By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Mesa Consolidated Water District board members Shawn Dewane and James Fisler are hoping for a knock-out punch against fellow board member Trudy Ohlig-Hall in tomorrow’s election (Nov. 6) on behalf of her challenger, Ethan Temianka, who they have both endorsed.
Onlig-Hall represents Division Three of Mesa Water’s service area, which includes parts of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. She is up for reelection having served since 1987 on the five-member board, three terms as its president.
The punch was officially thrown at the Oct. 23 Mesa Water board meeting when Dewane moved that staff return with a resolution censuring Ohlig-Hall “for her inappropriate behavior” toward two female employees and stripping her of her committee assignments, including her position on the Finance Committee where she regularly nit-picks and badgers about wasteful spending supported by the other board members.
Until the allegations surfaced, the most substantive campaign issue Temianka had—one commonly used by novices trying to make politics their career—was that his opponent is a “career politician,” an unintended reference to her superior resume (25 years in water management) versus Temianka’s resume—he sits on Costa Mesa’s recreation commission but has no water management experience.
Dewane applied the “broken window policy of governance” to explain his motion.
“If you tolerate the small things, the big things tend to take root,” he said.
Ohlig-Hall’s “hostile, rude aberrant” behavior has been ongoing “since the day I was on the board” nine years ago, he alleged, and it would reflect poorly on the district not to protect the staff “who have no power (a tacit acknowledgement of their non-union status).”
Fisler softened Dewane’s motion to allow Ohlig-Hall to keep her committee assignments, but censure is the single strongest action the board could take against her, especially at reelection time.
The allegations against Ohlig-Hall first became public when the Voice reported them Aug. 29. The incident that led to the censure attempt took place on the morning of Aug. 20 when she spoke to two Mesa Water employees to check travel arrangements to a San Diego water conference. In the course of her conversations with the two workers she was (allegedly) verbally abusive, causing one to cry and the other to sob.
The next day the incident was reported by General Manager Paul Shoenberger to a special meeting of the Executive Committee, which is chaired by Director (and board president) Fred Bockmiller. Fisler is the committee’s other member.
After an initial in-house investigation, the committee opted to hire an outside firm to do an “independent” investigation. The committee would then make recommendations on the matter to the full board based on that investigation. Instead, the committee simply placed the matter on the Oct. 23 agenda of the full board.
The underlying premise of going after Ohlig-Hall is Mesa Water’s strategic plan, which strives to “attract and retain skilled employees.” In order to do that, according to a staff memo that accompanied the agenda, “Mesa Water ensures a professional work environment with written policies that apply to the entire organization on proper conduct in performing the work of the District.”
In an interview last August, Director James Atkinson, who chairs the Finance committee, told the Voice that since Shoenberger took over as general manager three years ago employee morale has been high. But that claim is contradicted by three facts that also provide greater context for the attempt to censure and oust Ohlig-Hall from the board:
1) It took General Manager Paul Shoenberger (who has been in charge of administration for three years and was a board member for nine years prior to that) and the board years to act decisively on an issue that is alleged to have been going on for decades;
2) Mesa Water’s Senior Financial Analyst, Glynis Litvak, has filed a worker’s grievance against Shoenberger—a sure sign of low employee morale, and;
3) Mesa Water’s former Chief Financial Officer Victoria Beatley abruptly resigned last June and now works as the treasurer for the city of Seal Beach. A knowledgeable source told the Voice that Beatley was escorted out of the door on the day that she left. Contacted by the Voice, Beatley would only say that “I left voluntarily” – another sign of an unhappy employment experience by high-level staff at Mesa Water.
The investigator’s report evokes sympathy for staff members who allegedly had to put up with Ohlig-Hall’s behavior for years. But it also evokes sympathy for the director herself—she may have troubles of her own but is far from the wicked witch that Dewane and Fisler depict her as.
The report shows that Ohlig-Hall has a history of inappropriate behavior toward various Mesa Water staff: being moody on the phone and then calling later apologetically; taking up excessive staff time to make travel arrangements; talking about her disagreements with the general manager and other directors; repeatedly criticizing one employee about her clothing and hair style and telling her that she couldn’t do anything right; and, in the latest incident, referring to her as “stupid” and telling the other employee (who sobbed) that “I’m fucking sick and tired of people apologizing to me. You don’t understand. I’m alone here and (name of other employee) was rude to me. I can’t take another damn thing today.”
Ohlig-Hall was unique among the five directors, the rest always being polite and easy to deal with, according to staff interviewed by the investigator.
“Different times of the month, it just depends, she just gets lonely,” said the employee who sobbed. Her (Ohlig-Hall’s) children live far from her. She would call and say she had just been upset about somebody else, trying to check her own behavior. But she became worse after her husband died several years ago. “And I think that was the difference completely in this incident. That was just directly toward us.”
Ohlig-Hall refused to be interviewed by the hired investigator on advice from her attorney, but she had already been interviewed by Mesa Water’s Human Resources Analyst, Shelly Cisneros. The director told her that although she often spoke loudly to staff she wasn’t yelling. She denied calling any worker stupid or using foul language toward any of them.
“I love those kids,” she said, now sobbing herself. “Shit, I would never hurt them.”
Ohlig-Hall complained that Shoenberger would not let the issue go and was making a “big deal” about it. She didn’t want it to go to the board for its judgement. “If I get reelected,” she warned, “I am going to be spending the next four years with him and I think he should leave it alone.”
The day after the incident, Ohlig-Hall, whose first language is German and who struggles with English, sent an apologetic e-mail to the employee who had sobbed, describing the incident as a big misunderstanding. “I like to say I AM SORRY from the bottom of my hart (sic). Never would I hurt you intangibly (sic) you mean a lot to me.”
The board could have directed staff to prepare a resolution demanding that Ohlig-Hall publicly apologize to the two employees and prohibiting her from contacting staff without going through the general manager first. But in the eyes of board president Fred Bockmiller, who had handled the affair with balance throughout, she lost her chance for that option when she walked out of the meeting after Dewane’s motion for a resolution of censure.
Atkinson was more sympathetic toward Ohil-Hall and gave her the benefit of doubt. He agreed that “a change of behavior is necessary.” But the issue could have been handled differently, he said. The other board members were “politicizing the problem much more than it needs to be,” which he thought was probably why Ohlig-Hall left the meeting, not because she didn’t want to apologize.
But long-time Ohlig-Hall friend and supporter Ernie Feene, speaking during public comments at the meeting, was more direct, calling the string of events leading up to the present “ludicrous” and slamming Dewane and Fisler for political bias. “For the two of you to bring up things that she has supposedly done for 25 years [that] is not on tonight’s agenda—it’s absolutely out of order,” she protested.
But Dewane dug in deeper. Ohlig-Hall has become a financial liability due to potential lawsuits, he said, while ignoring the board’s own neglect of the issue for years. And each director has been exposed to her “cannon” and their wives have refused to sit with her ever again after having dinner with her at gatherings. “It’s intolerable. I will not stand for it”, he proclaimed.
In the past two years that I have sat in on countless water board meetings, mostly at the Municipal Water District of Orange County, but also at other water agencies, I have never noticed any rude behavior from Director Ohlig-Hall nor received any reports of rude behavior, save for one time when I was told that during a private conversation she had referred to a friend of mine, Debbie Cook, as a “bitch.”
But only recently both Debbie and I have received far worse treatment from Ohlig-Hall’s accusers at Mesa Water, which I have written about in detail (see “Does Mesa Take Your Comments Seriously”). And one of the key witnesses against her, Coleen Monteleone, Mesa Water’s Administrative Manager, was also mixed up in that sordid affair which showed the public agency’s contempt for public opinion.
Add to that Fisler’s remarks posted under an assumed identity on the Orange Juice blog, insulting my hygiene, eating habits and patriotism—laughable but also unbecoming (not to mention cowardly) of a public official.
And Bockmiller has a reputation even among those voters I have spoken to who greatly prefer him over his election opponent, Costa Mesa’s mayor Eric Bever, as being generally arrogant at public meetings.
There has not been nor is there likely to be a public apology from Bockmiller, Fisler or the staff for their rude and abusive behavior toward the public. Nor will they censure themselves, of course. But they have had no problem judging Ohlig-Hall, so far.
Dewane’s motion passed 3 -1, Atkinson voting no and Ohlig-Hall long gone from the room. General Manager Paul Shoenberger will draw up a resolution censuring her and the board will vote on it at the next meeting in November, after the election.
But Temianka’s supporters jumped the gun, sending out fliers by email falsely stating that the Mesa Water board had already voted to censure his election opponent, Trudy Ohlig-Hall, whose inept social skills and tendency to nit-pick about budget items have finally annoyed too many people too much.
Photo top right: James Fisler and Shawn Dewane