The Coastal Post - November 1999

County Septic Scandal Silence Continues;
Grand Jury Active Behind Scenes

By Jim Scanlon

The abrupt dismissal of the County's Environmental Health Chief Ed Stewart and his top septic sewer expert Dave Masagno this past September has to rank as one of the biggest scandals in the history of Marin County. Yet, the purging of both men shortly after filing grievances against the top administrators of county government and Supervisors Steve Kinsey and John Kress for abuse of power and endangering public health is not being covered. It is as if it never happened and is not happening. In other words surreal. The Civic Center has turned into a black hole of information reminiscent of the Kremlin during the Cold War. Only the Civic Grand Jury is busy, "turning over the rocks."

What is harder to understand is the lack of curiosity by county employees, especially mid management. Casual questioning of ordinary employees reveals nothing but total ignorance-except for one who read the Coastal Post. The naked power moves seem to have paralyzed everyone.

Stewart's "Whistleblower's hearing (open to the public) before the Board of Supervisors on his charges of abuse of power and endangering public health, scheduled for November 16, 1999 was continued until December 14, at 2:30 PM in the Supervisors' Chambers at Stewart's request. However, due to the County's lack of cooperation, this hearing may also be continued. Both men are technically still on paid leave, although this is not certain. Virtually nothing more is known other than what was reported in the Coastal Post last month. An "Iron Curtain" of silence seems to have descended.

Unverified information has it that both men have been denied access to their personal records and still have not received a written copy of the report which was supposedly the basis for their being literally thrown out of their offices, pending their being fired-definitely Kafkaesque!

Both men, long term County employees with unblemished records, who were resistant to the granting of permits for large volume septic systems favored by Supervisor Steve Kinsey, were escorted from their offices after being given five minutes to clear out. The exact nature of the charges against them, and the reasons for such extraordinary security procedures were never explained.

Stewart's charge of Kinsey's wanting to run Environmental Health from his office were reported in the Point Reyes Light, but besides one superficial report in the Gannett Independent Journal, little, if anything has been reported.

It was expected that both men would receive formal notices of dismissal, which would then be followed up by a hearing before the Marin County Personnel Commission, but this has, apparently not happened. A Civic Center insider told the Coastal post that the initial hearings against both men were so full of procedural errors that county officials want to do them over. (If at first you don't succeed, try, again!). It gets more bizarre, as if county officials are making up the rules as they go along.

What is certain however, is that the Grand Jury has been actively investigating the matter. But all proceedings of the Grand Jury are secret by law. It's term expires in June so, on the one hand, there is ample time to investigate Stewart's charges and his and Masagno's subsequent treatment-and anything else them uncover. However, it should not be forgotten that Steve Kinsey is up for reelection in March and if the Jury's report comes out before that time it could have a significant effect on the election.

It appears that many people throughout the County have been contacted by the Jury and interviewed: specifically, the Trustees of the Lagunitas School District were notified recently by the Environmental Committee of the Civil Grand Jury that it intended to interview Superintendent Larry Enos and that it would require certain documents, including: All School Board meeting minutes from August 1, 1997 to October 1999; Copies of all letters, electronic correspondence, meeting records, proposals (whether accepted or not), contracts and amendments thereto, bills, warrants, invoices (paid and unpaid) dealing with the specification, design, construction, inspection, maintenance and operation of the school septic system; Copies of all permit requests, issued permits and pending permits; Copies of all easements, deeds and agreements dealing with he location of the piping, trenches and leach fields.

It is not known if the French Ranch Developer has received a similar request since it intimately shares permits, trenches and leach fields with the school It was this joint, large volume septic system, promoted by Steve Kinsey before and after he became Supervisor, that set the precedent for other developers who are now lining up for permits even though the granting of such permits are not permitted by the county code.

The French Ranch/Lagunitas School joint septic system got around the county code by getting a provisional operating permit from the State Regional Water Quality Control Board and not from Environmental Health, which was supposed to somehow insure compliance with state codes assuring public safety when its own codes prohibited issuance of building permits for new development until totally completed and inspected. The system still isn't completed and the school recently paid some $20,000 to the golf course for disruption and damages caused by trenching across the fairway. School officials knew of or approved the "change in work orders" for this construction but paid nevertheless without complaining.

Dave Masagno, the dismissed septic supervisor issued a stop work order on the School's incomplete system after it broke down and spilled sewage last February. This order was ignored and a few weeks later Masagno was transferred with no explanation and without consultation with his supervisor Ed Stewart. Masagno was replaced by someone with no knowledge of septic systems who is now the head of the department.

It was this transfer that caused Stewart to speak out about these systems and complain about Kinsey's interference in his department. A few weeks later both men were removed from their jobs on charges which allegedly "are completely separate" and have nothing to do with septic issues according to a county spokesman.

The State Regional Water Resources Control Board (perhaps coming to it's senses) will no longer grant permits to the "large volume septic systems" less than 10,000 gallons per day, the kind being considered by the County. Presently there are at least two development permits that have been issued for "recirculating sand filter systems" without final inspections, and at least six others lined up for similar permits even though these systems are classified as "experimental" and cannot be approved for new development under present codes.

A new consultant was hired by Alex Hinds the recently hired Community Development Director to revise the County's septic ordinances and it remains to be seen if these systems will be classified as "experimental," or not, or if further testing and evaluation, impact reports etc. will be necessary.

One doesn't have to be a "rocket scientist" to understand why Stewart and Masagno were eliminated and placed in limbo. Should they actually be fired and sue for wrongful termination, much time would have elapsed and the taxpayer would ultimately foot the bill if there were to be a ruling against the county.

The Lagunitas School/French Ranch mess (still uncompleted or fully paid for) has resulted in a Civic Center mess and there is no telling where it will end. But, the most disturbing aspect of these messes is the apathy and ignorance of the citizens of Marin because of the secrecy and the news black out.

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