Morro Bay

First Amendment “auditor” Nathianial Thomas Plotner

The City of Morro Bay, specifically their Police Department, was under the microscope last week when a self-described “First Amendment auditor” claimed he was assaulted by the city’s police chief.

The auditor, Nathanial Thomas Plotner (or “Nasty Nathanial” on YouTube), went to Morro Bay to perform an “audit,” which consists of testing the tolerance of law enforcement’s observance of the First Amendment by videotaping around the station. In this case, Plotner recorded footage of officer vehicles entering and leaving the station before entering the lobby. Plotner was ultimately stopped by two officers, one of them being Morro Bay police chief Greg Allen, who asked for his identification. When he refused, Allen reached over to Plotner and the camera fell on its side, indicating he was forced onto the ground and detained.

Here’s footage captured by Plotner:

According to the Morro Bay Police Dept., Chief Allen had concerns about prior incidents involving individuals videotaping the back of police stations for more nefarious purposes. The officer beside him, whose identity was not disclosed, claimed videotaping inside the lobby was a violation of the Penal Code and was a misdemeanor. Under California law, there is no Penal Code violation for recording inside a police station lobby unless legally sensitive conversations are taking place inside.

Plotner and the “auditing” community determined the city failed the audit. The community called for the chief and his accompanying officer to be disciplined, fired and worse.

Following the incident were two live streams by Plotner and a fellow YouTube auditor named “Johnny 5-0.” In one of the streams, Plotner and 5-0 followed an unidentified man throughout Morro Bay after encountering him. For nearly an hour, they followed the man, shined a light in his eyes, blared a siren noise through a small megaphone in his ear, occasionally pushing and verbally taunting him. Ironically, the name of the video indicated they were being stalked. As a result of the video, the unidentified man’s alleged address, phone number and employer contact information was published. On YouTube, Plotner’s followers repeatedly and specifically threatened the man with bodily harm and death in various ways.

The facts are unclear, but at one point, Plotner and 5-0 had an encounter with members of the Morro Bay Chamber. As a result, Plotner’s supporters flooded the chamber with harassing and threatening phone calls, voicemails and emails. On YouTube, some of the chamber’s female employees were identified. They too received threats of physical harm, which included threats of sexual assault. The Chamber later issued a statement to their members, indicating there might be an “auditor” protest on February 10. They urged residents and business owners to ignore and not engage with people who threatened “to wreak havoc, cause traffic jams, leave messes, sit in hotel lobbies and not spend one dime” in Morro Bay.

Though no protest actually happened, the “auditor” movement continues to publish videos on Morro Bay. On Sunday night, more self-described “auditors” appeared to visit the Morro Bay police station.

The “auditor” controversy eventually made its way to the local news. KSBY covered the story on February 10, only to have their reporter Alexa Bertola being threatened for what Plotner’s supporters called “fake news.”

On social media, Facebook pages operated by the City of Morro Bay were flooded with negative, derogatory and threatening comments toward residents, business owners, city employees — anyone who dared to express the slightest skepticism over the auditor’s motives. I personally received harassing comments and threats when I observed that many of the commenters lived outside of the area and asked them unbiased questions. Some were gracious enough to answer my questions civilly while others felt I was somehow infringing on their right to express themselves.

To them, I ask: What about residents’ First Amendment rights? Or do they only apply to you?

But there are plenty of reasons to express skepticism of Plotner’s motives.

Plotner has a criminal record. In 2002, Plotner was charged and convicted for making a death threat against a Pismo Beach police officer. Charges included stalking, attempted extortion and making criminal threats after threatening to kill the officer unless the city paid him $1 million. He was sentenced to four years in prison. After he got out of prison, ten years later, Plotner was hit with a felony arrest for suspicion of violating his parole. After his stint in prison, Plotner re-emerged as a “First Amendment auditor,” showing the community how to properly “audit” law enforcement in training videos. Armed with a history of threatening law enforcement, Plotner arrived at the Morro Bay police station wearing all black military-style clothing. There was plenty of reason for law enforcement to be concerned.

The overwhelming amount of graphic and perverse comments from the “auditing” community adds another layer of concern. Comments calmly questioning the constitutionality of the officers’ actions are completely eclipsed by the movement’s clear intent to harm residents, businesses and law enforcement with no prior infringement of First Amendment rights. Instead of constructively working with law enforcement to increase their tolerance of First Amendment expression, the “auditor” movement engages in a conspiratorial witch-hunt that’s unnecessarily enveloped innocent people.

Sadly, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

In 2014, I reported on CalCoastNews’ peddling of a conspiracy theory claiming that Morro Bay business owners were conspiring with the City to stifle business competition — just as I’ve reported on every other conspiracy theory they’ve peddled throughout the years. The tabloid showed no evidence a conspiracy existed, yet businesses and individuals they identified as conspirators were harassed and threatened. The conspiracy extended into law enforcement, who CCN indicated was involved in unjustifiably red-tagging businesses that we later learned never had the proper permits to operate to begin with. That conspiracy was also fueled by a series of YouTube videos. Interestingly enough, some of Plotner’s supporters on YouTube suggested that CCN would be a more acceptable medium for their ire.

We live in interesting times.

There are plenty of reasons to question authority and our local leadership, but at what cost? Maybe Plotner has a point that he was unlawfully detained. Maybe he does, but why does he and his supporters rely on criminal harassment to get that point across? Why do his supporters feel it’s necessary to terrorize an entire community to get their point across?

Is that truly activism?

It’s not. It’s not activism when our local gadfly Kevin P. Rice does it. If anything, it’s cowardice.

Morro Bay is a lot stronger and unified than people give the city credit for. There may be political disagreements, but above all else, residents care for the city they live in. As a Morro Bay resident, I’m proud to stand with law enforcement, even if they make mistakes. Yes, there should be refresher courses on the First Amendment, but it should never be done at an entire city’s expense; it should never be expressed with acts of terror. If Plotner’s supporters and his fellow “auditors” realized that hate is no substitute for debate, we would be further along in the conversation with results that everyone across the board can agree on.

Until they act like grown-ups, wear a suit instead of military camo, and eliminate the death threats, the “auditors” will be ignored. But if they attempt to carry out any of their threats, we will fight back accordingly.

The Tribune praised Morro Bay mayor Jamie Irons as someone with an “unflappable demeanor,” but they didn’t take into account how much money his administration cost residents.

In August, the Morro Bay City Council decided to drop plans to outsource the police department to the SLO County Sheriff’s Dept. They initially considered the option because it was a cost-cutting measure. According to city manager Dave Buckingham, either the police department would be outsourced or residents would have to cope with bad roads throughout the city. Taken aback by Buckingham’s comments, residents were left to ponder about the city’s fiscal health. What happened?

The water reclamation facility happened.

Morro Bay residents begrudgingly realized the plant needed to be moved away from its current location because it was located in a flood plain and tsunami zone. The California Coastal Commission decreed the plant to be moved further inland, and Irons obliged. The problem was deciding how that was going to be done. The council put forward an ambiguous timetable on when each phase of the project would be completed, but it appears as though progress has deadlocked. It’s worth noting how much money was spent while the project went nowhere.

According to a Oct. 4, 2016 presentation for the Water Reclamation Facility Citizen’s Advisory Committee, the city has spent $1,605,934 on various consultant costs, which is over 60% of the projected budget for 2015/16 fiscal year. Expenses include fatal flaw and survey analysis for a number of sites that the committee considered. Interestingly, the city has not provided updated costs because they prefer to disclose costs as part of a quarterly report — so residents don’t fully know the full extent of the damage.

The city has focused on a couple of sites, but they received significant pushback from residents. This happened because city consultant John Rickenbach pushed the city to engage in property negotiations prior to tabling a council discussion with public comment. The city focused on two properties: the Rancho Colina site and the Righetti site. Negotiations reached an impasse on Rancho Colina and residents panned the Righetti option due to noise and odor concerns.

After a year of fumbling, the city has settled on a new site located on South Bay Blvd. On his re-election website, Irons focused on that site as the clear choice and claimed the majority of the community agrees with the selection; that it was selected “without any pending litigation.” If everything Irons’ campaign said about the South Bay Blvd. site was true, why wasn’t it considered in the first place?

How much did it cost ratepayers to finally see at least a glimmer of progress? Neither the council nor Irons’ campaign have disclosed that figure. The closest we have is an oversimplified cost breakdown from the previous quarter, which you can access by clicking here.

At least we know the city spent $42,205.50 for “project management software” for the project.

Similarly, residents have also raised questions about costs associated with the city’s legal counsel.

After terminating their in-house counsel Rob Schultz in 2013, the city retained the law firm Aleshire & Wynder. Joseph Pannone, an equity partner in the firm, serves as the contract city attorney for Morro Bay. Pannone made headlines earlier this year when he attempted to crack down on public comment involving political campaign announcements.

The Bay News’ Neil Farrell documented the increase in the firm’s rates since the firm was retained in Feb. 2014. Farrell analyzed attorney costs from the 2014-2015 fiscal year. But recent public records reveal the city is paying the firm more than they did in the previous fiscal year. For example, Aleshire & Wynder invoiced the city twice in one month for two months of services. On May 23, 2016, Aleshire & Wynder billed the city $74,552 for services that month. On May 31, the firm billed the city $46,262 for June.

What was the double-dip for? The City hasn’t explained, but Farrell’s article offers a clue.

“For fiscal year 2014-2015, with contracted price increases and other changes, depending on the number of hours and type of legal services provided, the cost is estimated at $149,000 [for 75 hours per month of general city attorney services plus $60,000 in litigation and specialty services],” former interim city attorney Anne Russell explained. “The numbers may be higher or lower depending on how the City utilizes the City Attorney, and depending on unknown demands for specialty or litigation services. Any major litigation could easily deplete the $60,000.”

According to City Council minutes and agenda from May, there was no major litigation scheduled for closed session discussion.

The rising consultant and attorney costs raise more questions than answers. Public record doesn’t offer much of an explanation for what they money was spent on. Instead, residents get bits and pieces of information that have no clear paper trail.

This November, voters should hold Jamie Irons accountable for the clear lack of transparency.

Morro Bay City Manager David Buckingham
Morro Bay City Manager David Buckingham

The City of Morro Bay has undergone some interesting management changes since the City Council their long-time city manager Andrea Lueker and city attorney Rob Schultz.

In August 2014, the City hired David Buckingham, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the armed forces for over 25 years. His previous position was garrison commander in Vicenza, Italy. According to The Tribune’s Nick Wilson, unnamed city officials said his position was similar to being city manager. On July 4, 2013, Buckingham reportedly lost his temper and lashed out at a military police officer who failed to follow orders to open a gate that blocked traffic. According to the Army Times, Buckingham lost his position and was reassigned due to an investigation into his conduct and the command climate he created. Buckingham felt the Army was forced into taking action after receiving pressure from “inaccurate” Italian media reports.

It appears Buckingham’s Vicenza problem has crept into Morro Bay city management.

On July 18, Buckingham issued a public memorandum, revealing the City was considering recommendations by a “professional, external consulting firm specializing in municipal management” to contract out its law enforcement to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department. The memo was released after two of the city’s highest ranking police officers abruptly left to pursue careers elsewhere. Last month, Cmdr. Bryan Millard left his post to join Cuesta College as their police chief. Earlier this month, police chief Amy Christey was selected to take over as chief for the Pacific Grove police department. Law enforcement officials I spoke to expressed concern about their job security and complained that morale has “never been lower” since Buckingham became city manager. Similarly, officials serving at the nearby Morro Bay Fire Dept. have expressed concern that their services would be subcontracted to CAL FIRE. The goal, according to Buckingham, is to cut costs.

But creating new city positions is not a cost-cutting measure. In June 2015, the City hired Sam Taylor for Deputy City Manager, a new position created by Buckingham, for $113,000 a year plus benefits. The hiring created additional controversy because the city did not publicly advertise that they were looking for a deputy city manager. Buckingham circumvented the typical vetting process by personally selecting Taylor, who personally impressed him when he sat on an interview panel in Atascadero. At the time Buckingham was on the panel, Taylor applied for the same position in Atascadero. The city’s legal counsel said Buckingham’s hiring was legally appropriate. Buckingham added that his hiring process saved the city $10,000, which would have gone toward a search firm. Yet city officials contend that Management Partners, the same consulting firm that recommended subcontracting out local law enforcement, incurred more than $10,000 for their services.

In May this year, Taylor left his position in the city and was hired for a similar position in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Shortly after the news broke, the city started advertising the newly vacated position in local media. Around the same time, the city placed ads for a Recreation Dept. Director, a position previously terminated by Buckingham. Previous dept. director Joe Woods was reportedly forced to resign in April 2015 as a way to cut costs. Woods earned an annual salary of $118,000. Until he left, Taylor oversaw the Recreation Dept. The idea behind the consolidation was to save the city from needlessly shelling out additional salaries.

Meanwhile, Buckingham has caused headaches for residents. Buckingham recently made headlines when he feuded with residents that were concerned with the city looking to build a new water reclamation facility at the controversial Righetti site. According to residents living near the Righetti site, Buckingham has refused to meet with them. And once again, after public outcry and threats of legal action from local residents, the city shifted their focus onto a new location. Several unproductive workshops and council meetings later, the council — with Buckingham’s not-so-steady leadership — remains at a standstill and outside consultants (i.e. John F. Rickenbach Consulting) continue getting paid for circumventing public input.

Last year, Buckingham spear-headed efforts to install a parklet on Main St. without a public hearing as part of a six-month pilot program that the city did not publicly vet. Ultimately the program folded after public outcry. Buckingham also supported aggressive measures to implement code enforcement in lieu of going through the Planning Commission to determine whether existing code should remain as is or be modified. Instead of determining on a case-by-case basis if the existing code was addressing health and safety concerns, the council moved forward with a discussion about whether or not the “proactive” code enforcement should continue. There was public outcry when residents — including long-time and elderly residents who were disproportionately affected — received notices from code enforcement that they could no longer park their RVs and boats on their private property. Ultimately the council reversed course and decided to move forward with the public process to review the existing codes.

City Hall formed a fiscal sinkhole within itself and it’s swallowing taxpayers at an alarming rate. Morro Bay residents shouldn’t stand for that.