By John Earl
Surf City Voice
The Nov. 13 episode of the Mesa Consolidated Water District Board of Directors should make the public citizen wonder if that body is capable to handle the challenges of water management in the 21st Century when it barely knows how to run a board meeting.
The issue before the board was whether to censure fellow director Trudy Ohlig-Hall or not, but some of its members seemed to be confused by the process.
Ohlig-Hall, who had just been trounced by election opponent Ethan Temianka 58.5 percent to 41.5 percent on Nov. 6, was absent.
For another month she will continue to represent Division Three of Mesa Water’s service area, which includes parts of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. She was up for reelection having served on the five-member board since 1987.
Ohlig-Hall has been absent from duty since she walked out of the Oct. 23 board meeting just after directors James Fisler and Shawn Dewane, who campaigned for Temianka, introduced a motion to censure her for being rude toward staff.
The motion was ruled out of order at that time by board president Fred Bockmiller because no resolution for censure had been written or legally placed on the meeting agenda.
Instead, the board voted 3 – 1 (Director Ohlig-Hall was absent, James Atkinson voted no) to direct staff to draw up a resolution of censure against Ohlig-Hall for consideration at the Nov. 13 board meeting.
Fisler and Dewane repeatedly denounced Ohlig-Hall for being “rude and aberrant” not only to two staff members who cried and sobbed as a result on Aug. 20, the incident that sparked two investigations, but to other directors and their wives for the past 25 years.
At the Nov. 13 board meeting Fisler and Dewane were eager to pass the completed resolution. Bockmiller and Atkinson, however, said it was a moot point since Ohlig-Hall would soon be replaced by Tamianka anyway. So, they introduced a motion to table the resolution.
But Dewane and Fisler still wanted to draw Ohlig-Hall’s blood.
“Can I make a substitute motion not to table it,” Fisler asked.
It was a redundant gesture because a no vote on Bockmiller’s motion to table would accomplish same thing. Of course, Bockmiller’s original motion was pointless too because the vote was certain to end at 2 -2 and a tie loses by default.
Fisler argued that it was important to “show our staff that the board of directors basically has their back” when they are mistreated by a board member.
Dewane agreed. “To do anything less than to follow through with what we voted on is the abdication of the responsibility of the board of directors.”
Bockmiller disagreed. “To say that a director voting against this (motion not to table the resolution) is voting against staff is a falsehood. In the strongest terms, it is not true.”
Censuring another board member would be “unprecedented in California water politics history,” he emphasized, “And there have been directors’ behaviors far more ludicrous than Director Ohlig-Hall’s behaviors.”
To censure Ohlig-Hall would be an “empty gesture,” would require reading it aloud at the board meeting and transmitting a copy to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, “all of which would waste time, money and effort over somebody who will no longer be an elected official within a few days.”
Atkinson agreed, adding that the resolution’s reference to a third-party “independent” investigator’s report, which relied on hearsay—statements attributed to Ohlig-Hall by Mesa’s in-house (and potentially biased) investigator the day after the alleged incident—was unfair to her.
Predictably, the vote on the motion not to table the resolution failed by a tie vote—Dewane and Fisler for vs. Atkinson and Bockmiller against.
Then on to Bockmiller’s motion to table, which, after comment by one public citizen, also failed 2 -2.
Then it was back to the resolution to censure that remained on the agenda, after all.
Bockmiller, who as the board’s president runs its meetings, admonished that “We are simply speaking about this resolution which is before us tonight” and nothing else.
But Dewane ignored Bockmiller’s instructions, saying that he wanted to make sure that the investigator’s report, a public document, is posted to Mesa’s website. Then he presumed that Ohlig-Hall did not consent to be interviewed by the outside investigator because “she felt that there was nothing else to add to the report…” It [including hearsay testimony about Ohlig-Hall] is the most objective information available, he said, and the public has a right to know about it.
Bockmiller then revealed that Ohlig-Hall had claimed to him that her invitation to be interviewed by the outside investigator came late one afternoon and she was unable on short notice to have her attorney present. “And so she was unable to participate in the interview and no other opportunities were provided,” Bockmiller said.
Then Dewane, who had just based his call for censure on hearsay testimony, blew a fuse—because Bockmiller used hearsay.
“If it’s her statement—you making her statement is hearsay,” Dewane complained. “I believe that’s inappropriate to put words in her mouth or take her statement and read it into the record.”
Ohlig-Hall could have defended herself, he said, and her attorney, former Costa Mesa city council member Katrina Foley, is “notorious in the city for representing usually staff members in situations like this rather than board members.”
Ohlig-Hall chose not to defend herself, “So, I would just suggest that your comments, Director Bockmiller, be stricken from the record. It’s inappropriate to make statements on her behalf,” he fumed.
“Director Dewane,” Bockmiller called out.
“Your comments are ruled out of order. And it’s perfectly permissible for me to speak as to what has been communicated to me. This is not a court of law. This is a board meeting.”
More discussion followed from Fisler.
Then, off topic again, Dewane said he wanted to be clear whether the investigator’s report would be made available to the public on the Internet or not.
Bockmiller, oblivious to his own instructions (and the Brown Act, which says a government body can’t vote on an item not on the agenda) asked if there has been a motion to put the report on Mesa Water’s website.
There had not been a motion so Dewane made one: all documents related to the case should be placed online.
But Mesa’s legal counsel quickly pointed out that the board can’t legally vote on something that isn’t on the agenda. Only the resolution itself was on the agenda.
Then Bockmiller instructed that the board would not vote on Dewane’s [illegal] motion unless it wants to unanimously pass an emergency action to put the issue (of placing investigator’s documents online) on the agenda right then.
Dewane quickly made a motion to do just that.
No need for that, legal counsel said. Any director can simply ask staff to have the matter put on a [future] agenda.
But Dewane wanted to vote then and there—no more waiting.
Bockmiller worried that Dewane’s motion might be illegal, after all, and legal counsel emphatically warned that it would be. “I would urge the board not to put this on as an emergency item. There is not a legal precedent to support it,” he warned.
Dewane then instructed General Manager Paul Shoenberger to place the item on the next meeting’s agenda.
Getting back to the resolution, Dewane said that Ohlig-Hall is not off the hook just because she lost the election. Anyway, he claimed wishfully, the board had already voted in favor of the resolution at the Oct. 23 meeting. By bringing it up at yet another meeting the board was belaboring the issue, he said.
Fisler confirmed that he too thought a motion of censure had passed at the previous meeting. “I don’t know why you went on for ten minutes about what a tough decision it was if it wasn’t a motion for censure,” he complained to Bockmiller.
But Bockmiller pointed out that there was no such resolution on the agenda to adopt at that time.
“That would be a Pelosiesk move to adopt the resolution without reading it, and we know how that has gone with the health care bill,” he quipped.
Bockmiller regretted that Ohlig-Hall did not make the public apology that he says she promised him she would make. In retrospect, he believes that the board jumped the gun by going toward censure—a formal letter from the board to Ohlig-Hall should have come first.
“Something happened,” he said, but adding that the resolution was probably written too harshly.
The vote was as predicted, Bockmiller and Atkinson against, Dewane and Fisler for.
After four committee meetings, two board meetings and two investigations, the motion to censure failed.
A simpler action would have been for General Manager Paul Shoenberger, who is the sole boss of Mesa’s employees, to instruct Director Ohlig-Hall that staff were off limits to her from now on, a policy that he could have enforced with the rest of the board’s support if necessary.
Next up on the board’s agenda that night: Branding Campaign Wrap Up, or how Mesa Consolidated Water spent thousands of dollars to change its name and logos in order to promote greater public awareness.
More on that, soon.