The Arroyo Grande City Council decided Saturday to hire an independent investigator to determine what occurred in a July 3 incident between the city manager and a subordinate, and whether any city policies were broken.
The decision, made in a special closed-session meeting, reversed an earlier council position not to pursue an outside review into what was going on when police found City Manager Steve Adams and Community Development Director Teresa McClish alone late at night in City Hall.
On Saturday, more than 50 people packed the council meeting, with several speakers accusing the city of a cover-up and demanding an independent probe during a public comment session before the council went behind closed doors.
The accusations were just the latest the council has faced in mounting anger over its handling of the incident, including whether an initial investigation by the assistant city attorney had been thorough and unbiased. On Wednesday, the Arroyo Grande Police Officers Association sent a letter to the council calling for an independent probe and reporting that union members had voted no confidence in Adams or Mayor Tony Ferrara.
When it emerged from its closed session Saturday, the council announced it had appointed a task force composed of councilmen Tim Brown and Jim Guthrie, as well as city attorney Tim Carmel to choose an independent investigator. Brown and Ferrara said an investigator could cost $5,000 to $25,000.
Brown said after the meeting that in two previous closed-door sessions the council had been divided over whether to bring in an outsider.
“I wanted one from the beginning,” he said. “We want an arms-length investigation to make sure nothing happened. Looking back and seeing what’s gone on, it’s clear that if we had done an independent investigation to begin with we would have moved on by now.”
In a two-page statement issued after the meeting, Ferrara defended the council’s actions and rejected allegations of a cover-up. He questioned why the police union would be alleging a cover-up after five of its own officers had been interviewed in the first investigation and said they had seen nothing illegal or inappropriate.
“These are police officers that are used to testifying and being questioned by attorneys,” he wrote. “The council had confidence they were telling the truth. We still believe this. Based on the officers’ statements, there was nothing more to investigate other than the judgment issue on the part of the City Manager, which he acknowledges.”
However, at Saturday’s meeting, “the council recognized that there are some in the community that apparently are not satisfied with just the statements of the officers,” Ferrara continued. “As such, the council is in agreement to move forward with another investigation of this matter.”
Ferrara said a police union representative has been invited to participate in the task force selection process.
Union president Shawn Cosgrove was on duty Saturday, but sent a message declining comment except to say the union would respond to the council next week.
Meanwhile, Adams and McClish remain actively employed with the city. In a text message to The Tribune on Saturday, Adams said, “Our community is fortunate to have a great City Council. I support whatever they decide is the best way to proceed.”
The uproar stems from a phone call McClish’s husband made to Arroyo Grande police on the night of July 3 to say he was worried that his wife hadn’t come home after attending an evening event in the Village.
Officers found McClish at about 11:30 p.m. at City Hall with Adams, in his office. In written statements filed later, officers said Adams was disheveled and McClish appeared to be holding a shirt or another article of clothing in front of her. None of the officers reported seeing the pair in an intimate encounter.
Police Cmdr. Kevin McBride did note in his report that one officer, “was very concerned that he had witnessed a possible violation of city policy because McClish was in the city manager’s office and appeared to be partially clothed.”
At the council's request, Deputy City Attorney Michael McMahon launched an investigation within days of the incident and found no policy violations after interviewing the officers, Adams and McClish.
Adams and McClish told McMahon that they had a few drinks at two restaurants in the Village and were talking in Adams' office to ensure they were safe to drive home. McClish may have been holding up a wrap she had worn that evening when officers appeared, McMahon has said. Adams and McClish have said that nothing inappropriate occurred.
Council members have reprimanded Adams for using poor judgment in being alone with McClish at City Hall.
The police union letter said the officers felt extremely uncomfortable at the scene, “when they clearly saw Adams, their boss, engaging in inappropriate activity with a subordinate.”
The letter said that when McMahon interviewed the officers, it was in short, unrecorded phone calls with questions “asked in an attacking manner that made the officers feel as though they had done something wrong.”
By not doing an independent investigation, the city had created distrust and called the police officers’ integrity into question, the letter said.