The Hypocrites Who Gathered in Arroyo Grande

Stew Jenkins and Kevin Rice
Arroyo Grande mayor Jim Hill’s attorney Stew Jenkins addresses the board with SLO resident Kevin P. Rice giving a thumbs down

Several local residents and outside agitators descended on a South SLO County Sanitation District meeting to support Arroyo Grande’s beleaguered mayor, Jim Hill, condemn everyone who doesn’t support him, and personally attack the law firm investigating him. Oh, the hypocrisy is stunning!

The Sept. 20 SSLOCSD meeting was one to remember. I watched to see the congregation of hate — that I’ve covered for years on the site and elsewhere — come together in one room. The same people who rallied against public misconduct and undue political influence came out in full force to defend someone who epitomizes those qualities.

Early on, the meeting focused on Liebert Cassidy Whitmore (LCW), the law firm assigned to investigate the Arroyo Grande mayor, and their alleged overbilling of the district for their investigation. Los Osos resident and self-proclaimed “government watchdog” Julie Tacker — who oversaw and approved the overbilling of her district’s legal counsel when she served on their CSD and helped obfuscate the LOCSD’s billing records after the Grand Jury requested it — referred to LCW as “thieves” and called for a complaint against them with the California State Bar for their overbilling. At the SSLOCSD meeting, Hill’s other supporters echoed Tacker’s remarks.

However, LCW managing partner Shelline Bennett stated the billing exceeded what was originally estimated because the scope of work unexpectedly increased. The amount of witnesses sought and interviewed jumped from 8 to 20. More documents had to be analyzed. Because Hill’s attorney, Stew Jenkins, wrote to the firm around the tail-end of the investigation, LCW had to spend several billable hours looking over contentions made on behalf of Jenkins’ client who refused to cooperate. Though Hill denied that he refused, several unnamed sources connected to LCW and the investigation informed me that numerous attempts were made to reach out to Hill throughout the course of the investigation, and it wasn’t just by phone.

LCW was attacked for exercising their due diligence.

At the meeting, it was revealed that Tacker, who often argues against public waste, issued a public records request for all files and documents pertinent to the investigation. The request reportedly includes thousands of physical and electronic copies of pages. Given her history of not paying the costs associated with her public records requests, it’s expected that Tacker’s “activism” will be another costly endeavor for the district. Days before the meeting, Tacker called into the “Dave Congalton Show” and said the district should pay for Hill’s legal expenses.

After they voted 2-1 to receive and file the billing statements by LCW and their warrant register, the district board went over the investigation report and its legal conclusions.

Bennett went over the report in detail, focusing primarily on the district-side allegations against Hill that they were able to sustain. Hill chose to respond by spending nearly an hour attempting to rebut his impropriety allegations while firing off incomplete rhetorical questions. It appeared as though he tried to re-litigate the investigation itself while Bennett focused on the legal conclusions. This caused Hill and Bennett to speak past each other and create acrimony. The acrimony peaked when Hill chastised LCW for stating it was likely that he would likely disclose close session information in the future.

Hill went on: “You state there’s no evidence that I disclosed closed session information, but it’s likely that I would in the future,” said a clearly angered Hill. “By that logic, wouldn’t you agree that there may be no evidence LCW fraudulently bills their clients, but it’s certainly likely that you will in the future?”

Lauded by supporters for his civility, Hill repeatedly spoke over and demeaned the firm that investigated him. When then-Arroyo Grande mayor Tony Ferrara went through similar circumstances six years ago, he was sharply rebuked by the same people who back Hill now. In 2011, Ferrara criticized a Grand Jury report and dismissed its findings six years earlier, he was sharply rebuked by critics. One of them was a user who went by the name “MaryMalone.”

“Ferrara is a joke,” Malone wrote. “He pimps his position as AG mayor and as board member for the SSLOCSD facility, lies about it when caught, and then ‘blasts’ the [Grand Jury] who caught him.”

When Hill won the mayoral race in 2014, Julie Tacker congratulated Malone for her husband’s victory and referred to her as “Lynn” in a now-removed online comment. Lynn is the first name of Hill’s wife. Mrs. Hill was also part of the investigation as someone who had full access to her husband’s email account and its confidential records.

Yet the irony is much deeper than that. In 2014, Tacker and Hill supporter Otis Page submitted a complaint to the Grand Jury because then-mayor Ferrara showed an “unwillingness to conduct an independent investigation into all aspects of [the incident involving the city manager and his subordinate],” but when their mayor was independently investigated, both dismissed the findings. Page even went as far as to claim the Arroyo Grande City Council “acted unethically” in condemning Hill in a recent op-ed.

When public comment started, Hill’s attorney approached the lectern and urged the board to adopt the “model of physicians.” Jenkins stated that physicians get in medical malpractice lawsuits when they admit to making mistakes. Then he contradicted himself seconds later by saying, “When they admit to making a mistake and do everything to correct that, they don’t get sued.” The irony is that his client refuses to admit to making a single mistake throughout the investigation.

Jenkins took aim at Bennett, who expressed concern that Hill divulged confidential information about the district and personnel to his attorney. Bennett found that Jenkins cited specific instances that — at the time he wrote to her — were confidential. Jenkins chided her for not recognizing certain case law that allowed his client to divulge such information to him [Chubb & Son vs. Superior Court, 228 Cal.App.4th 1094 (2014)], except he provided an incorrect citation for the case and misstated key facts about it. The case he referred to was about a lawyer suing her former law firm employer (private sector) in part because they withheld and redacted relevant documentation they felt was confidential; that had nothing to do with closed session items from a district, as he indicated. Yet he accused LCW of citing irrelevant case law to back their arguments.

This is not the first time I’ve questioned Jenkins’ capacity to practice law in the last few months.

After Jenkins spoke and demanded the board apologize to Hill, several speakers approached the podium to insult Bennett and the law firm she represents, and claim the investigation is a politically motivated “witch hunt.”

One of the speakers supporting Hill was San Luis Obispo resident and widely discredited provocateur Kevin P. Rice, who appeared on camera for several hours, posturing in the background and making rude gestures to the board. When he appeared at the lectern, Rice went after Bennett, claiming she didn’t have the ability to “sustain anything” and was not a “trier of fact,” though she was not one of the authors of the investigation. He accused the board majority of “protecting the graft,” including “future felon” John Wallace. Rice criticized the investigation for substantiating false allegations, but then he personally attacked board chair John Shoals for taking a trip to China “behind the back of [the Grover Beach City Council]” which was paid for by an unnamed developer to stump for that developer; and that financial funds from the city would “guarantee” his trip to China. Shoals later rebutted Rice by saying he personally paid for the trip. Expenditure reports from the City of Grover Beach reveal that Shoals was correct and his accuser wrong.

Rice called the investigation a taxpayer-funded political campaign, and stated his involvement in creating political campaigns. However, he left out his record of spreading misinformation and false allegations to sway public opinion.

Grover Beach city councilmember Debbie Peterson cited a lyric from Bo Diddley’s 1957 hit “Before You Accuse Me” (“Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself”). Then she quotes a passage from the Bible expressing a similar sentiment. Challenge accepted. Last year, Peterson accused a different Hill — District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill — of locking her in county hall and claiming he had a gun. This allegation was made in a Rice-led robocall that went out to thousands of residents in Hill’s district. The Tribune looked into her allegation and could not find any corroborating evidence. Peterson later admitted her story, which she changed a couple of times, was an attempt to sink Hill’s re-election campaign.

Having hypocritical, unclean allies only strengthens negative public perceptions of Hill.

The board voted 2-1 to censure Hill, act on LCW’s recommendations and defer to the Arroyo Grande City Council to determine the process for removing Hill from his seat on the Sanitation District. The behavior I saw at the SSLOCSD meeting, the documented misconduct and his supporters’ deplorable behavior, justifies serious action and making tough choices.

All the while, the public process is being poisoned by the distilled essence of a sanctimonious toxin that needs to be purged — the toxin of hypocrisy that allows those with dubious agendas to sell their potions at the podium, no matter how tainted, twisted or corrupt. Without them, the meeting room would have been near empty and only the ratepayers of the participating communities would have benefited.

Author: Aaron Ochs

Aaron Ochs is a local columnist, entrepreneur and founder of SLO Truth. Ochs is also a member of the SLO Progressives club.