It was one hell of a City Council meeting in Atascadero on Oct. 24. Emotions ran high, as the
public and members of the City Council debated whether to extend a law that forbids council members from issuing orders to city staff aside from the city attorney and the city manager to include barring planning commissioners from doing the same.
"My concern is backroom dealings by council candidates," said George Luna, the council member responsible for placing the issue on the agenda. "We need to have a mechanism in place to show staff [the] Council supports them."
In the shadow of recent allegations from city staffers including Deputy Community Development Director Steve McHarris that Planning Commissioner Bob Kelley and local attorney Robert "Grigger" Jones both current City Council candidates pressured them to waive regulations and allow local developer Kelly Gearhart to pave over open space at his condo development behind the backs of planning officials, the Atascadero City Council voted 4-0 to have the city attorney pen an ordinance for review at a future Council meeting.
At the Oct. 24 meeting, Gearhart repeatedly asked the Council what violations or rules he had broken in regard to the allegations of pressuring staff and making unapproved project changes.
"There was no violation by Gearhart," City Attorney Patrick Enright said during the meeting. "The thrust is not a violation by Gearhart, but [is in] regards to the Planning Commission."
During a short recess, Enright clarified that a developer pressuring staff members isn't a violation. However, a developer making changes without official sanction would be a violation of the codes of approval.
"No way, no how, were [Jones and Kelley] there to pressure anyone," Gearhart said in the candidates' defense. "I don't need anyone to pressure for me."
Gearhart also alleged that staff violated the Permit Streamline Act by not responding to his plan-change request in the required 30 days, and that he had asked Jones and Kelley to the site in order to review the process and staff's inadequacies.
"With shortages in staff, we may have missed the 30-day limit," said Community Development Director Warren Frace. "The point of the act is to get to a public hearing. In terms of being deprived of a hearing, it did not happen."