As the clock approached 9 p.m. on the night of Nov. 19, the Arroyo Grande City Council chambers were not unlike a fairground at the end of a grand finale fireworks show.
There was a certain kind of somber hush in the room as people filed for the exits, knowing the action was over. Some people were happy that the loud explosions were finished, but others wanted more fireworks.
As the proverbial smoke clears in Arroyo Grande, a great deal has changed. Longtime Mayor Tony Ferrara and Councilman Joe Costello were officially voted out as election results were certified on Nov. 19, and longtime City Manager Steve Adams was placed on paid administrative leave at a special council meeting on the same day.
According to Councilman Jim Guthrie, the City Council’s upcoming Dec. 1 special meeting will feature the swearing in of new Councilwoman Barbara Harmon and Mayor-elect Jim Hill.
“There’s definitely a new character to politics in Arroyo Grande,” Guthrie told New Times. “It’s just unfortunate that this is the way Steve Adams’ tenure came to an end.”
When asked to describe the prevailing atmosphere of city politics since Adams and Community Development Director Teresa McClish were discovered together in City Hall late at night on July 3, Guthrie said it’s been “negative” and Councilwoman Kristen Barneich labeled it “toxic.”
“It’s been toxic for everyone, and no one has been left out,” Barneich said during the Nov. 19 special meeting. “For the sake of our city, it is paramount that, despite our differences, we all start to move forward in a positive manner.”
That transition from toxicity to recovery is on the minds of Barneich, Guthrie, and Councilman Tim Brown, the three sitting council members who will retain their seats going forward.
All three spoke at the Nov. 19 meeting, but Brown—who has, by and large, declined to publicly speak about the controversy—was visibly emotional and spoke uninterrupted for over 10 minutes.
Brown delivered both critical and complimentary assessments of Ferrara, Adams, the A.G. police and Police Officers’ Association, City Attorney Tim Carmel, and those in the community and media who have lambasted the council’s handling of the situation.
Regarding Adams, Brown said that the council initially chose to “forgive and forget” his July 3 judgment error and just hand down a verbal reprimand, but he now considers that decision a “mistake.”
After more than an hour of closed session discussion, Brown joined Barneich, Guthrie, and Costello in unanimously voting to accept Adams’ resignation (which he had submitted in early October), and place Adams on paid administrative leave, effective immediately.
Guthrie told New Times that the new council will likely appoint an interim city manager at its Dec. 9 meeting, adding that whomever fills the position will likely be a temporary hire who will serve during the search for a permanent replacement.
According to Guthrie, the city wants to get the search for a permanent city manager underway as soon as possible, and he said the council would likely pick a consultant to conduct the search during the same Dec. 9 meeting.
“It’s fair to say that [Nov. 19] is sooner than Steve Adams planned to leave, but it’s my personal opinion that his ability to lead was seriously compromised,” Guthrie said. “Steve did great things for this community and built a great staff, so I think they will be able to carry us through this interim period.”
Nov. 19 marked Adams’ last day at City Hall, and it also saw the formal presentation of a comprehensive independent investigation into the July 3 incident and all subsequent fallout.
A seven-page summary of the investigation released to the public stated investigators found no substantive evidence of an inappropriate or romantic relationship between Adams and McClish and no evidence of a “cover up” by the council or anyone else.
That said—after conducting 34 interviews—the investigators did conclude that Adams and McClish’s behavior “exhibited poor judgment” and “gives the perception of some form of inappropriate conduct” even if there was no substantive evidence of such conduct.
Unsurprisingly, several frequent city critics took issue with the investigation during public comment on Nov. 19, but—with Adams’ exit from City Hall finalized and the report already filed—their exhortations were largely moot.
Noticeably absent from the meeting were Ferrara, Adams, and McClish, who have been the central figures in much of the discussion since July 3.
Adams and McClish did not respond to requests for comment from New Times, but Ferrara—who was attending a conference in Austin, Texas—did not hold back when asked about his feelings regarding the election and the future direction of Arroyo Grande.
“It’s no secret, I have no respect for [Mayor-elect] Jim Hill,” he wrote in an email to New Times. “He didn’t have the courage to run a conventional campaign. He hid behind an unethical and vicious write-in campaign.”
For his part, Hill (who won the mayoral seat by 95 votes) told New Times that he was “very gratified by the result” of the election, and looks forward to being mayor. Hill added that the way Ferrara and Adams handled the July 3 incident was “inappropriate,” and opined that the election was a direct commentary on that mishandling.
“The most important thing for me is to heal the rift in the community that developed before and during the election,” Hill said.
Despite this stated hope for healing, Hill dubbed the independent investigation “factually inaccurate and internally inconsistent,” and called for Adams’ immediate termination at the Nov. 19 meeting.
In the near future, Ferrara wrote that, “We will have a new city manager who will hopefully recognize all of the good things his predecessor has accomplished for the city.”
“We also have a new City Council forming and no one is certain how they will behave in light of the disconnects that have occurred throughout this process,” he concluded.
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.