Tag Archives: Mesa Water

Election Sob Story: Mesa Water Directors Plot to Remove Trudy Ohlig-Hall from Office

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.

L – R: Ohlig-Hall, Atkinson, Bockmiller, Fisler, Dewane. Photo: Surf City Voice

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

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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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