever they want, just as they have the right to sit on the dais and blow bubbles or howl at the moon or make whale noises. They have the right—but that doesn’t mean they should do it.

This is about whether the people running the city are doing so in a mature and responsible manner, and in a way that is neither petty nor vindictive.

I think the head guy sets the tone, and I can’t escape the fact that Mayor Hill was a member of the Oceano Community Services District when bad behavior and dysfunction were commonplace.

I worry that he got some of that odious behavior on his shoe and tramped it into Arroyo Grande, where Brown stepped in it.

Time for a new pair of shoes, gentlemen. 

Bob Cuddy lives in Arroyo Grande. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or send a letter to the editor at letters@newtimesslo.com

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