The Coastal Post - October 1999

County Environmental Health Chief Fired:
Whistle Blower's Head On Chopping Block;
Development Could Accelerate In West Marin

By Jim Scanlon

On the afternoon of Friday, October 17, Ed Stewart, who has worked for the Marin County for 28 years with an unblemished record, the head of Environmental Health Services was informed that he was being placed on paid administrative leave until his termination hearing in two weeks. His expulsion from the building was ordered by his boss, Alex Hinds, the new Director of Marin's Community Development Agency. Stewart was given five minutes to clear his desk of personal belongings, turn in his pager, and was then escorted out of the Civic Center by security. Also given five minutes to clear out his desk and get out was David Masagno, an Environmental Health's expert in septic systems for the past 16 years. The reason given for this extraordinary exile was a charge of "gender discrimination," the details of which were not provided to either man.

Stewart had recently filed grievances against Hinds utilizing a "whistle blower" provision in the County Code which he thought (obviously incorrectly) prohibits retaliation. He had also accused Supervisors Steve Kinsey, and to a lesser extent, John Kress with interfering in the internal workings of Environmental Health. Stewart had also resisted being forced to go along with allowing the installation of large volume, multi-user septic systems. He recently described these systems as "a danger to the public." Kinsey, a would be architect, is a contractor/developer has been an advocate of large volume septic systems for many years before being elected supervisor.

The Marin County Grand Jury contacted and questioned the Coastal Post about a October article, "Is Steve Kinsey a Menace to Marin."

Masagno also has grievances pending against Hinds because of his being transferred from inspecting West Marin septic systems last May. Hinds did not consult Masagno's boss, Stewart, before making the move.

Masagno had issued a stop work order last February after a sewage spill on the Lagunitas School Districts large volume septic system (which is tied to the French Ranch Development), a project to which Kinsey has special ties). His stop work order was ignored and the school is still operating the incomplete system.

Although Stewart was seen talking to a reporter for the Gannet Corporation's Marin Independent Journal after his expulsion from his office at the Civic Center, the story did not make the Gannett daily until Wednesday, five days later.

With Stewart and Masagno embroiled in dismissal proceedings to begin October 4, 1999, the way seems clear for the County to approve and move forward with rapid approval and development of a number of projects in West Marin which will use large volume septic systems; the system that Stewart the person in County Government responsible for Environmental Health, has characterized as unproved and dangerous to public health which will surely affect the water quality of Tomales Bay.

The Environmental Health Chief seemed tired and still in shock when the Coastal Post talked to him. He said he had lots to say, but had been advised by friends to make no further statement to anyone until he had discussed his situation with an attorney.

Both Mark Riesenfeld, the County Administrator, and Hinds told the Coastal Post that they could not discuss or comment on the reasons for their expulsion from the Civic Center or hearings to fire both men to protect their right to privacy.

Riesenfeld said the action did not originate from his office and he had heard of the charges but had seen nothing in writing. In any case he said he could not make any comment.

Hinds said that his actions were temporary and that there would be separate hearings before him at which time the men could respond to written charges. He would make a determination which could then be appealed to the Personnel Commission and ultimately to the Board of Supervisors. He said this action had nothing to do with the grievances against him for Masagno's transfer and that they would be considered separately.

Hinds emphatically stressed that no one from the Board of Supervisors had contacted him regarding the transfers or the termination proceedings. It seems, however, hard to believe that Hinds could act as he has without the approval and foreknowledge of his superiors, particularly since he was recently appointed to his position.

Strangely enough, Hinds and Kinsey both wrote a "Guest Column" for the Point Reyes Light of October 23, 1999. Kinsey's column (French Ranch negotiations) was essentially the same as a public relations type letter which he sent to San Geronimo residents stressing the benefits to the Valley of the French Ranch Development

Below Kinsey's column appeared another "Guest Column," (Rebuttal to Supervisor Kinsey) signed by eleven Valley residents stressing presenting a negative view of the French Ranch Development and Kinsey's involvement in it.

Hinds's "Guest Column" (New kid on the block) seems strangely timed. It is part public relations, part flattery but it offers clues as to sweeping changes about to take place in West Marin land use practices.

While Hinds states, "...we clearly can't afford to foul our own nest." He goes on to say, ".... I believe that we need to objectively look at different infrastructure and technology, including other onsite wastewater systems and determine which ones best protect our precious natural resources".

This sounds like Steve Kinsey and seems to mean the non-tested, non-conventional large volume multi-user septic systems that Stewart is so fearful of because of their propensity for producing nitrate pollution plumes that contaminate ground water. High nitrate levels are usually associated with intensive agriculture and run off from factory farming of hogs and chickens. Nitrates in drinking water are particularly dangerous to infants.

However much Kinsey, Riesenfeld and Hinds claim that Masagno's and Stewart's pending dismissal proceedings have nothing to do with large volume septic systems, it is easy to come to that conclusion, considering that Hinds, after only a few months in Marin has announced his intention to look at growth and septic regulations and has acted as if he has a mandate to do so.

Hinds certainly has experience with alternative wastewater systems "fowling the nest." During his tenure as head of the Community Development Agency of San Luis Obispo County he must have dealt with "Los Osos", a retirement community of some 15,000 residents which can only be described as an environmental disaster due to improper disposal of wastewater using "different technology." Over the years, nitrates have contaminated not only the ground water but also coastal waters and endangered shellfish harvest. This is a massive, dangerous and expensive problem of grave concern to the South Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

While Los Osos was built long before Hind's tenure, it should certainly give pause to any change in septic systems within the Tomales Bay watershed, but apparently Hinds is intent on doing something and it is easy to guess that that "something" will meet with Supervisor Steve Kinsey's approval.

What is so disturbing about this affair is that nothing like this-the transfers, expulsions and firings-have ever happened before. The appearance is that an outsider was brought in deliberately as a hatchet man to clear out a troublesome source of opposition to a revolutionary approach to land development that will accelerate growth all over West Marin with the potential for disastrous environmental damage. Environmentalists are sleeping this one out.

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