Division plagues South County Sanitation District

John Wallace is out of the picture, but the South SLO County Sanitation District still struggles with division and acrimony



Gerhardt Hubner listened quietly as Los Osos resident Jeff Edwards called him a white supremacist. In between the pleas for order and the bangs of a gavel, Edwards threw in the descriptors "bully" and "illiterate" for good measure.

That May 3 meeting was just like any other for the South SLO County Sanitation District.

SANITATION AGGRAVATION The South SLO County Sanitation District is still grappling with accusations, infighting, and animosity after the departure of former administrator John Wallace. - FILE PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • File Photo By Dylan Honea-baumann
  • SANITATION AGGRAVATION The South SLO County Sanitation District is still grappling with accusations, infighting, and animosity after the departure of former administrator John Wallace.

After the district's former administrator, John Wallace, resigned in 2013, some had hoped the small special district—which is in charge of the wastewater treatment plant for Grover Beach, Arroyo Grande, and Oceano—could move out from under a cloud of controversy. But four years later, the district continues to grapple with a divided board of directors and people who are vocal in their criticism of Hubner, Wallace's eventual replacement.

"I don't want you to give him an A-plus evaluation because I don't think he's doing an A-plus job," said ratepayer and sanitation district meeting regular Patricia Price. "I'd give him a low score."

Price was one of several speakers at a June 7 meeting urging the district's board of directors to consider firing Hubner. That night, the board had scheduled a closed-session performance evaluation of Hubner, per his contract.

Price and about a dozen others show up regularly at the bi-monthly meetings to voice a litany of concerns that they believe warrant Hubner's firing. Some say he is unresponsive or evasive with public records requests; others chastise him for not putting the 2017-18 proposed budget before the board in a timely manner and accuse him of purposely keeping district board member and Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill out of the loop on the district's business. The criticisms ratcheted up further after March 6, when Hubner placed wastewater treatment plant Superintendent John Clemons and Secretary Amy Simpson on paid administrative leave.

Three months later, both remain on paid leave. In an interview with New Times, Clemons said he's still not received any reason or explanation as to why he was placed on leave in the first place.

"I never received any kind of written warning or discipline," he said. "I don't believe there's any valid reason for me to be placed on paid administrative leave."

Clemons was put on leave shortly after he attended a meeting of the Arroyo Grande City Council to defend Hill. At the meeting, Clemons tried to urge the council not to move forward with an independent investigation into misconduct claims against Hill, who has been a vocal critic of Hubner. Both the council and sanitation district board voted in favor of that investigation. In a previous interview with New Times, Clemons hinted that his ouster might have been retaliation for publicly backing Hill.

A June 8 letter to Hubner from the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board may also offer another possible explanation for Clemons' being placed on leave. The letter states that Hubner asked the water board to prioritize an investigation into allegations that someone falsified data on the sanitation district's pollutant discharge permit.

"You mentioned that the alleged violations were caused by an employee of the district and that you are pursuing a personnel action against the employee, and we should therefore act quickly to avoid negative press coverage," the letter states.

It also appeared to chide Hubner for trying to push the water board to action on the issue, noting that any such investigation would be separate and independent from an internal personnel investigation by the sanitation district.

"As such, please do not discuss the district's internal personnel actions with water board staff or try to influence water board staff in this regard," the letter states. "We consider personnel actions to be confidential, and we do not prioritize or conduct our investigations in relation to the [sanitation] district's personnel actions."

The letter didn't name the sanitation district employee and didn't specify whether that employee was Clemons.

Hubner said he was unable to comment on the details of Clemons' placement on administrative leave because it was an ongoing personnel issue.

Speaking with New Times, Hubner characterized efforts of the critics who attended the meetings as "orchestrated," saying they caused unnecessary drama within the district. He said that, lately, public critiques have become more inflammatory and personal, like the accusations lobbed by Edwards.

"I've been a public servant for 27 years, so part of my job is to receive feedback and criticism. I only ask that it be given in a constructive and positive manner," Hubner said. "But the vast majority, recently, have been personal with very little substance."

Whether Huber or his vocal critics are right or wrong, he's unlikely to be going anywhere. The board announced no action following its closed-session performance evaluation, and Hubner said that the majority of the three-person board felt he'd accomplished the goals they set for him. Hubner indicated that he plans to stay on at the district through his three-year contract, despite the acrimony and personal attacks.

"There are people here who depend on me," he said.

Wanting to stay with the district despite the turmoil is one of the few things that Hubner and Clemons agree on. Clemons said that he still wants to go back to work at the sanitation district, appearing at the board's last meeting to urge them to sit down with all the parties involved and work out a solution to the situation.

"I'd be willing to sit down with your district's board and your administrator and answer any questions we can to get this district moving forward," Clemons said.

Hubner also expressed some hope that the district could recover from the disarray.

"I think if you can eliminate some of the special interests and allow the staff to do what they are going to do, then yes," Hubner said when asked if the district could move beyond the animosity and finger pointing.

For sanitation district ratepayers like Terry Clare, a resolution can't come soon enough. Like Clemons, she also appeared at the last board meeting to call for the warring factions to work things out.

"It has been disturbing to see so much upheaval and drama in the district," she said. "With it being such a small district, it seems like if we could work tighter for everyone's best in interests, we could get back on track." Δ

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the year John Wallace resigned from his position with the sanitation district. Wallace resigned in 2013.


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