Oceano CSD facing more criticism after hiring new manager

clambert@thetribunenews.comDecember 13, 2013 

The Oceano Community Services District has a new district manager — its seventh general manager since 2007 — but leaders of the small agency have lately found themselves facing familiar challenges, including an alleged violation of California’s open-meeting law and possible plagiarism.

Lonnie Curtis, a civil engineer and former manager at several water agencies in California, was hired in October to continue “moving this district in the right direction,” as board member Mary Lucey said in a statement.

But since his mid-October hire date, the board has already met in closed session to discuss Curtis’ performance — no reportable action resulted — and responded to an alleged violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act.

In addition, a PowerPoint presentation that Curtis submitted as a writing sample in his employment application raised questions with one frequent critic of the Oceano district, Los Osos resident Julie Tacker.

The Oceano application calls for a professional writing sample composed by the applicant, but numerous pages in Curtis’ presentation are identical to a presentation prepared six years ago by a former chair of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Curtis’ submitted presentation, titled “The Road Ahead — An Agenda for Sustainability,” was authored by Timothy F. Brick, managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group.

Curtis said Friday that he had received permission from Brick to use the slides when he was working as mergers and acquisitions manager for Golden State Water Co. in Southern California.

“This is what I used in a presentation with my staff in Orange County,” Curtis said. He acknowledged that he did not create the slides but said he made the presentation his own.

Brick said he didn’t specifically recall talking to Curtis but he did remember making the presentation at a Golden State Water Co. event.

“I don’t have a problem with him using it for presentations, but I am surprised he used it as a sample of writing in a job application,” Brick said.

Curtis was selected from a pool of five finalists, which had been narrowed down from more than 50 applicants. He receives an annual salary of $126,000, plus a monthly $300 vehicle allowance and $75 cell phone reimbursement.

Board President Matthew Guerrero said he didn’t know if the writing sample would have made a difference had he known about it at the time Curtis was interviewed. He and other board members didn’t express concern about the writing sample, although they seemed surprised.

“When we interviewed the candidates, I don’t remember talking about writing samples,” Guerrero said. “We were on to other topics, like how to run a district.”

Board member Karen White declined to comment on the writing sample. “We hired him basically because of his engineering and water background,” she said.

White, as well as board member Mary Lucey, expressed frustration at the latest round of criticism lobbed at the district.

“There have been so many people outside for unknown reasons trying to destroy anything the Oceano Community Service District tries to do that I’m going to be using my own best judgment … and I’m not going to be listening to anything except my constituents,” White said.

Added Lucey: “I think that (Curtis) is trying to wrap his hands and his head around this little town and what we’re supposed to be doing and trying to get this organization on track to do that.”

Alleged violations

At its most recent board meeting, Oceano leaders responded to a cease-and-desist demand they received Nov. 15 from Californians Aware, an open government advocacy group.

The nonprofit organization alleged violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act after the Oceano district had reported it discussed future planning, including water, sewer and other district business, in closed session on Nov. 13.

Californians Aware General Counsel Terry Francke said such topics must be discussed in open session. He requested the district release any and all documents that were prepared for the closed-session discussion or resulted from it.

The district board, in its response, said the report out of closed session “was a result of a clerical error at the staff level” and no documents exist.

Francke said Friday that he’s not satisfied with the response. “I have tried to imagine all the different possibilities or explanation for how that kind of statement … can be a clerical error. I simply can’t believe it, and I don’t think a judge will either.”

He said he’s still determining the group’s next step.

It’s not the first time the Oceano services district has received a warning from Californians Aware. In February 2012, Francke cautioned that the way the district handled public comments during a previous meeting did not comply with the Brown Act.

The board may have also violated the Brown Act when it approved a 29 percent pay increase during closed session for Tom Geaslen, the district’s former general manager, who was fired for cause in mid-April, he said.

A district audit later revealed that Geaslen had paid himself at least $36,000 more than what the district board had budgeted for his salary.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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