Tensions on the Oceano Community Services District board erupted into more than three hours of shouting and insults at a meeting Wednesday evening that was marked by the exit of another key administrator.
Two weeks removed from a contentious meeting that led to the resignation of the board’s legal counsel of Adamski, Moroski, Madden, Cumberland & Green due to repeated Brown Act violations by board members, Wednesday’s meeting was punctuated by the retirement of board general manager Will Clemens.
To the apparent surprise of the board, during the opening of the meeting, Clemens finished his reports with a statement announcing his retirement, saying the “recent change in direction” of the board has made his job “untenable.”
“The district bylaws have been watered down to allow a board minority to control the agenda,” Clemens said. “The baseless accusations against myself and other staff are disingenuous, and have created distractions from providing the vital public services and infrastructure this community needs and deserves.”
Throughout, the meeting was a raucous, toxic affair, during which directors consistently talked over and insulted one another, while audience members shouted obscenities at the board and each other.
Why did Clemens retire?
Clemens was scheduled for a performance review in closed session Wednesday evening, where it appeared board member Charles Varni was looking to terminate his employment.
Varni appeared to be under the impression that Clemens’ contract was set to expire Dec. 31, but legal counsel Daniel Cheung — who continues to serve the board for the time being — told the board Clemens’ contract was “evergreen,” meaning while it could be terminated by the board or by Clemens, there is no set end date.
Additionally, Cheung explained, terminating Clemens’ contract before the end of the year meant paying out a severance package, which Clemens negotiated into his contract with the previous board.
Cheung also said under the Brown Act, if the board wanted to fire Clemens based on specific complaints, the charges would need to be read in open session.
Varni then brought out a six-page list of the issues he had with Clemens’ performance.
He accused Clemens of “patterns of manipulation” and said Clemens had held up proceedings surrounding a case of embezzlement detected in an annual audit on July 22, 2022.
That audit found an employee had been embezzling money by padding out their vacation time and resulted in termination after the employee had been placed on administrative leave through September 2022.
Varni said Clemens did not make the board’s new members aware of the embezzlement or audit after Varni, Beverly Joyce-Suneson and Allene Villa were sworn in in December 2022.
Clemens later said he made all board members aware of the investigation.
During public comment, former Oceano CSD board president Karen White — who served on the board when the embezzlement occurred — also said the investigation had been carried out correctly.
Varni said Clemens had sought to intimidate him and Joyce-Suneson, and had attempted to manipulate the board’s outcomes by aligning himself with directors Linda Austin and Shirley Gibson.
“On Oct. 11 in closed session, the GM erupted into a rage of yelling, standing up and leaning towards director Varni with his fists clenched in a threatening manner,” Varni said. “Director Varni, concerned for his safety and that of others, jumped to his feet and verbally demanded that the GM back up, stand down and shut up, which he did.”
Clemens’ supporters: ‘None of it’s true’
Austin said Varni’s complaints against Clemens were “all crap” and largely based on personal grievance rather than Clemens’ performance.
“None of it’s true,” she said. “I don’t know where to start on this.”
Austin said Varni has a “systematic plan” to change Oceano, including this year’s attempts to explore annexation into Grover Beach and large-scale redevelopment of the area.
“Mr. Varni is not a community servant. He is an extreme activist, and he is not suited for governance,” Austin said. “He did not get himself elected to serve the community. He wanted to further his own agenda.”
Clemens, speaking in his defense, said he never tried to delay the board’s actions and said Joyce-Suneson and Varni were the parties who had engaged in intimidation, not him.
He said Varni had sent him more than 150 emails over the past 10 months, more than five times the next-closest board member, and said Varni often demanded he do things the board had not authorized.
Clemens also said Varni attempted to threaten him by scheduling more performance reviews than the annual required review.
“One of the first actions Director Varni proposed was to water down the district bylaws so that a minority could put whatever they wanted on the board agenda,” Clemens said. “He then used that power to place a performance review of the general manager on six different agendas over the past four months, culminating with tonight’s item, which includes the possibility of discipline or termination. This is clear harassment.”
Clemens then read aloud several clippings from the Santa Maria Times from Varni’s time working in Santa Maria’s government, calling Varni an “environmental extremist.”
“Director Varni angrily made baseless and unfactual accusations against myself, my staff and our legal firm of covering up criminal activity,” Clemens said. “That’s why I strongly defended myself, my staff and our legal firm against this false narrative. It’s Director Varni and Director Joyce-Suneson who need to be disciplined or terminated, not the general manager. I urge your board to censure both directors for their actions and strip them of any committee assignments.”
Gibson calls for Joyce-Suneson’s resignation following Oct. 11 meeting
Clemens wasn’t the only person asking for Joyce-Suneson’s resignation.
Though it was not discussed in the meeting, Gibson recently called for Joyce-Suneson’s resignation in a post on Nextdoor over an alleged illegal water and sewer hookup to a recreational vehicle on Joyce-Suneson’s property.
According to documents in Gibson’s post, the San Luis Obispo County Department of Planning and Building sent a notice Sept. 20 to Joyce-Suneson informing her of the violations.
At the Oct. 11 meeting, Joyce-Suneson called it a “run-of-the-mill” ticket, though she said it didn’t excuse the violation.
She said several adult family members live on her property and were responsible for the illegal RV hookup.
“When I became aware of this infraction, I immediately took steps to correct it,” Joyce-Suneson said.
In her Oct. 11 speech about the violation, Joyce-Suneson brought up the aforementioned embezzlement case, causing Cheung to warn that the comments may violate the Brown Act.
Varni also used his time Oct. 11 to discuss the embezzlement case, causing Villa to recess the meeting because Cheung warned the comments could violate the Brown Act.
In her Nextdoor post, Gibson called Joyce-Suneson “unfit to hold office” due to the violation.
“(Joyce-Suneson) has violated the trust of the board, the GM, the staff and the Oceano community,” Gibson said in the post. “She was appointed to fill a seat, then no one ran for director and she has no consitituency. The Board of Directors and people of Oceano deserve someone that hasn’t committed and illegal act.”
Public comment, meeting order devolve into shouting matches
Throughout the three and a half hours of public meeting before the board moved to closed session, almost every statement made by board members and members of the public were met by cheering, boos or shouting, depending on the speaker.
At one point, Shirley Gibson’s husband, Rod Gibson, appeared during public comment to try to settle a grievance with Varni.
“The way you treated my wife after a meeting was terrible,” Rod Gibson said to Varni. “You and I need to talk to each other.”
“You and I need to talk together,” Shirley Gibson said to her husband.
Rod Gibson later spoke during another public comment opportunity and apologized for having a “complete emotional breakdown.”
White also spoke at public comment, defending Clemens’ record and calling him the best hire she made during her tenure.
“The problem that you people are going to have is finding a manager, finding an attorney firm,” White said. “You’ve lost, as of tonight, both your attorney firm and your manager, and what people are telling you is they don’t want to play with you.”
Multiple members of the public used public comment to shout at specific board members, occasionally garnering a response.
Board President Villa frequently attempted to keep order with the gavel, but with limited success.
What’s next for Oceano CSD?
Nothing was reported out of Clemens’ closed session performance review, meaning his contract was not terminated.
Clemens said he will stay on as general manager through the replacement process until an interim or permanent general manager has been found.
“When I came to Oceano four years ago, I made a promise that I would bring more value to the community than I took from it,” Clemens said in a news release sent out shortly after his announcement. “I can say unequivocally that I have made good on that promise! The funding for completing the remaining infrastructure projects is lined up, and now it is up to the district to find the right person to keep the positive momentum going and implement those projects.”