Coastal Post Online

October 2000

County To Pay In Settlement Over Fired Environmental Chief

By Jim Scanlon

On Thursday, August 24, Ed Stewart's dismissal hearing before the Marin County Personnel Commission had been dragging along for four months when it came to a completely unexpected, screeching halt at 10:45 AM. No explanation was given for the continuance. The commission had gone into and out of closed sessions two or three times within a short span of time.

The hearing for the following day, so painstakingly worked into the busy schedules of the commissioners and the attorneys, was canceled. It was rumored that county officials were negotiating with Stewart "to get back his job." This seemed confusing and utterly preposterous to the few people who had followed the hearings.

There were basically three schools of thought at the Coastal Post. One held that there were other personnel actions involving individuals who were due to testify at the Stewart hearing. By continuing the matter County officials delayed the process further, bring additional financial pressure on Stewart and gaining an opportunity to determine how damaging the testimony of Stewart's witnesses might be.

Another held that County administrators had presented their case against Stewart which was weak. By settling with Stewart, they would prevent testimony from witnesses Stewart might call which could be damaging to county officials. The county would cut it's losses and the financial settlement would not be made public, The Environmental Health Department had been transformed into a developer friendly zone, with the firing of Stewart and septic inspector Dave Mesagno.

The third was this writer, who was utterly confused by the sudden, mysterious turn of events. It seemed inconceivable that the county might offer Stewart his job back-the county had spared no opportunity to malign him to the point of overkill. It wasn't so much the charges but the animosity involved. It was the way they were treated---they were literally thrown out of the Civic Center as if they were crazed saboteurs and attempts were made to deny Stewart state unemployment insurance benefits.

The Coastal Post has now received unconfirmed information from reliable but unofficial sources that a financial settlement has been reached between Marin County and Ed Stewart which is probably within the range of from one to two hundred thousand dollars. A spokesperson for the County's Human Resources Department said the county was not commenting on negotiations and Stewart did not return repeated telephone calls to his office. His attorney has not answered electronic correspondence.

What seems more likely to have motivated County officials to abruptly begin negotiating seriously was the filing of a class action law suit in Marin Superior Court for $1 million dollars charging that the county was negligent in regulating Rancho Nicasio restaurant resulting in 19 people suffering gastro-intestinal illness from contaminated water from an antiquated well water system. The suit further claims that Supervisor Steve Kinsey's intervention in the permit process, brought pressure on Environmental Health inspector Mesagno (before he was fired) which prevented effective regulation on the restaurant.

The long detailed, front page story of the lawsuit by Richard Halstead appeared in the Marin Independent Journal on Sunday, September 24, 2000 under a banner headline. Readers of the Coastal Post who have followed this story over the past year and a half should be familiar with the essential outline, however Halstead's account contains many new facts and is highly recommended.

How much the county will be paying Stewart to terminate his appeal will probably never be known. It would now seem entirely likely that Mesagno, who did not pursue his appeal because of extreme personal, financial and family pressures, will now also be in a position to pursue a financial settlement in lieu of a wrongful termination suit. He should not have difficulty finding an attorney now that Stewart has, in effect, "cleared the path through he brush." And, or course, there might be other settlements lurking within the shadows of civic center confidentiality regarding personnel matters.

What county officials gain is that a parade of witnesses before the commission will be forestalled. Possible the most embarrassing would have been Supervisor Kinsey. Testimony concerning his involvement in Stewart's termination had been excluded by the Personnel Commission as having already been disposed of in the so called "Whistleblower Hearing" in December 1999, however details of the Rancho Nicasio law suit might have changed that.

County Administrator Mark Riesenfeld's name was rarely mentioned in testimony during the seven day-long commission hearings. This is really a mystery since he was Stewart's supervisor for many years and would have had relevant information about, as well as responsibility for, Stewart's conduct. It is hard to understand why Riesenfeld was not named as a witness by Stewart's attorney unless forcing his testimony was part of a non-public negotiating strategy.

Former Supervisor Gary Giacomini might have been called. Former County Health Office Ted Hyatt had already testified on Stewart's behalf and supported his "Whistleblower" claim that political pressure and intervention in the workings of Environmental Health was a threat to public health. The present County Health Officer Fred Schwarz MD and his Department Head Nancy Rubin have been silent so far and would certainly have had much to offer about Stewart, Mesagno and the turmoil within Environmental Health.

Be that as it may, it appears we will never learn what they have to say, if anything. One observer expressed disappointment that Stewart had not pursued his case to the bitter end. Another felt that, at the end of the month, when one balanced one's checkbook, there was little room for idealism---especially with someone like Stewart who seemed to have been abandoned by so much of the community.

The public will never learn the true cost to the county of disbursements for settlements and other soft, buried costs. such as, what it cost in outside legal fees, consultants for Environmental Health and staff time. Nor will it be know what it will eventually cost county residents and visitors in terms of illness due to the more permissive permit process in Environmental Health since the firing of Stewart and Mesagno.

Who will be called to account for the mess at the Civic Center which gets costlier as time passes? Kinsey and Riesenfeld have maintained they had nothing to do with the dismissals, that it was initiated and implemented by Alex Hinds the Director of the Community Development Agency. Hinds, newly employed by the county in 1999, recruited from Santa Barbara County, stated that he was given a mandate by the Board of Supervisors to make Environment Health "more consumer friendly." He has taken sole responsibility for dismissing Stewart and Mesagno on five minutes notice and having security officers escort them out of the building and banning them from returning. His superiors will certainly support that statement.

But, being the lowest ranking county official now involved in this matter, he may be, perhaps justifiably, getting a little nervous.

The IJ article alluded to above, should be read in it's entirety but here are just a few quotes which may be of interest to those who may not have access to the IJ

County Council Patrick Faulkner is perhaps presumptuous in his statement, "They can file their claim but it will be defended and rejected"

Halstead states that a copy of an e-mail sent by Kinsey to Mesagno "confirms that Kinsey lobbied Mesagno," and that "Public documents--including copies of e-mail, internal memos and water system inspection reports--reflect a history of lax enforcement of regulations related to Rancho Nicasio's water system, and a less than rigorous procedure for testing the water there for bacteriological contamination."

Halstead reports an e-mail sent by Kinsey to Mesagno and Mark Riesenfeld in which Kinsey wrote, "I would like the county to send a letter to Mr. Marshall (the former owner of the restaurant) stating that no improvements to the system will be required as a condition of the change of ownership." He goes on to quote Mesagno, "He [Kinsey] met me at my desk that morning, he was waiting at my desk. He wanted to know what was going on out there [at the restaurant] and how come we wouldn't release the permit."

Halstead then quotes Kinsey, "I wasn't ordering, telling. The tone of this thing is one of advocacy or encouragement but no more than that. I would do this for constituents. This is what I'm paid to do." He also quotes Kinsey, "The e-mail was merely a suggestion." Riesenfeld could not recall the memo.

The article quotes Kinsey characterizing Herb Goldberg listed as a witness on court papers, as a long-term political foe. Goldberg's wife Jerry was sickened after drinking water in Rancho Nicasio February 16. Kinsey is quoted: " It appears to me he's [Goldberg] trying to take a case of the runs, turn it into a retirement fund and add some political muckraking along the way."

Note: Jerry Goldberg was interviewed by the Coastal Post in March regarding her attempt to settle a claim for lost wages of $700 as a result of her illness. The claim was rejected by the restaurant's insurance company. Jerry said she was pretty sick for three days but Herb saw it differently stating she was rarely sick and took it badly. She was distraught., threw up constantly, had painful diarrhea, couldn't eat, cried (which she rarely did) and acted like she was going to die.

But probably the most Orwellian comment was made by County Administrator Mark Riesenfeld. Halstead poses a question with regard to Kinsey's confronting Mesagno about the restaurant permit. "Is it possible a county staffer might feel intimidated receiving such a message from a Marin County supervisor?" To which Riesenfeld replies, "That's why we have a merit system---they're not subject to being fired because Steve Kinsey doesn't like what they're doing."

Mesagno and Stewart obviously failed to see it that way when they were thrown out of Civic Center, not for the turmoil and conflict with Kinsey and their "Whistleblower" charges, but for alleged sexist, adolescent behavior over the past fourteen years. Under Marin County's Merit System the real reason you are fired is whatever the boss says was the real reason. Trust him!

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