The city of Arroyo Grande still hasn’t replied to a letter from its insurance company that raised concerns that allegedly derogatory comments made by elected officials about city staff could spark a lawsuit.
At a Jan. 12 City Council meeting, City Manager Dianne Thompson told members that Mayor Jim Hill, who was not in attendance at the meeting, had not responded to the Dec. 16 letter from the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (CJPIA), an organization of more than 120 cities and other municipal entities that participate in a pooled liability insurance program.
The letter stated that the organization had become aware of derogatory comments made by Arroyo Grande council members against the city manager and staff, and such comments made in a public setting could lead to allegations of harassment and a hostile workplace. The letter did not name which elected officials made the comments, but followed instances of Hill criticizing city staff at a Dec. 8 meeting, as well as a Dec. 15 local radio show where Councilmember Tim Brown leveled similar criticisms on Thompson. Both Hill and Brown stood by their comments, and stated they were not derogatory.
The split between Hill and Brown and Thompson has apparently spilled into the public forum, with some residents taking sides. During the Jan. 12 meeting, resident Patrick Dempsey sided with Hill and Brown, characterizing their comments as about city process and not any specific staff.
“I consider it a despicable and political letter,” he said.
Another speaker openly criticized Thompson, accusing her of not being available to the public and raising questions about her performance at her former job as city manager for the Northern California city of Cotati.
Other speakers, like resident Shirley Gibson, defended both Thompson and city staff.
“If this isn’t a hostile work environment, I don’t know what is,” Gibson, who urged the council to respond to the CJPIA’s letter, said. “It’s really sorry that it’s now OK to attack someone for doing their jobs.”
Councilmember Barbara Harmon also responded to the criticism, calling Thompson’s qualifications “impeccable.” Councilmember Kristen Barneich said the responses she’d received about Thompson from staff and citizens were “overwhelmingly positive.”
In the letter, the CJPIA stated that its “healthy member protocol” allows for progressive intervention should the troubled entity fail to correct concerns like those noted in the letter. The protocol calls for the city to develop an improvement plan and gives them 24 months to complete that plan.
At the meeting, Thompson said that the CJPIA provides training and workshops on healthy council member communication and teambuilding. If the city were take up the CJPIA on its offer, it wouldn’t be the first Central Coast city to hold a workshop to settle an ongoing conflict. In May 2015, members of the San Luis Obispo City Council had to call a special retreat when tension between its members began to impact their ability to get things done.
The Arroyo Grande council made no decision regarding the CJPIA’s letter at the Jan. 12 meeting.