Facing legal threats, Oceano board adjusts how it hears public comments

Emotions ran high in Oceano Wednesday night as numerous residents expressed their support for local officials and criticized two people who recently alleged the board violated California’s open-meeting law.

Earlier this week, the Oceano Community Services District was warned that it could face litigation unless it corrected alleged breaches of the Ralph M. Brown Act that happened during a Feb. 8 meeting.

San Luis Obispo resident Kevin P. Rice alleged the board violated the Brown Act when it voted in closed session to increase interim General Manager Tom Geaslen’s compensation.

Also, concerns raised by Los Osos resident Julie Tacker about the board’s handling of public comments prompted Terry Francke, general counsel of the open government advocacy group Californians Aware, to warn the board that it should revise its meeting structure.

Board members moved swiftly Wednesday to alleviate the concerns. Chairman Matthew Guerrero announced at the start of the meeting that public comment would now take place after staff reports are given, allowing the public to hear a report or presentation before making a comment.

In addition, the board at its next meeting will consider vacating its vote on Geaslen’s compensation and add a review of the general manager’s position to the agenda.

The board on Feb. 8 reported it had voted in closed session to increase Geaslen’s pay to $10,000 a month from $7,750. The salary increase would be retroactive to Jan. 1, but the board did not approve, as originally scheduled on Wednesday, paying $3,375 to cover the time period from Jan. 1 through Feb. 15.

However, the Brown Act stipulates that final action on compensation for employees, including independent contractors, must be taken in open session.

Geaslen works on a set monthly fee as a consultant and does not take medical or retirement benefits.

Several Oceano residents on Wednesday commended Geaslen for the work he’s done since he was appointed last June.

“The progress and the way the board is moving forward is a blessing to us in Oceano,” Linda Austin said.

Others lashed out at Tacker and Los Osos resident Jeff Edwards, who frequently attends local meetings.

“Julie, you and Jeff claim to be advocates of the people of Oceano. Why do you keep at it?” resident William Smith said. “Why don’t you just stay away, period.”

Geaslen also defended his work and said he remains committed to keeping the district solvent and restoring the public’s trust in it. When he took over, the district was a “three-ring circus,” he said, “and it appears the circus has come back to town.”

“If you want to take the shots, take the shots,” he said. “I’m a big boy. Bring it on.”