After upping the amount of money it will pay for outside legal counsel, the South County Sanitation District board of directors signed on to partner with the city of Arroyo Grande for an independent investigation into misconduct allegations against AG Mayor Jim Hill.
The sanitation district board’s 2-0 vote at its March 1 meeting means the entity will pay half of the estimated $15,000 cost of the investigation, which will be conducted by the law firm of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore. Hill, who is also a member of the sanitation district’s board, recused himself from the vote.
The Arroyo Grande City Council voted to investigate Hill Feb. 14 following accusations by an Arroyo Grande resident that he leaked an unsigned, unapproved employee contract, discussed confidential matters in public, and gave his wife access to his city email account, which contained confidential information and documents.
The council members believe the investigation is necessary to protect the city from costly litigation for possibly violating the state’s public meetings laws, also know as the Brown Act. Sanitation District Board Director and Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals raised similar concerns at the March 1 meeting, saying the district was faced with similar legal exposure.
“I take these allegations from the community very seriously,” he said.
But Hill and many of his supporters believe that the accusations are politically motivated payback for the mayor’s push to investigate former Sanitation District Administrator John Wallace. As a result of an investigation and audit, Wallace is now facing felony conflict of interest charges brought by the SLO County District Attorney’s Office.
Hill supporter and Arroyo Grande resident Otis Page urged the sanitation district not to participate in the investigation, claiming that the accusations were simply an attempt to disparage Hill’s reputation.
“I suggest strongly: Don’t join that party,” Page said. “It’s a loser.”
At the meeting, Shoals insisted that the investigation was not a “witch hunt.”
“I actually like working with Jim,” Shoals said. “And if we have to go through this to clear his name, then we need to get the facts and get to the bottom of this.”
But getting to the bottom of the recently leveled accusations, and others, has come at a price for the sanitation district. At the March 1 meeting, the board voted 3-1, with Hill dissenting, to tack on an additional $30,000 to the budget for outside legal counsel, bringing the total to $50,000. The board also voted to increase the budgeted amount for attorney’s fees by $24,000 for a total of $120,000.
The district has been spending thousands of dollars in its various investigations. The audit on Wallace’s tenure cost more than $91,000. In addition, Liebert Cassidy Whitmore were previously contracted by the sanitation district to investigate undisclosed personnel matters last year. The firm has already been paid more than $40,000 for that work, according to district financial documents.
Sanitation District board member Karen White, representing the Oceano Community Services District, expressed frustration that the Hill investigation would mean yet another cost to the district, and indicated that the controversies and political bickering was “sucking the financial lifeblood” out of South County governments. Still, she voted for the district to join the investigation of Hill.
“Maybe, just maybe, this will be the last time such action is needed,” White said. “However, I doubt it.”