The Coastal Post - February 2000

Environmental Health Chief Fired By County

By Jim Scanlon

County Environmental Health Services Chief Ed Stewart and Septic System Inspector David Mesagno were fired by the County of Marin, effective January 14. The two long-time employees were thrown out of their offices by boss Alexander Hinds on five minutes notice last September. They received official word of their termination on Tuesday, January 18. Both men had been expecting official notice for months.

Stewart said he was disgusted by the lack of sensitivity on the part of Hinds who told a meeting of Environmental Health staff days before the official letter arrived that he and Mesagno would not be coming back to work.

Last fall, Stewart filed a "whistleblowers" complaint against Community Development Department Chief Hinds, County Administrator Mark Riesenfeld, County Counsel Patrick Faulkner, and Supervisors Steve Kinsey and John Kress, charging abuse of power, gross mismanagement, endangering public health in the transfer of Mesagno from his job inspecting septic systems in West Marin . He accused Kinsey in particular of interfering in matters vital to public health.

Stewart appeared at the Board of Supervisors' hearing on the charges December 14th before a large crowd comprised of concerned citizens who overwhelmingly supported him. There were surprisingly few dissidents. However the Board voted 5-0 to accept the internal report of the Assistant County Administrator that there was no basis to Stewart's charges.

There has been little press coverage of this unusual case and virtually no details on the specific charge or charges against the men, almost as if an Iron Curtain of silence had descended over the Frank Lloyd Wright Building.

The original reason for termination leaked by the administration was "gender discrimination." Although County officials have refused to discuss the matter, classifying it "confidential," Steve Kinsey in a column for the Gannett Independent Journal on December 21, titled "It's Pure Sewage," said, "...there was also a separate personnel action pending against Mr. Stewart resulting from events which occurred before Mr. Hinds even came work for Marin County."

Stewart told the Coastal Post that the "gender discrimination" charge, which involved a woman in his department who had complained about not being promoted, was not even included in the final laundry list of allegations against him, "page after page, going back fifteen years," used to justify his dismissal. He said this was the first time he had been informed of the charges.

"Ordinarily", Stewart said, "there is an due process ordinance that specifies a procedure to be followed informing an employee of deficiencies before any punitive action is taken. In this case , there was never any warning that anything was wrong." He said the charges were ridiculous, including one that he had "demeaned his supervisor" (Hinds) on the basis of "official religious discrimination." Stewart said he didn't have the least notion of what that meant.

The next step will be a hearing before the Marin County Personnel Commission. There is no telling when that might be as there is no rule on how quickly this step should occur. Stewart said he felt that it would be a long involved process and would be very costly. He said it appeared to be the strategy of the County Administration to drag the matter out and make it costly to pursue. " If you are poor or if you don't have connections," he said, "you are out of luck in Marin County." He expects the case to drag on for months or years and in the end, if he and Mesagno prevail, the County taxpayers will be the ones stuck with paying for the administration's bungling.

Both men will continue to be represented by the same attorney, Chris Brudick, a highly regarded expert in the field of unlawful termination. Stewart said this was not about money, but about reputation and the way he and Mesagno were treated. He said that the employee association which represents county middle managers is concerned about this case, particularly with there being no process in advising employees of alleged deficiencies. Stewart said he didn't think the association could offer any financial help, but that it was nice that someone else was concerned over what is happening, since it affects all others.

It is not known what action the Grand Jury will take regarding the firings, or the charges brought by Stewart against the county, but it is known to be conducting a vigorous investigation. A jury finding and report could be issued before March, when Steven Kinsey is up for re-election. His opponent, Louis Nuyens, is a newcomer to politics and will face Kinsey, an incumbent who can count on the generous financial support of local and out-of-county, developers and Realtors.

If the Grand Jury were to recommend criminal charges they would not likely be handled by the Marin County District Attorney. It would be up to the presiding judge to determine if there were a conflict of interest and it would be his/her decision to forward it to the State Attorney General's Office. The Well

There has been a tendency on the part of those concerned with the firings to focus on the connection between Steve Kinsey, Riesenfeld, Faulkner and Hinds in the alleged preferential treatment given to Bruce Burman, the developer of French Ranch luxury homes and it's unusual large volume septic system which it shares with the Lagunitas School. After almost three years, the system is still not completed or approved by Environmental Health. David Mesagno issued a stop work order which was ignored, and is still being ignored.

However, at the Whistleblower's Hearing in December, it became apparent that there was another issue involving an unpermitted well which was being used to irrigate soccer and soft ball playing fields used by children at Fire House Park in Bolinas. Jack Seidman, an attorney and Director of the Bolinas Public Utility District delivered a stinging criticism of Ed Steward and his department, accusing him of denying the park much needed water that had been "tested by the state and found to be safe." Stewart had complained Kinsey had urged Hinds to "go around" Stewart and issue the permit, which Hinds did.

The Coastal Post learned that the "well" was an "intrusion gallery," a large hole dug with a backhoe, filled with gravel, and crowned with a protruding shaft. It was allegedly built to dilute the nearby AIWPS- type sewage ponds which serves Bolinas.

Firehouse Park cannot not be irrigated with utility district water without jeopardizing a 1971 water moratorium so a plan was devised to use grant money, intended to build a swimming pool, to connect an irrigation system from the "well" to the playing fields.

To make a long, complicated story short, the water from the unpermitted "well" is no longer being used because it was found to be periodically contaminated. The well has, in fact, been abandoned. Therefore Stewart and Mesagno were entirely right in insisting that the well water irrigation be stopped, and those who dismissed and disregarded their warnings were wrong---perhaps criminally wrong.

It is hoped that the Grand Jury will focus narrowly on the case of the contaminated well, as those who perpetrated the use of contaminated water on playing fields used by children are still with us, and those who resisted have been removed when they could not be intimidated.

It is not known if any children were harmed by the occasional spikes of coliform bacteria in the water used on the fields where they played.

Administrator Buys Home From Developer

In early December, Marin County Administrator Mark J. Riesenfeld (the former head of the Community Development Dept.) purchased a home in Point Reyes Station from French Ranch developer Sander Bruce Burman. The purchase price was somewhat under $800,000. The home was listed with a Realtor and there is nothing apparent to indicate an actual conflict of interest. According to county records there is an outstanding loan of just over half a million dollars on the property.

Burman's French Ranch Project and it's controversial joint sewage system with the Lagunitas School is unusual in that it was shepherded through the approval process by Supervisor Steve Kinsey who helped plan the project before his election to the board of supervisors.

The project also received special consideration from the Board of Supervisors and County Administrators when they agreed to have the County become the "legal entity" for the joint sewage system until the project is completed and a home owners' association takes over it's operation.

Burman's controversial project received approval from Riesenfeld when he was head of Community Development and as County Administrator, Riesenfeld will continue to head the county which will be responsible for oversight of Burman's complex development for many years to come. It has always been difficult to understand what the County had to gain by assuming an unusual regulatory responsibility and potential liability for an irregular arrangement. It is easy to understand what the developer had to gain.

Marin County is notorious for being a small place where strange coincidences occur all the time. Once again, there is nothing to indicate anything other than a normal business transaction, however, with Riesenfeld being accused, along with other top county officials-including Supervisors Kinsey and Kress-of abuse of power, endangering public health, by the County's former Head of Environmental Health Services before being unceremoniously kicked out of his office and fired, it is hoped that the Grand Jury will take a close look at this home purchase.

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