Editorials

SLO County’s public works chief is gone. Now it’s time to dispel rumors about his exit

Did you know San Luis Obispo County provides 700 public services?

San Luis Obispo County government employs more than 2,800 people who provide more than 700 public services, including law enforcement, public works, transportation and health care.
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San Luis Obispo County government employs more than 2,800 people who provide more than 700 public services, including law enforcement, public works, transportation and health care.

It’s never a good thing when a top county official leaves after just a year on the job. It’s even worse when the departure is in response to complaints raised by staff.

But from what we know, San Luis Obispo County handled the situation involving former Public Works Director Daniel “Colt” Esenwein appropriately, and in a way that let employees know their concerns matter.

As reported by Tribune reporter Matt Fountain, complaints about Esenwein’s “actions and leadership style” were received and investigated, which led Esenwein to resign.

He was on paid leave for 17 days during the investigation, earning around $12,000 during that time. We’ve seen other investigations drag on much longer, cost much more, and stir up far more community angst — in some cases leading to full-fledged scandals that rocked local government.

We’ve also seen public agencies pay out huge sums in severance packages. There will be no severance package in this case, according to County Administrator Wade Horton.

The county has been tight-lipped about the exact nature of the complaints against Esenwein, which is par for the course for public agencies dealing with personnel matters.

The Tribune has filed a request for any written complaints. We urge the county to grant it as quickly as possible, for everyone’s sake.

That would dispel rumors and speculation that could be far more damaging to Esenwein than the truth.

It would also send a clear message about the county’s values and its expectations of managers, both to county employees and to the public. And it would shed light on why someone who seemed like such a good fit for the position would abruptly leave the job, which pays a generous $285,000 a year in total compensation.

Esenwein appeared to have all the right credentials: He had previously held public works positions in Santa Cruz County and Stanislaus County, served in the Navy and graduated from Cal Poly in engineering.

Assuming there were no red flags that turned up in his background check, he seemed like an excellent hire to lead a department responsible for flood control, roads, select water and sewer projects and the design, planning and construction management of new county facilities.

It’s unfortunate that it didn’t turn out that way, but the situation would have been far worse if the county had let things fester.

It’s also unfortunate that the county wasn’t more transparent in making the taxpaying public aware that a department head had left under shadowy circumstances.

The county may not be able to release many details, but it would seem reasonable to note when a high-level employee is placed on leave, investigated and quits under pressure, rather than allowing leaks from within county government to spread the news.

For now, the county Public Works Department is under the leadership of Interim Director John Diodati, who has served as a deputy director for several years.

Good choice. We’ve always found Diodati to be professional, competent and responsive to questions and concerns.

The county Public Works Department is critical to the safety and well-being of unincorporated communities; after a period of turmoil, it deserves to be in good hands.

San Luis Obispo County Public Works responded to a broken component on the Lake Nacimento pipeline. The failed unit showered water onto Rocky Canyon Road southeast of Atascadero, California.

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