There are numerous ongoing issues in Arroyo Grande — water, a charter ballot measure, economic development efforts — but a July 3 incident threatens to frame the debate leading up to the Nov. 4 general election, where the mayor’s seat and two City Council spots are up for grabs.
For the past six weeks, much discussion in Arroyo Grande has focused on the summer night when police found the city manager and a subordinate alone at City Hall.
The matter has dominated public hearings, with some citizens lambasting council members’ handling of an internal investigation and calling for an independent inquiry into the incident — which the council recently agreed to pursue.
City Manager Steve Adams has announced his intention to resign and leave after a successor is hired. Whoever is elected to the council will help choose Adams’ replacement. Plans for the independent review will go forward, and there’s no sign that public debate will abate soon.
The incident even prompted one resident, former Oceano Community Services District director Jim Hill, to mount a write-in campaign against Mayor Tony Ferrara, who was initially running for another two-year term unopposed.
The mayoral race could act as a referendum on the public’s perception of the council’s response to the July 3 incident.
Two City Council seats are also up for grabs. Incumbents Joe Costello and Tim Brown are seeking new four-year terms. They are challenged by Barbara Harmon, who was appointed by Ferrara to the city’s Architectural Review Committee in December 2013.
Costello has been on the council since 2002; Brown was elected in 2010.
While from time to time a certain issue will divide the council — such as lengthy discussions over a City Hall move a few years ago — the current council appears in sync on many issues.
Brown tends to keep a close eye on spending; he recently objected to the city paying $410,000 over 5½ years on a water conservation public education program. (The council later agreed to spend $70,000 for a year and then review the program.)
As a retired probation supervisor for Santa Barbara County, Harmon said her county government experience with strategic planning and budget proposals would bring a skill set that she said is lacking on the current council.
She said her opponents tend to complain about new state mandates but don’t challenge them, and if elected she would try to seek out options that might save time or money.
Ferrara was first elected to the council in 1998 and has been elected mayor six times since 2002. Hill, who moved to Arroyo Grande about three years ago, qualified Sept. 26 as a write-in candidate.
Hill said he wasn’t thinking of running until he was approached by some local residents, as well as three Arroyo Grande police officers, and asked to consider challenging Ferrara.
“The thing that happened there with the city manager and so forth just brought various things to a head,” Hill said.
He said he believes the long-term mayor and council members have become complacent and are not representing the public’s interests.
“That might take the form of favoritism or maintaining the status quo without going for a review of other options,” he said. “I’m a studious learner and would make sure that everybody was treated fairly and equally.”
Hill’s campaign is a grass-roots effort. Hill, busy working during a refueling outage at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, is attending events when he can and raising small amounts of money — he had raised $50 as of Tuesday.
Other local residents have come together to print fliers, put together yard signs and create a Facebook page and a website.
Ferrara said besides a few scheduled speaking engagements, he has no plans to launch a formal campaign.
July 3 incident
In a recent interview with The Tribune editorial board, Brown and Harmon said they believe the city should have done an independent investigation of the July 3 incident from the outset.
“It’s snowballed into something it shouldn't be,” Brown said, adding: “I think the council did spend time and energy and thought about this issue seriously. No one took it lightly.”
Costello said he believes the city made a mistake in its handling of the matter.
“I think we probably should have gone public right away, and said this is what happened and what we’ve done, within the confines of what we could say on personnel matters,” Costello said.
The city's deputy attorney launched an investigation within days of the July 3 incident and found no policy violations after interviewing the five officers who went to city hall that night, as well as Adams and Community Development Director Teresa McClish.
But on Sept. 20, faced with mounting anger from the public and a vote of no confidence from the police union, the City Council decided to hire an independent investigator to review the incident.
The council candidates said they support a review of city policies.
Harmon said the city should have a set protocol for management-level employees, which includes protocol for an investigation and clear consequences.
Costello said the city needs to have a policy stating that city facilities may not be used for non-city purposes.
The city has personnel regulations in place for most employees, but Adams and department directors, including McClish, are exempt from the rules and are governed by their employment contracts, except as otherwise expressly regulated by state law and the city’s municipal code, City Attorney Tim Carmel said.
In a statement outlining his position on some issues, Hill said he’s opposed to Measure C, which would change Arroyo Grande from a general law to a charter city.
Hill wrote that he’s opposed to making Arroyo Grande a charter city “due to the increase and concentration of power that would result.”
Hill acknowledged that the charter could give the city more local control, but added: “The problem with concentrated local control of the type of charter provides for is that local special interests can develop a stranglehold on things. Does that mean that the totality of the population is represented in that control? Probably not.”
Ferrara, who supports the charter measure, said it would allow the city to accept the use of volunteer time and donations in community projects and to streamline the contracting process in a way that could save money.
For example, Ferrara wrote in an email, “we recently went through two expensive ‘re-bidding’ processes because we were bound by state law and didn’t have an option.”
The three council candidates all support the charter measure as well, saying it gives the city more flexibility in bidding and other areas.
The three council candidates were asked whether they believe the city’s water supply is stable enough to move forward with any developments in the pipeline. The city draws its water from Lopez Lake and groundwater.
Costello said he’s cautiously optimistic but the city needs to be careful when considering new developments. “We take each as it comes,” he said.
Brown said the city has enough water for upcoming projects but added that council members could eventually have to consider a temporary building moratorium depending on future water levels and rainfall.
Harmon said the city has taken a proactive approach toward conservation — the city increased its enforcement and monitoring of mandatory water conservation measures in January — and agreed that future projects should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Bridge Street bridge
At a candidate forum Sept. 22, the three council candidates were asked for thoughts on theBridge Street bridge
, a 24-foot bridge in the Village that is functionally obsolete and must be replaced, retrofitted or closed because of seismic deficiencies and structural issues.
The bridge was built in 1908, with an additional span added after flood damage in 1914. In 1989, after the bridge was found to be deficient because of its width and weight limit, the City Council decided to strengthen it with a supplemental truss rather than replace it.
Costello said he wants to rehabilitate the structure to continue to have traffic in both directions.
“I’d like to try to preserve it as much as possible,” he said.
Brown also said he’s not in favor of a look-alike or reproduction.
“To be historically accurate, we can and should save the entire bridge,” he said. “There are ways to deal with the underlying structure.”
Harmon said the city is in a difficult situation because state funding for the project would call for the city to dramatically change it.
“Another town got funding to restore a bridge and that’s what we're looking into,” she said. In a follow-up interview, Harmon said the city of Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, received federal funding to rehabilitate and restore a bridge there.
The three council candidates were also asked about efforts by a local nonprofit, the5Cities Homeless Coalition
, to open a day shelter in the Five Cities area, which includes Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Pismo Beach and Oceano.
All said they support the organization’s efforts. Brown said the coalition has had trouble finding a location for a shelter because of a “not in my backyard” attitude from some neighborhoods.
“We have been fortunate enough to live here,” Brown said. “We can help those people out who are having mental health or substance abuse issues while giving them some personal responsibility along the line.”
Costello said the city needs to work with neighboring communities to solve the problem collectively.
“There is a NIMBY problem here,” he added. “We’re going to have to work on this together and go forward and find an appropriate location that will not conflict with existing neighborhoods.”
Harmon said she would support “whatever resources or effort the city can bring to establish more services and a shelter for our homeless people.” She also mentioned that a detox facility would provide a “tremendous service to our homeless as well as people suffering from abuse.”
During the interview with The Tribune editorial board, the council candidates were asked to cite a decision made by the Arroyo Grande City Council that they would change.
The money would have provided a stable source of funding, created a reserve fund to replace fire engines and equipment, and improved dispatch services. The fire authority provides fire services to Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano.
Under the proposed assessment, owners of single-family homes on an acre or less would have paid a maximum of $66 a year.
“Sixty-six dollars is a fairly small price to pay to maintain the level of response we have and build toward the future,” Costello said.
Brown said he opposed the council’s decision to twice place a bond measure on election ballots to raise money for a new police station. (He voted to place a $6.7 million bond measure on the ballot in 2012 along with the rest of the council but said he regrets doing so.)
“I think it’s been a huge waste of money,” he said. “We found out that, bond measure aside, we were able to remodel the police building without doing a bond.”
Harmon said the city should have closed Short Street and created a plaza when the council voted in 2010 to sell two city buildings and move City Hall to another building on East Branch Street. The council also approved the demolition of a city building to allow construction of a new restaurant at East Branch and Short streets.
“The original plan was to have a closed street on Short Street to allow restaurants to have an open space for dining and a walk-in plaza,” Harmon said. “I feel we dropped the ball. I think it took away from that project.”