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November 2000

Stewart's Settlement Is Secret
What Is The County Afraid Of?


By Jim Scanlon

A little more than a year after Ed Stewart was dismissed from his job as Marin's Chief of Environmental Health Services on five minutes notice, County Officials reached some kind of arrangement with him in which he agreed to drop his appeal. There was some anticipation and excitement over which top County Administrators might be subpoenaed and what they might say under direct and cross examination.

Appeal Hearings are normally held in secret, but this one was open to the public at Stewart's request. He had filed the county's only "Whistleblower's" grievance accusing Supervisor Steve Kinsey of exerting pressure on him and his staff to accommodate influential friends of Kinsey. He also accused his boss, Alex Hinds and County Administrator Mark Riesenfeld of endangering public health. His complaints were heard "pro forma" by the Supervisors and flatly rejected. Shortly thereafter he and Dave Mesagno the County's most experienced septic system expert were fired.

Mesagno dropped his appeal due to the cost involved and it is not known what his current plans are. Mesagno was involved in denying a permit to Rancho Nicasio Restaurant because of a sub standard septic and private water system. This was one of the cases in which Stewart alleged Kinsey brought improper pressure on him and Mesagno. The matter was taken out of Mesagno's hands and an agreement was negotiated by the County Council Patrick Faulkner which resulted in a new, improved septic system built nearly a year later. The private water system was never upgraded. The county is now facing a class action suit for alleged negligence which resulted in an outbreak of intestinal illness traced to contamination of the Rancho's water system. The water system is now being upgraded and water tanked in to the restaurant.

The details of the agreement, with Stewart, especially the cost of settlement were disclosed rather than a bland official statement agreeing to settle and "move forward' etc.

Basically Stewart will retire with full benefits including back pay with increases. Exactly how much cash the county paid was not disclosed, nor was any mention made of Stewart's legal expenses. He was believed to be suffering financial distress over the cumulative expense of his legal fees due to the length of the hearings. He is believed to have changed attorneys in an effort to reduce his legal expenses. According to casual remarks made by two commissioners, no hearing before the present commission ever lasted more than one day.

The role of union organizations representing county workers and middle management is not known. Stewart has received some emotional support from other managers who have remained officially silent. To what extent Stewart was aided financially by them and hence influenced by them is unknown, but this may have been a factor in his decision to settle.

The appeal hearings before the County Personnel Commission ended abruptly half way through the seventh day of testimony. Testimony had dragged on for five months.

The County had just rested its case and Stewart had begun to call his witnesses, which included Tom Peters the former Chief of Health and Human Services and currently the head of the Buck Foundation. A dispute developed over the completeness of documents submitted by the county's attorney: the documents submitted referred to attachments that were not included in the submission and Stewart's attorney wanted everything.

This led to a recess for the attorney's to confer which was followed by a closed session by the Personnel Commission and then another conference and another closed session. The few members of the audience in attendance filed in and out of the hearing room and going in and out led to some confusion and speculation as to what was going on.

Finally, after two hours of filing in and out, the hearings were postponed without comment. The following day the hearing room was locked and empty at 7:30 AM when hearings were scheduled to resume.

In addition to missing details of the settlement, the County refused to provide the Coastal Post with a copy of the hearing transcript stating: "the previous transcripts were provided [to the Coastal Post] in error."

Public Awareness Grows

As reported in last month's Coastal Post, the Marin Independent Journal printed a long detailed article on the class action suit regarding the private water system used by Rancho Nicasio, "Sick West Marin diners blame county." This article is one of the longest ever seen in the IJ. Also an Op Ed piece, "It made me want to hold my nose," by a private citizen, a book publisher from San Anselmo, complaining about taxpayers picking up the tab for the total cost of the Stewart and Mesagno's dismissals which he estimated at $500,000. Also mentioned was Kinsey's having an illegal septic system.

A satirical cartoon appeared in the IJ, "Ed Stewart's' Retirement' Gifts" with a man with his mouth zipped shut with a "Lip Zipper," and a "Gold Watch" on his wrist.

The IJ printed another Op Ed piece by Steve Holt a contractor from Forest Knolls: "This issue raises more than a stink," in which Holt outlines the great financial difficulties homeowners face when they repair or upgrade their homes legally---that is, when they obtain permits.

Holt does not mention Supervisor Kinsey's problems with his illegal septic system. He previously wrote similar pieces in the IJ and the Point Reyes Light. Holt does not identify himself as a partner in Design/Build Alliance, a firm that was jointly owned by Kinsey and Holt when he ran for election five years ago. Kinsey still receives "between $10,000 and $100,000 per year" from the business. Holt also does not mention the drastic penalty imposed upon a licensed contractor who performs work without a permits--loss of his state contractor's license.

Kinsey Misses Third Deadline

Meanwhile Supervisor Kinsey, an ex-oficio member of the citizens advisory group on revising the rules for septic systems is apparently having problems obtaining building permits to bring two structures he constructed on his property into compliance because he must negotiate easements with his neighbors to provide space for his leach lines, certainly no easy task even with the best of neighbors. He last wrote the building department on August 31 requesting a thirty day extension. As of October 20th county records reveal no record of the current status of negotiations. (It is odd and disconcerting to sit in a room full of earnest, knowledgeable people, all appointed by Kinsey, discussing revision of county rules for failing or illegal septic systems with Kinsey, whose illegal septic system is out of compliance.)

The County Enforcement Officer on duty said that it was not exceptional for home owners to need extensions in coming into compliance. "We always give people plenty of time, we bend over backwards so that if it does got to a formal penalty hearing, no one can say they didn't get enough time

"We don't look at the name of the home owner. We treat everyone the same," she said. "I'll write him a letter to remind him."

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