Tag Archives: Mesa Consolidated Water District

Mesa Water Directors Fail to Censure Trudy Ohlig-Hall

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.

Trudy Ohlig-Hall, James Atkinson. Photo: Surf City Voice

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.

James Fisler and Shawn Dewane. Photo: Surf City Voice

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.

“Yes?”

“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.

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Special Meeting:Away from public view, Mesa Water GM investigates director over alleged employee abuse

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.”

Paul Shoenberger
Mesa Water General Manager, Paul Shoenberger. Photo: Public Records

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.

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