Arroyo Grande will investigate allegations that Mayor Jim Hill violated the Brown Act after he was accused of sharing an unapproved employment contract and confidential information from closed-session meetings.
The City Council, with Hill recusing himself, voted unanimously Tuesday to set aside $15,000 for an independent investigation into the accusations. The council also directed city staff to pursue sharing the cost with the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District by conducting a joint investigation, because the allegations involve both Hill’s position with the city and his membership on the sanitation district’s board of directors.
“The harsh reality is when a public official is accused of something, it’s not kumbaya. You have to get through a process,” Councilman Tim Brown said. “This is a process we have to go through.”
He added: “I would just ask everybody to be patient, be hopeful in the outcome that it is going to be a healing thing. And I hope when we get to the other side, that we can all agree it has been a worthwhile process.”
And I hope when we get to the other side, that we can all agree it has been a worthwhile process. Councilman Tim Brown
The allegations were raised at the council’s Jan. 24 meeting, when former Oceano Community Services District board member Mary Lucey and Arroyo Grande resident Patty Welsh accused the mayor of violating the Brown Act by revealing confidential information and interfering with the administration of the city and the sanitation district. Former Oceano Community Services District board member Matthew Guerrero also said he was concerned about the accusations at the same meeting, and urged the City Council to consider an investigation.
Among the accusations are claims that Hill shared his city email password with his wife, shared an unapproved employment contract from a closed-session meeting and discussed confidential closed-session information in public — at restaurants and with news outlets. The speakers also claimed Hill had attempted to dismiss staff whom he disagreed with at both the city and sanitation district by asking for routine evaluations of the employees.
The Ralph M. Brown Act prohibits parties present in a closed-session meeting from sharing information divulged in the meeting to people outside the meeting unless authorized by the entire legislative body involved in the meeting. According to the act, a member of a legislative body who violates the act could be referred to a grand jury.
Hill denied the accusations over the weekend, calling them a “pure political attack” derived from his long-standing opposition to the former sanitation district administrator, John Wallace.
It’s no coincidence the happened on the same day that criminal charges were filed against John Wallace for conflict of interest. Mayor Jim Hill
Last month, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office announced it would pursue charges against Wallace after he was accused of conflict of interest during his tenure with the district. The charges came after a district investigation into Wallace’s management practices concluded last year — an investigation for which Hill strongly advocated.
“What it is, it’s a pure political attack,” Hill said Saturday. “It’s no coincidence this happened on the same day that criminal charges were filed against John Wallace for conflict of interest.”
Interim City Manager Bob McFall performed an initial review of the Hill allegations following the January meeting before contacting law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, which specializes in public agency personnel matters, according to a city staff report. Attorneys from the firm indicated there was sufficient information to warrant an independent investigation.
The law firm’s investigator will interview witnesses and review documents, then prepare a written report of findings. The firm’s attorneys will then provide legal conclusions and recommendations. The process could take four to six weeks.
At the meeting Tuesday night, several members of the public spoke in support of Hill, calling the accusations an attack on the mayor’s character.
“I guess I want to know what is the goal — is the goal the bad press?” Los Osos resident Julie Tacker asked. “Is the goal to mar the good name of Jim Hill? If that’s the goal, you’ve done that.”
Others called the investigation a waste of money and suggested the council use that money for other projects.
We have the duty to the citizens of Arroyo Grande to do our due diligence, and if it does not bear fruit, then great. Councilwoman Caren Ray
During their discussion, council members noted that though it was a difficult decision, authorizing the investigation was necessary to protect the city from further risk of litigation. They also commended Hill for fully cooperating with the push for an investigation.
“What we’ve been advised is we also have exposure if we fail to act, and we have some reasonable understanding that there may be something going on here,” Councilwoman Caren Ray said. “We have the duty to the citizens of Arroyo Grande to do our due diligence, and if it does not bear fruit, then great.”
The city will now reach out to the sanitation district board to get approval of funding for a joint investigation.
Because of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore’s involvement in other investigations with the sanitation district, if the board chooses not to participate in a joint investigation, Arroyo Grande will likely search out a new firm to conduct the independent investigation.
Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the nature of Matthew Guerrero’s Jan. 24 comment to the Arroyo Grande City Council. Guerrero expressed concern regarding the accusations and urged the Arroyo Grande City Council to investigate the allegations.