Former Public Works director made sexual jokes and ‘grossed out’ staff, complaints show

Former San Luis Obispo County Public Works Director Daniel “Colt” Esenwein resigned after a little more than a year in the position.
Former San Luis Obispo County Public Works Director Daniel “Colt” Esenwein resigned after a little more than a year in the position. Courtesy of San Luis Obispo County

San Luis Obispo county’s former Public Works director was accused by staff of aggressive or inappropriate behavior and making statements that bordered on sexual harassment to female staff on and off the clock, written complaints by at least three employees show.

Daniel “Colt” Esenwein resigned May 5 — after just over a year on the job — after spending 17 days on paid administrative leave, according to county administrative officer Wade Horton.

In response to public records requests made by local media last week, the County Counsel’s Office on Tuesday released heavily redacted copies of what appears to be three written complaints that accuse the former director of making inappropriate statements such as “bending over and taking it,” and “grabbing your ankles,” and generally creeping out female employees, the complaints state.

“Universally, nobody trusts or likes Colt,” one employee wrote.

Esenwein, whose total pay came to more than $285,000, received $12,027 while he was on leave, Horton said.

Horton had previously declined to elaborate on the complaints against Esenwein other than to say that the county launched an internal investigation quickly after “concerns” were raised by staff. Esenwein voluntarily resigned shortly after.

Esenwein sent an email to Horton May 5 that reads: “Please accept this notice as my resignation, effective immediately. If you have any questions or concerns, please let me know.”

Esenwein was hired in April 2018 and oversaw about 280 full-time employees. Before coming to San Luis Obispo County, he was formerly the assistant director of public works in Santa Cruz County and had served as deputy director of public works for Stanislaus County.

One complaint released Tuesday appears to say Esenwein’s “unusual and difficult personality was known there.”

Because of the county’s extensive redactions on the documents, it is unclear how many people made complaints against Esenwein, and The Tribune is not publishing certain information that could reveal who made the complaints.

However, the documents show that Esenwein was accused of using graphic sexual descriptors to “emphasize how he does business.”

The document says, “(Redacted) basically said Colt singles out cute young females and flirts with them while he ignores the rest of the office.”

A staffer said that “people are borderline getting asked out on dates.”

One employee cited a a social mixer in which Esenwein allegedly was giving women “unwanted attention.”

“(Redacted) said nothing sexually inappropriate, but he is loud and obnoxious and he stays for a long time and gets in people’s personal space, especially the females,” the complaint reads.

Other complaints somewhat downplayed Esenwein’s alleged behavior, calling him “an immature high school boy” who likes attention but “doesn’t have the social awareness to realize it’s inappropriate.”

Staff reported witnessing “very brutal situations where staff gets ‘interrogated and humiliated’,” elevating staff into “defense mode.” They alleged he spoke loudly about personnel issues with his door open, then laughed about whether people could hear him.

However, one staff member said they didn’t feel he was being malicious.

Horton declined to discuss details of the investigation but said that the former Public Works director’s “actions and leadership style were not aligned with my expectations of a department head.”

“I do appreciate the courage it took for staff to come forward, and I want any staff member in the county of San Luis Obispo to feel supported if they have a concern. We take these concerns seriously, and that’s why we conducted an investigation,” Horton said.

Horton, who is now the top administrator in the county, preceded Esenwein as director of Public Works from 2014 to 2017. The department has several high-ranking female employees, and has been described by county supervisors as a high-functioning and effective team.

“Leaders are leaders and Public Works is a great department to have an opportunity to work with some incredible people. Whether the leaders are female or male, regardless of that fact, they’re going to be empowered and supported to do their jobs,” Horton said in a phone interview with The Tribune.

Horton told The Tribune last week that he has chosen to not immediately move forward with the recruitment process for a new director. One of the department’s three deputy directors, John Diodati, is acting as interim director and is expected to be in the position for about a year.

The situation may impact how the county investigates future hires.

“We’re always looking for lessons learned. We’ll be evaluating the situation and determining changes that need to be made,” Horton said of the hiring process.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.
Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: mvaughan@thetribunenews.com