By John Earl
Surf City Voice
It seems that the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the Mesa Consolidated Water District, whose members, along with General Manager Paul Shoenberger, like to brag about their dedication to transparency, tried but failed to pull a fast one today – to hide from public view two public meetings at which possible disciplinary action, including censure, against another board member will be considered, the Voice has learned.
Earlier today, this reporter was informed by sources that the first meeting would be held today at 3:30 p.m. in the district’s conference room. Normally, all public meetings, including committee meetings, are listed in the right-hand column of the district’s website, visible on every page.
But notices of today’s “Special” meeting and another one scheduled for tomorrow at the same time, are tucked away under two menu tabs, “Board of Directors” and “Committee Meetings”, that the website’s regular viewers, who are accustomed to the regular posting policy, are likely to miss.
A cryptic press release, also obscured behind website menu tabs, slips the following passage in between several paragraphs about Mesa Water’s long-range strategic plan and claims about what a wonderful place it is to work at:
“There was a recent report to Mesa Water’s human resources department involving District staff and one of its Board members; Mesa Water is taking this very seriously. Mesa Water is investigating the event and will report the results of the investigation after it is completed and the proper course of action is determined.”
But the agendas for the two meetings are even more cryptic, listing under Action Items, “Mesa Water Staff (no enclosure)” and “Other (no enclosure),” without a clue given to the nature of the accusation or which board member was allegedly involved, much less the context also missing from the press release—a long-festering dispute over budget matters between Trudy Ohlig-Hall and Paul Shoenberger.
Shoenberger’s hostility toward Ohlig-Hall was obvious as he sat, red-faced, at the Aug. 20 meeting of the two-member Finance Committee of Director James Atkinson (chairman) and Ohlig-Hall.
One could easily say that Ohlig-Hall nit-picked the GM on various contract items but also hit the nail on the head about over $200,000 dubiously spent on a public relations consultant to help with “branding” and media relations—including, documents obtained by the Voice show, probably thousands of dollars spent teaching Shoenberger how to respond to inquiries from this reporter and researching my background.
Shoenberger was already red-faced about pointed questions this reporter asked moments before during the same meeting, about tens of thousands of dollars of hidden labor and service expenditures by Mesa Water involving CalDesal, a secretive desalination lobbying organization originally incorporated in Shoenberger’s name under the direction of the Mesa Board.
The next day, Aug. 21, at the Executive Committee meeting, chaired by board President Fred Bockmiller with Director James Fisler, Shoenberger dropped the bombshell about Ohlig-Hall, without mentioning her by name, under another cryptically placed agenda item and in a memo from Shoenberger to the committee. In that memo, Shoeberger described the following incident that allegedly took place prior to the Finance Committee meeting the day before:
“On Monday, August 20, 2012 prior to 12:00 noon, I observed an employee sobbing. It was reported to me that two employees had a difficult interaction with a Director over the phone that included the Director allegedly yelling and using curse words. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.
“We are looking into various options as to controlling the interaction between Board members and the staff, which may include Directors speaking only with the General Manager and the Administrative Services Manager.”
A discussion ensued, without mentioning Ohlilg-Hall by name (she was not present) in which various but options limited by law were discussed, including censure, stripping the director of all her committee assignments, and, the one that Shoenberger seemed to prefer, requiring that all the directors speak only to him and his assistant, Administrative Services Manager Coleen Monteleone—an option that would further insulate from accountability a man who already has a substantial amount of independent power over the financial affairs of the district .
Bockmiller rejected Shoenberger’s power-grab option as potentially divisive and “unacceptable,” to which Shoenberger quickly warned, “Our HR attorney said the potentially worse case could be a lawsuit [by the alleged employee/victim]. First and foremost, we need to protect employees from harassment.”
Bockmiller opined that the district would have no legal liability if the director had acted outside of his or her job description, but acknowledged that “This kind of thing is about as bad as it gets.”
But was the alleged incident really that bad?
Since Shoenberger was not privy to the contents of the phone conversation, only the alleged victim of harassment and Ohlig-Hall could know the answer to that question.
Ohlig-Hall told the Voice that she was very sorry for the incident and had sent an apology by e-mail to the employee the next morning, but that the incident had been overblown.
At the time of the phone call she was upset, she said, because she had been booked by the employee at a hotel for a San Diego water conference, partly paid for by the district with an upgrade that she prepared to pay out of pocket, on a night for which the conference had been cancelled. During the conversation, she claims, she did raise her voice but did not use curse words. By her account, in frustration, she said, “Screw it, I’m not going [to the conference].” In fact, she didn’t attend any of the two-day conference.
It’s no secret around Mesa Water that Ohlig-Hall, who has served three terms on the board, can be temperamental at times, something even she acknowledges. Add to that her strong German accent and trouble with the English language – sometimes it’s impossible for this reporter to understand what she is saying from the dais – and it’s easy to see how misunderstandings might occur between her and staff.
But on its face it’s hard to see why her latest incident is being taken so seriously by her fellow board members at this time.
As Director Fisler pointed out at the Executive Committee meeting Aug 21, one solution for the employee who feels abused over the phone is to “just hang up.”
Ohlig-Hall’s behavior, by her own account, was unacceptable, but there may be another reason for Shoenberger’s and the rest of the board’s sudden concern for employee rights.
Her often annoying habit of belaboring or nit-picking a budget point to death causes some other board members to accuse her of micromanaging, something she says is part of her job of looking out for the interests of Mesa Water’s rate payers and that she will never apologize for.
In any case, Ohlig-Hall’s hearing today, held in a public meeting without her active participation and despite potential legal concerns about the right to privacy of the alleged victim, may lead to a greater understanding of what goes on beyond the public’s view at the Mesa Water Consolidated Water District.