Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Raffaele Montemurro’s title when he worked for the Santa Maria Valley Youth and Family Center. He was hired as operations manager and later became part of the organization’s administration, not its executive director.
Shortly after Raffaele Montemurro was hired to lead the Oceano Community Services District in October 2009, he purchased a handful of pink shirts, one for himself and each of his office staff.
The goal: to increase camaraderie in the small district office.
“I’ve been told in the past that you have to be a real man to wear pink,” he said when asked about the color.
On a recent Friday, Montemurro, 58, dressed in a pink polo shirt with the district’s emblem sewn onto it and wearing a mustache and a heavy gold class ring from the University of Wisconsin, gave a tour of the office and offered doughnuts from a pink bakery box.
With opera music playing in the background, he hollered requests to his staff and answered the phone in a voice tinged with Midwestern inflections, telling callers to “have a safe and pleasant day.”
Born in Italy and raised in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin, Montemurro describes himself as a “very proud, old-school European gentleman,” to whom family is the top priority.
As he talked, he pulled out business cards and honorary proclamations out of a folder, remnants from previous jobs he’s held, boards he’s served on and campaigns he’s worked on.
At one point more than a decade ago, he held the No. 2 position in a Wisconsin county. Now, 11 years, two jobs and a cross-country move later, he heads up the Oceano district, which serves its residents as the only form of local government aside from the county.
Montemurro’s past has come under scrutiny lately, as more local residents learn that he was fired from his job as an administrator of Kenosha County — an incident unknown to the board before he was hired and one which he did not disclose.
While the three current Oceano board members appear more willing to move on rather than dwell on Montemurro’s past, the murmurings from around the community are likely to be an unwanted distraction for him as he tries to wrap up overdue audits and get aging district water mains replaced and starts working on a district budget.
The board itself has gone through an upheaval. Two members recently and unexpectedly resigned, one of whom cited issues he had with Montemurro’s management of the district.
The remaining three board members — Lori Angello, Mary Lucey and Matthew Guerrero — will hold a meeting in May to appoint new members to the two seats.
Montemurro was born in a small town in southern Italy and raised on the north side of Kenosha. The oldest of nine children, he’s fond of saying that “he had the privilege of growing up poor.” He and his wife, Maria, have been married 38 years; they live in Arroyo Grande.
Montemurro graduated in 1983 from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in economics and labor, and industrial relations. He’s worked as an investment broker and served for eight years as a Kenosha County supervisor.
Montemurro resigned the supervisor seat in 1998 when he was named the county’s director of administration by former county Executive Allan Kehl. Montemurro helped get Kehl elected that year, and the plan was for Montemurro to take over the county’s top job in 2006, he told the Kenosha News in a 2001 interview.
County supervisors approved Montemurro’s nomination for the job in a 20-6 vote in 1998. Two years later, in December 2000, he was discharged due to “a change in philosophical direction,” the paper reported.
A critical county report later found Montemurro partly responsible for failing to properly budget $1.6 million in prescription drug costs for employees and mishandling a union grievance that cost the county $150,000 a year.
Terry Rose, a lawyer and Kenosha County supervisor since 1986, was one of the six supervisors to vote against Montemurro’s nomination. But, he said this week, he criticized Kehl when Montemurro was fired.
“In my view, Kehl is the fellow to blame,” Rose said. “He fell asleep at the wheel. He passed it on to Raffaele and blamed him, but it was his budget.”
Montemurro told the Kenosha News that he was a scapegoat for mismanagement in Kehl’s office. In an interview last week, he added that he was let go because he refused to accept bribes relating to a casino project then proposed for Kenosha.
The few Kenosha officials interviewed about the casino project said they didn’t have information on Montemurro’s statement about the bribe and couldn’t comment. Kehl could not be reached for comment.
One official, Corporation Counsel Frank Volpintesta, said Montemurro participated in some of the negotiations involving an agreement between the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, the county and the city on the casino project.
“I don’t know that there was anything related to his firing that was associated to the casino,” Volpintesta said, “but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t.”
Montemurro told The Tribune that he later gave information to the FBI that helped the agency in its investigation of his former boss. In 2008, Kehl was convicted for accepting $15,000 in illegal cash payments from a Kenosha businessman, who was then the local developer of the casino project, according to the Kenosha News.
Leonard Peace, a spokesman for the Milwaukee office of the FBI, said he could neither confirm nor deny that the FBI ever had contact with Montemurro.
Montemurro later worked as a financial consultant in Illinois, then moved to California and worked for four years at the Santa Maria Valley Youth and Family Center, where he was hired as operations manager and later became part of the organization’s administration.
He was hired four years later as Oceano’s fifth general manager in four years (including two interim managers). He earns $87,500 annually.
Before Montemurro was hired, a background check was completed by Santa Maria-based S.A.S. Legal & Investigative Services. It found three foreclosure actions against one property and a small claims action filed in 2002 for what appeared to be an outstanding credit card debt, according to a memo from Ryan Fothergill, an attorney for Kirk & Simas, which formerly provided legal services to the district.
“At that time, people were understanding about the financial problems,” said Lucey, the one remaining board member who was serving on the board when Montemurro was hired.
The board wasn’t told about the firing in Kenosha, and Montemurro didn’t disclose it.
“It’s 2,400 miles from here,” he said when asked about it in an earlier interview.
Board members were hesitant to criticize. Guerrero, the newest board member, said he hadn’t heard Montemurro’s side of the story and added: “I don’t think it’s fair to try someone based on newspaper articles.”
If the board does decide to address it, members will likely do so in closed session during an evaluation of Montemurro, Guerrero said.
“Whatever was done was taken care of back there,” Angello said. “I have to have faith in him.”
Toward the end of a board meeting in March, Montemurro pulled out a prop — a portion of an old, rusted water main that had been fixed seven times and recently spouted a hole too large to fix. “This is the water main that I had concerns with,” he said. “It’s been in the ground since 1952.”
The prop underscored Oceano’s need to address its aging infrastructure — as well as other concerns, including overdue audits. Critics maintain the district is still being mismanaged and that financial documents are not readily available.
“Getting reliable financial information has been worse than pulling teeth,” said one board member-turned-critic, Jim Hill, who was first elected to the board in 2004.
He quit in March, writing that Montemurro had failed to follow the board’s direction on numerous occasions, including not submitting financial information to an auditor by board-specified dates.
Board member Carole Henson resigned the same day.
But Lucey said that Montemurro inherited a lot of work: the overdue audits, overdue bills and an outdated computer system that complicated efforts to retrieve reliable information.
Added Angello: “He’s striving to get some of our goals done. The audits and things like that have been difficult because the information has been difficult to get.”
Montemurro maintains the district was on a path to bankruptcy when he was hired, with the agency spending more than it was taking in.
Since then, he let go of two longtime district employees, cut back on the use of cell phones and take-home vehicles, and raised water rates for the first time in more than a decade.
“The economist in me says, ‘if you want to make savings, order in volume,’ ” he said at a January board meeting while reciting some of the cost savings from buying cases of paper in bulk to programming the office thermostat to shut off at nights and on weekends.
He also installed a safe in the office — prior to that, cash the district received from bill-payers was reportedly kept in a filing cabinet. Last summer, he started investigating the history of several accounts containing more than $367,000 in district money that few people knew existed.
When asked what he would say to his critics, Montemurro responded: “The economist in me says, ‘let action speak louder than words.’ I have $1.5 million in the bank, so obviously I’m doing something right.”
The board also appears willing to move forward and focus on what needs to be done — improving communication with the community, filling the empty seats, prioritizing infrastructure projects and — finally — getting those audits wrapped up.
“We seem as a district to make things harder than they need to be,” Guerrero said. “I’m very hopeful that we start taking steps forward, and that it can be run as a professional organization.”
For his part, Montemurro said the full story of what happened in Kenosha spanned more than seven years.
“If they follow the scenario to the end, at the end, I’m the hero,” he said, “because I put the county executive, with the FBI’s help, away.”
When asked if he was upset about the way things ended in Kenosa, Montemurro nodded and pushed up the sleeves of his polo shirt to reveal two large tattoos on either arm — black cobras with a statement written on one arm in English, and on the other in Italian.
“Morte prima di disonore.” Translated, it means: “Death before dishonor.”
“It means that I’ll die for the right thing before I do something that isn’t correct,” he explained. “You do something that isn’t correct, you dishonor your family.”
Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.