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Big trouble in little AG: Tensions between the mayor and the Arroyo Grande City Council are coming to a head

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Longtime Arroyo Grande resident Patty Welsh liked Mayor Jim Hill. When Hill mounted a write-in campaign challenging the city’s former embattled mayor in 2014, Welsh said she supported the effort.

“I helped him,” Welsh told New Times. “I was one of the ones who made the [campaign] signs.”

Nearly three years later, Welsh stood before the City Council and raised concerns about the mayor’s behavior in office, accusing him of potential misconduct. Those concerns eventually lead the council to vote 4-0 at a Feb. 14 meeting in favor of spending up to $15,000 on an independent investigation into the allegations. Welsh said it wasn’t an easy choice to come forward but she believes it was necessary to restore transparency within the city government.

“It’s very unsettling, but at some point our city has to start moving forward, and I hope this allows this to happen,” she said.

The road to the investigation began at a Jan. 24 council meeting when Welsh publically raised a number allegations. Those claims included one that Hill leaked an unsigned, unapproved employee contract to an unnamed party. She also said she witnessed Hill leave a closed session meeting and discuss confidential matters in public. In addition, Welsh alleged that Hill gave his wife access to his city email account, which contained confidential information and documents. If those allegations are true, both could be considered violations of the state’s open meetings law, known as the Brown Act.

Hill has called the allegation against him “baseless” and said he did not intend to participate in the discussion or decision on the investigation. Some of his supporters believe that the call for an investigation was politically motivated.

Los Osos resident Julie Tacker accused the mayor’s opponents of “smearing” Hill’s good name, while Grover Beach City Councilwoman Debbie Peterson hinted that the allegations might be payback for Hill’s ardent criticism of former South SLO County Sanitation District administrator John Wallace, who is now facing felony charges for allegedly breaking the state’s conflict of interest laws.

“There’s some people who aren’t going to look very good when that comes out,” Peterson said.

The allegations and subsequent investigation is the latest chapter in a rocky history between Hill and some members of the City Council.

The recent tensions between Hill and those council members began in in early 2016, when the city’s insurance carrier, the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (CJPIA) a letter stating that it had become aware of “derogatory comments” made by two council members about the then-City Manager Dianne Thompson. The letter was sent after Hill expressed frustration with city staff and procedure at a public meeting and Councilmember Tim Brown criticized Thompson on a local radio talk show. The letter warned that the statements could open the city up to a lawsuit, but Hill stood by his words. The CJPIA took no further actions, and after less than a year on the job, Thompson was fired through a unanimous vote of the council.

Hill again became embroiled in a controversy in May 2016, as he prepared to run for re-election in November. This time, it occurred after other members of the council discovered that Hill sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission regarding a vacant Haggen grocery store location in the city without notifying the council. The letter appeared to support Spencer’s Fresh Market—a business owned by individuals who supported Hill’s mayoral run—getting the spot. While the letter was not written on city letterhead, Hill did identify himself as the city's mayor. When the dust settled, the council voted 3-2 to create a new policy requiring council members to keep each other in the loop when sending official correspondence.

Despite questions about his behavior becoming a prominent talking point of his opponent, Hill won re-election in November.

Councilmember Brown, who backed Hill against criticism from other council members in past disputes, acknowledged that the atmosphere surrounding the current allegations against Hill were “politically charged,” but he still voted on Feb. 14 to move forward with the investigation.

“We need to get to the other side of this,” Brown said.

The investigation marks the second time the city’s had to deal with a high-profile controversy. Hill’s 2014 write-in victory was precluded by a scandal that began when former City Manager Steve Adams was found alone with a subordinate employee at Arroyo Grande City Hall late one night. Many residents criticized longtime Mayor Tony Ferrera for his handling of the situation, and their outrage likely helped boost Hill into office.

To have another controversy in City Hall has left some residents, like Welsh, worried that the division could negatively impact the city’s ability to do business.

Even some of the council members seemed weary and less than pleased to have their city once again embroiled in a high-profile controversy. Brown said he was “exhausted” with the number of investigations the city has had to conduct since he’d been on the council.

“As the great philosopher Yogi Berra said, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again,’” Brown said.

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.

NOTE: This article was updated to specify that Hill's letter to the FTC was not written on official city letterhead.

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