The Coastal Post - June 2000

What The "Character Assassination" Is Really About:
Dangers to Public Health

By Jim Scanlon

Lost and hidden behind the miasma of charges of alleged racism, sexism and white male favoritism leveled against Ed Stewart, the dismissed head of the County's Environmental Health Division, are the real, 100% genuine complaints made against him and Dave Mesagno, his septic system Supervisor. The very real complaint against them was that they were both unwilling to compromise and approve unsafe and, or, illegally built waste water disposal systems in order to satisfy Steve Kinsey, Supervisor of the Fourth District which covers a sprawling area including San Rafael's Canal District, Corte Madera/Larkspur and all of West Marin.

Documents submitted by Stewart relating to his "Whistleblower" complaints and grievances which were pending when he was dismissed last September reveal a power struggle between Kinsey and the County Administration over Environmental Health. Stewart wrote last fall, "...It has been the contention of ...[Kinsey] ...that property owners engage in illegal building activities in part because it is too expensive to go through the county permitting process and because of cost involved in upgrading their structures ... in particular wastewater systems." (One might add that increases in property taxes are also avoided.)

This theme, so indulgent to law breakers, was expressed publicly by Kinsey after his being exposed in April 2000 as having constructed illegal septic and gray water systems and two illegally constructed buildings on his property. The same renegade theme was quoted in articles that appeared in the Gannett Independent Journal and the Point Reyes Light by Steve Holt a contractor and Kinsey's (unacknowledged) business partner of 17 years in Design/Build Alliance.

Unwilling to break the law and violate county codes, Stewart and Mesagno had sought guidance from Mark Riesenfeld, the County Administrator, to relieve them from interference by Kinsey by asking Riesenfeld to find out what regulations Kinsey wanted changed so they could legally accommodate his concerns. Stewart wrote that Riesenfeld told them, "...[Kinsey]... did not want to change any of the present regulations/policies any further; that he wanted to continue to make changes as he saw fit ad hoc. Riesenfeld further stated that nothing was going to change until someone moved."

Soon after, Mesagno was "moved" by Alex Hinds, the Head of the Community Development Agency, without consulting Stewart. They both complained publicly, filed grievances against Hinds and were then thrown out of the Civic Center and suspended by Hinds. Reasons had to be found to legitimate the suspensions. Mark Riesenfeld the County Administrator was named in the grievances with other top county officials, therefore assistants were found to investigate and come up with suitable "reasons" for the suspensions and subsequent firings of two long term county employees with unblemished records.

The strategy of the County now appears to be to delay the appeal process from reaching Superior Court as long as possible, thereby placing a heavy financial burden on Stewart. Mesagno, who has a another job, has already dropped his appeal as too costly---and too upsetting to his family. Additionally, as Stewart's appeals process drags on, a more consumer friendly, "innovative", compliant, less aggressive staff is in place at Environmental Health. A resulting loosening of constraints and lack of enforcement of septic system regulations and other rules--- if only from overwork and not from fear of job security--- could place public health seriously at risk.

If, after years of litigation, Stewart should persists and gain a judgment for wrongful termination, then taxpayers will foot the bill. If a financial settlement is reached before a final decision by the court, no one will ever know how much it cost the county. Actually, how much this affair is costing the county right now in consultants and other expenses is a matter of concern. Stewart insists he is pressing the case to clear his name and get his job back ---but years of litigation can wear anyone down.

As Theodore Hiatt MD., former County Health Officer wrote in his letter of support for Stewart's complaint about Mesagno's transfer last year, "If your Board ... removes experienced Public Health enforcement workers from Public Health oversight, you have abandoned that first segment of your duties---to protect the health of the public." Considering the number of people on the east shore of Tomales Bay who were sickened by faulty septic systems, and the outbreak of gastrointestinal illness linked to a contaminated water system at Rancho Nicasio (a case where county officials intruded upon, and overruled Dave Mesagno's judgment) Hiatt's warning becomes all too real. Outstanding Dangers To Public Health In Marin

When Steward testified before the Board of Supervisors last December on charges he made before his suspension, he said that the County was improperly dealing with a number of situations that were potentially dangerous. The are as follows:

The illegal, unpermitted well on Bolinas Public Utility District (BPUD) property which was used to irrigate the softball field at Firehouse Park. Stewart refused to grant a permit because of potential contamination. This provoked complaints and intervention by Supervisor Kinsey. Alex Hinds, Stewart's boss, on his own, and against the strong objections of his health officers, signed a permit allowing use of the water. The water was later found to "occasionally show unexplained spikes [high levels] of coliform bacteria." In other words it was contaminated. The system was belatedly shut down and remains shut down to date. Jack Siedman a BPUD Director, testifying at the "Whistleblower" hearing, complained about Stewart and said " ... The water was tested by the state and found to be safe." He did not mention that Marin County was responsible for the system or that it was shut down, or why.

The well is still there with its distribution system in place and its status is unclear. What is clear is that it was improperly constructed and a danger to public health if used. It was also a foolish waste of money.

The status of the Hog Island water and septic systems.

The status of the Strauss Family Creamery's unpermitted water system.

The illegal land fill on the Pozzi Ranch. CalTrans, Marin and Sonoma County Departments of Public Works used the ranch as a cost-free dumping site for thirty plus years. Stewart provoked an angry response from the agencies but felt that unregulated dumping was a danger to public health as there was no way of knowing what had been, and what was being dumped. The owner of the ranch was one of the few people who complained about Stewart at the Whistleblower Hearing. So far there has been no attempt to determine the hazard that this illegal dump presents to public health and the environment.

The status of all "Alternative System" operating permits: i.e. using sand filters and other large volume septic systems. Examples are the French Ranch and the Lagunitas School as well as the Lucas Slywalker Ranch complex and Spirit Rock Meditation Center. System operators are required to report on their systems to Environmental Health which then is required to report to the state. Environmental Health, in its 1999 report to the state acknowledged its reporting of permit holders with Alternative Septic Systems was inadequate and that the County hoped to do better in the future. It is not clear if the county is in compliance or has indeed "done better." According to Stewart, Supervisor Kinsey said that this was a program that could possibly disappear like the biennial inspection system required by the County Code.

The status of the one-hundred plus Bed & Breakfast facilities in West Marin that operate with inadequate septic systems. Some have unpermitted water sources. Stewart said that he met with Kinsey several times concerning this problem. At their last meeting he said Kinsey was upset and said that state laws were ridiculous and the next thing that would happen is that someone would come into his kitchen to ensure he was properly making a peanut butter sandwich. (If Kinsey were operating a Bed & Breakfast someone would be inspecting his kitchen).

The status of the "Cease and Desist Order" issued by Mesagno in Feb. 1998 to the Lagunitas School for it's unreported sewage spill. Written Cease and Desist Orders must be rescinded in writing. This was never done.

The status of nitrate removal from the French Ranch and Lagunitas School sandfilter systems. The system is not operating as expected for unknown reasons.

And finally, one wonders about the status of Supervisor Kinsey's own illegal septic system. According to newspaper reports, Stewart told Hinds about Kinsey's illegal system, but Hinds could not remember being told. Kinsey told the IJ just before the election in March that he began the permitting process in November 1999. As of May 10, 2000 no permit application of his is on file with Environmental Health.

Does anyone seriously believe Stewart and Mesagno were fired for being louts or because they didn't "get along by going along."

Two of our Supervisors narrowly escape prosecution on criminal charges, a third Supervisor guiding the revision and enforcement of laws that he, himself has violated and apparently does not believe in, and two dedicated employees fired for insisting on doing their job.

Marin County is in deep trouble

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