Lately it doesn’t seem as though anyone wants to manage the Los Osos Community Services District. Former manager John Schempf took a $30,000 pay cut and moved to Maine in the middle of February. In all, there have been three managers over about three years. Now Francis “Mitch” Cooney has taken over temporarily, but his past local government jobs ended in hostility and alleged sexual harassment.
Cooney has agreed to fill in for a few months until a permanent general manager is found. The good news: he’s highly experienced in government. The not-so-good news: Some of those jobs ended badly.
Before taking over as the Los Osos general manager Cooney was the general manager for the Oceano CSD, a job he held for about 10 years. Before that he was the SLO County Clerk-Recorder for about 20 years.
Cooney left the clerk position in a very public—despite attempts to keep it private—harassment case. Cooney did not resign, but chose not to run for the office again after he was accused of sexually harassing an employee, Victoria Walls. The two had been romantically involved for several years, but at some point the relationship became unwelcome for Walls, New Times reported at the time.
Walls filed a complaint with the county and Cooney filed an agreement that he would leave office. That private agreement became public when the then Telegram-Tribune obtained a court order to release the document. Cooney left before the end of his last term in office.
Cooney will make $1,100 per month and work 24 hours per week. Schempf pulled in a district salary of $115,000 before he left.
Cooney did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the harassment case before press time.
Shortly after the harassment case, Cooney moved to Sacramento for about three years. But in 1997, he was back in local government work. He started working with the Oceano CSD and was promoted to general manager in about a year.
Cooney held that job for the next 10 years; then the board membership changed. Cooney said that after new members were elected he found himself with a board majority that didn’t want him there.
“It just wasn’t a good situation,” he said. “It wasn’t happy.”
Board president at the time, Jim Hill, said he and other board members didn’t mesh with Cooney’s policies and he felt Cooney had been “foot-dragging.”
Tensions built for a few months and eventually Cooney turned in his resignation before he could be voted out. He was put on administrative leave for about three months and left the district a month before his contract was set to expire in mid 2007.
Now Cooney is entering a district that tends to churn through general managers faster than its septic tanks leak pollutants into the ground.
“Who is going to come in at this point?” board member Maria Kelly questioned of the district's general manager search. “Absolutely no one. We haven’t had a clean audit or a balanced budget in three years.”
It’s no secret that the district is a hard place to work. The current board president, Joe Sparks, said Schempf left for Maine because he grew up in the area and wanted a more challenging position. Still, he added, “I’m sure the conditions in Los Osos didn’t help.” Schempf could not be reached for comment.
Schempf was the last in a string of three short-lived tenures for district general managers. Before him, Annajane Hugh was an interim general manager for about a year.
“I wish [Cooney] well,” Hugh said. “It’s hard; it’s a split community.”
Hugh took over from Dan Bleskey. During Bleskey’s term the district stopped its sewer project, blew through its budget, and began filing for bankruptcy. Bleskey served for about a year and was partially blamed for the district’s financial downfall.
Over the past decade, Bruce Buel has so far held the Los Osos general manager record. Buel oversaw the district for about six years before Bleskey. But like Cooney, Buel was put on administrative leave by new board members before he resigned.
Buel is now general manager for the Nipomo CSD. Asked about Los Osos he said, “I’ve tried very hard not to follow their activities; it’s too painful.”
District officials and Cooney said they hope to now ease some of the district’s pains, or at least bandage a few of the big wounds. Cooney’s past problems didn’t worry either Sparks or Kelly, both of whom helped conduct the search for an interim general manager.
Kelly said that although Cooney clashed with board members in Oceano, he’s the only Los Osos general manager in years to have actual CSD experience.
“Is this the time we’re going to discuss personalities or outcomes?” she asked.
Sparks was reluctant to talk about Cooney’s past or whether it was discussed during the hiring process, but said he was the best man for the job.
“I can tell you I think he’s going to be highly successful and highly qualified and I don’t think there’s going to be an issue that I’m concerned about.”
Staff writer Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.