Tina Stillwell Wants Her Job Back

Photograph of Garberville from 1976 featured on the GSD website.

Although the Garberville Sanitary District denies the allegations, Tina Stillwell says she was fired as Office Administrator for having alerted the auditor from Anderson, Lucas, Somerville and Borges LLC, to problems she said she was seeing with the use of District funds.

On May 1 of 2017, we reported

The audit report is included in the January 2017 board packet. Pages 54 through 56 of the packet are a draft letter to the GSD board from the auditor. The letter lists seven “material weaknesses” for the Board to consider. The seventh weakness the letter lists is “outside employment.’ The auditor’s letter says “…we discovered the General Manager holds several positions at three other districts. Since this District employs him full time, there should be some accountability for the time he spends at his outside employment.” And “During the audit we noticed that the District’s credit was used to purchase a tool for another district. Although this tool was replaced, it is a major internal control concern.”

After the story was published, the District pulled the Auditor’s report from the District’s webpage where it had been included in the Board packet.

On June 5, according to the press release below, Tina Stillwell was fired by General Manager Ralph Emerson for “poor work performance.”

The public was noticed last week that the GSD Board of Directors will go into closed session to discuss potential litigation brought by Ms. Stillwell. When asked for comment, Ms. Stillwell demurred; but yesterday, the 7th of September, her attorney, Kenneth Absalom, distributed the below press release.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Absalom says Tina Stillwell wants her position back. He said, “She loves her job. She loves serving her community in that position.” He added that having a job with benefits is important to everyone and difficult to find in rural communities like Southern Humboldt.

When asked why it is implausible to believe that Tina Stillwell was actually doing a poor job and fired for good reason, Mr. Absalom said that the timing of events strongly supports Stillwell’s claims and that “if the claims had merit” he “would expect to see documentation showing significant deficiencies that needed to be corrected.”

Tina Stillwell has requested mediation to resolve the matter, Absalom said, “because once we get to litigation, the remedy becomes limited to compensation for lost wages and benefits which is costly to ratepayers, and Tina (Stillwell) sees them as her neighbors.”

Mr. Absalom forwarded a letter sent to the Board of Directors inviting them to mediation with his client.  The letter reads in part:

[T]he essential contention is that she was terminated in retaliation for reporting and disclosing financial improprieties committed by the General Manager and managerial deficiencies on his part. The evidence will show that the temporal proximity of her termination to the General Manager’s knowledge of these complaints will lead ineluctably to the ultimate fact of retaliatory termination.

Moreover, it appears the Board violated its fiduciary duty failing to adequately oversee the General Manager’s performance. Further, the Board failed to adopt required essential written policies governing his activities. A simple example: around this same time period, the Board adopted a bare bones policy protecting “whistleblowers” which is not likely to pass legal muster….

Her [Stillwell] primary objective is to return to her position with the District and to resume serving her community in that capacity. She loved her job, the opportunity to help rate payers and serve the District in which she has lived for most of her life. She would prefer to reach an amicable resolution of this unfortunate dispute at the least cost to the District, yet recovering reasonable compensation. Now is the time for the District and Ms. Stillwell to explore all early settlement opportunities before both sides incur substantial expenses.

Accordingly, my client has authorized me to offer pre-litigation mediation to the District in an effort to bring about a speedy and cost effective resolution.

When asked for comment, the Garberville Sanitary District sent this statement through the acting Office Administrator:

…Although the Garberville Sanitary District strongly disputes the allegations and claims asserted by Ms. Stillwell and believes the claims and allegations lack merit, no additional comment will follow at this time as this is a pending and/or threatened litigation matter involving District personnel determinations.

Below is the press release submitted by Tina Stillwell’s attorney.FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE -final 9-7-17

 

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47 comments

  • This should go to the Grand Jury.

    • The “city fathers” did it in Shelter Cove 10 years ago. The Grand Jury doesn’t care. Utility barons blame it all on the growers so they can line their own pockets.

  • Charles Engebretson

    Seen this before what jack wagon came up with the idea to fire her?

  • It seems odd that someone who has performed without complaint for many years would suddenly become “incompetent”. The GM should be investigated.

    • I agree Jerry, here is Emerson’s current online resume:

      Ralph Emerson, Garberville Sanitary District
      “I have worked for public agencies in the water/wastewater field for over 20 years as an operator, chief plant operator or general manager. I currently am the water operator for Leggett in Mendocino County, the wastewater operator for Miranda in Humboldt County, the contract wastewater operator for the USBR at Melones reservoir in Calaveras and Tuolumne County and the general manager for Garberville Sanitary District, which provides water and sewer service.”

      http://www.csda.net/about-csda/district-networks/

      Please note, Emerson works in 3 other counties while at GSD, and you can be sure GSD ratepayers are paying Emerson’s operators licensing, training, lodging, meals, and transportation cost…

      When did GSD stop being a public agency and become a private benefit income stream for the GSD GM?

  • Let me get this straight,she lost her job,for doing her Job? I’m shaking my head!!!

  • This is very concerning as a rate payer, neighbor, and life long acquaintance of Tina and her parents. I’ve watched Tina perform her duties in several capacities in this town. From the time she was a teenager taking a position at Contel she has impressed me with her work ethics.
    I support Tina.

  • This angers me. This is an agency that is required to have independent audits for a REASON. The audit clearly states the GM is double-dipping and it also mentions other MATERIAL weaknesses. Again and again, rather than correct the deficiencies AS REQUIRED, Boards and Councils take offense and someone’s head rolls for “outing” unethical or illegal practices. Please tell me the GM is still not employed?

  • Good for Tina… I believe she did the right thing. This is ludicrous that she would lose her job, for doing her job. I’m hoping she gets her job back. She is well loved in our community. And an asset to us all. You would think you would want to keep your honest employee. It shows her integrity and honesty. On top of it all she really loves and needs her job. We live in a small community, it’s hard to find a good job with benefits. Sending out white light and prayers for Tina’s family.

  • The GM should be fired. And should have been fired way before they looked into Tina. The GM’s total compensation is way more than Tina’s so that would have been a huge cost savings. Also, that SOB is triple dipping by working for 3 districts.

    • Once a slimebag, always a slimebag (looking at you, Ralphy)…

      Ralph also ran off Ron Copenhafer.

      Best wishes to Tina in her efforts.

  • I’d be fuming mad….wait, I am fuming mad! The idea these top assholes still think they can get away with this shit like it’s the ’80’s or something, shows they’ve been too comfortable for far too long. Fire them all. [edit] ok, I’m done ranting.

  • I worked with Tina for years ,and her work standards are of extreme integrety in all reguards ,she’s honest,forthright,inteligent,calm.Give her her job back.

  • Ralph Emerson you are a joke. Why are you such a bad person. Karma will get you. Tina is one of the most truthful and honest people I know. She has always worked and also be willing to help this community. Best of luck to you Tina, I wouldn’t work for this New General Manager. I think the community needs to kick this Ralph Emerson out!!

    • Very lucky he's here

      Awefully one sided toward Ralph,what most don’t know is garberville was in a nose dive with all the decisions it’s made in the past,some might not like how it’s done but Ralph is very much saving garbervile sanitary district, it’s a mess and he’s doing a great job cleaning it up.Garberville is very lucky to have him,Ralph is highly qualified and this job is being done more out of the goodness of his heart and the compasion for districts, I guerentee it’s not about a paycheck.Your doing a great job Ralph and some of the community does realize it, thank you

      • Is that you, Ralph?

        and what, $140,000 per year but he’s not doing it for the paycheck? and the other two districts he’s moonlighting for? no monetary rewards for Ralph, he’s just doing good work out of the goodness of his heart~

        • I didnt see nothing

          At that (non-weed) salary, and in the middle of nowhere, there’s no need for any moonlighting. Not unless you’re trying to control everything or merge districts. Or it’s a specific need of the job. So much shady business going on, it’s been normalized as “everyone is doing it” as that’s somehow going to legitimize things.

  • Diesel DRW - Curb Weight 7762 lbs

    In Garberville, there are no rules. You can work there, if you fit in with local prejudices, and if you go along with the corruption. Talk to any of the hundreds of folks, fired by SHCHD, by previous CEO types – there is no reason and no limit to the perfidious and capricious screwing with other people’s lives and livelihoods by the folks occupying the “district” offices around Garberville!

    I will not rest until I have done everything in my power to destroy, or at least marginally disrupt, the operation of the Southern Humboldt Healthcare District. As long as I breathe I will never forget the awful treatment I received there.

    Garberville – not a particularly unusual or bad example of a small town – but the public employees in this area – corrupt as hell, and not too smart!

    Go get them Tina!

  • One positive benefit to the changing face of this county is the crumbling of old boy networks and the shining of light into the darker recesses of this area’s pale slimy underbelly. Scandels will just keep popping up in the area’s public agencies.

  • Please bring Tina back! Her replacement Mary is rude and incompetent… The GM Ralph Emerson is condescending and brought me to tears on the phone and then hung up on me.
    GSD has repeatedly charged late fees and I have my bank statements to prove that I haven’t been late. Then they said I was one penny short so they are charging me $5.00 on one account and $5.01 on my other account. How is this legal?! Late fees on two accounts for one penny short? Was I a half a penny short on both?! I have written the board and asked for help, with no response… For the past four months they have tried to charge late fees on top of an astronomical water rate to a customer who has never been late. I have looked into other rates in California and this is highway robbery! The town of Los Gatos pays one of the highest rates in California at an average of $62.00 a month, our average bill is $150.00 a month, and GSD does not submit any information to the state. The whole operation needs an overhaul! Bring back Tina and fire the whole lot of them, board members too!!!

    • Side note; When I went to the office to clear up the erroneous late fees, their computer system did not show the late fees due. The only thing I could surmise from the lack of information in the system and the fact that it is on my bill is, who is profiting illegally from customers who are already being overcharged!?!
      This needs to be looked into by the proper authorities!

      • I didnt see nothing

        Their “back up” systems to correct bad or incorrect data are probably no better than pay/owe sheets growers use: a pad of paper and a pencil.

  • We need more ladies like Tina Stillwell running things in our community. Great job Tina. Keep up the great work and good luck with these asholes!

  • Eldon G. Whitehead

    This General Manager is a complete a**h**** and should be fired outright and banned from holding ANY PUBLIC or GOVERNMENT JOBS FOR THE REST OF HIS SLIMY LIFE. I hope that Tina gets her job back, including all back pay and benefits. If it breaks the City somewhat, they should pay more attention to what their so called City Fathers are doing. Good Luck Tina. Maybe you should be the General Manager.

    • Maybe if Garbageville *was* an actual CITY.

      Being unincorporated means you can’t have nice things.

      Just private, fake ‘community’ run by greedheads.

  • ps Thank you, Kelly Lincoln, for covering the GSD. Somebody needs to pay attention. Too bad the residents of Garbageville can’t seem to be roused from their stupor to care.

  • Thank you Tina, for doing the right thing and standing up for your rights. For all the decades I have know you and asked you to provide different public documents from GSD, you have always been professional, courteous and polite. Thank you for all you did and do for the public, you are a shining example and will always be respected!

  • Concerned Business Owner and Resident

    Can We Get This Story Back Up On The Front Page???

    This Is One Of The Most Important Issues Facing Garberville Resources and Rate Payer Interests.

    The Rate Payers Need To Collectively Challenge The Board and GSD On The Origins Of Their Current Rates, Base Rates And New Policies And Practices Being Engineered and Driven By The Current General Manager.

    The Board Can Be Voted Out By Our Town. The Rate Charges Need To Be Justified And Proven Under Prop 218 — That The Rates Do NOT Exceed The Actual Costs To Provide The Service.

    This Directly Affects The Residential and Business Viability For Garberville To Survive Or Face The Possibility Of Becoming A Failed Town.

    This Could Be The Start To A Community Wide Effort To Take On The Insidious Multi-Level Corruption Within GSD, Water Rights and The Local Organizations That Are Ruining The Town With Poor Policies, Bad Decisions and Compromised Ethics.

    PLEASE GET THIS BACK ON THE FRONT PAGE AS THE TOP STORY!

  • Kim why was my comment deleted ? there was nothing in it that is not true.

  • Very lucky he's here

    By the way, Ralph is on the state water board and is highly educated, he’s more then well aware of the rules and laws that exist and he’s not breaking any of them,his wealth of knowledge may be the only thing that saves the district from a history of bad decitions, next time you see him you should take a second to thank him,he’s here to help you

    • While I don’t wish to counter-argue your support of the general manager, it does not appear to be true that Mr. Emerson sits on a state water board. Although there are many state agencies that relate to water issues, the term “state water board” is pretty specifically either the swrcb or one of the regional water quality control boards of which there are nine. I looked at our local ncrwqcb and the central valley rwqb and the swrcb. He isn’t on those.
      http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/northcoast/board_info/board_members.shtml

      http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/about_us/board_members/

      http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/centralvalley/about_us/board_members/index.shtml

      • It’s California rural water board I believe ,but he’s on one

        • Lucky, you are confusing a public agency with a private lobbying organization and special interest group! Emerson is on the California Special Districts Alliance (CSDA):

          http://www.csda.net/about-csda/board-of-directors/

          GSD ratepayers pay his lodging, meals and transportation cost to travel and attend CSDA meetings so he can sit on this private Board. GSD ratepayers also pay the same for his operators licensing and training cost. That is why he is being paid by other Districts in the area, because of his operators licensing, that GSD ratepayers paid for.

          Lucky for you…

    • Maybe you could tell us the terms of his departure from his last job, Very Lucky?

      Didn’t he pull something illegal there and get busted for it???

      • Something like that:

        http://www.calaverasenterprise.com/news/article_ad5b6a4e-88a5-11e1-a838-001a4bcf887a.html

        http://www.calaverasenterprise.com/news/article_bc2d5fa4-0f4e-5461-82f1-9696514f2c8e.html

        The GSD Board was well aware of all the controversy(s) at Emerson’s last employer, the GSD Board was sent all the online links, It seems Emerson fit right into the culture and past GM’s behavior at GSD…

        • Concerned Business Owner and Resident

          Ed – Thanks for posting this link. I’ve pasted the story just below so people can read this. The current General Manager has a history of causing serious problems for people in small town districts for many years, including major abuse of the positions he’s held. He’s continued his misconduct while at GSD, and never should have been hired. He and the Board need to be held accountable and they all need to go! NOW!

          http://www.uniondemocrat.com/localnews/3795429-151/scandals-ensnare-sanitary-district

          Scandals ensnare Sanitary District

          SEAN JANSSEN, THE UNION DEMOCRAT

          Misconduct by a former manager, illegal sewage dumping and a board member’s possible conflict of financial interests are among the issues overshadowing Murphys Sanitary District.

          The various scandals have so far forced a one-month absence of former top manager Ralph Emerson and led to the possibility of state fines that have reached $1 million in similar local cases.

          General Manager Julio Guerra, hired in January after the district went four years with the position vacant, still believes he can get the district on solid footing and keep it viable on its own.

          “We have got issues that need to be addressed that we’ve got to seek outside funding for. Murphys is a vibrant community. There’s no reason a well-upgraded system cannot function on its own here and I hope to facilitate that,” he said.

          A Feb. 1 state inspection at MSD led to a report finding that sewage sludge stockpiles created in 2004 and 2010 on the district’s property are in violation of state solids-disposal requirements.

          Guerra said his own investigation determined the district was required to submit a solids handling plan in January 2002 but never completed it. In recent months, samples have tested above permitted levels for nitrates and coliform bacteria as a result of the stockpiling, creating contamination concerns for nearby groundwater. The district will have to spend more than $50,000 to remove the sludge to a disposal site.

          The district’s top employee while the GM role remained vacant, Operations Manager Ralph Emerson, said he handled the sludge for years as directed by the board. However, in an interview Friday, Guerra said he has not been able to determine such direction from his review of past board meeting minutes.

          The Jan. 8, 2002, letter from the Regional Water Quality Control Board that demands a revised sludge management plan, which Guerra said was never completed, is addressed directly to Emerson.

          The state board is also looking into the district’s bypass of a filtration system last summer that allowed partially treated sewage to reach the Kautz property on Six Mile Road.

          Guerra met with RWQCB regulators April 20 to discuss the likely violations. Wendy Wyels, RWQCB environmental program manager, said the board is working on notices of violation to send to Murphys Sanitary and has not yet determined whether it will impose fines for those violations.

          “There’s issues with the sludge stockpiled, nitrate in groundwater (and) sampling practices,” Wyels said. “Staff did not say one way or another whether there will be fines or not (in the April meeting).”

          Steps for the district to take will be outlined in the violation notices, she said.

          “We expect voluntary compliance,” she said. “If the district does x, y and z by (deadline) dates, we will not issue a fine.”

          The district purchased 23 acres in recent years to help enhance its disposal capacity, Guerra said, and “avoid what happened before.” The land is undergoing environmental review for possible use as an area to spray treated wastewater.

          The impact of potential fines from state regulators could damage the tiny sewer district – which serves 837 connections and about 1,500 people on an annual budget of roughly $1 million. The Calaveras County Local Agency Formation Commission, which helps regulate special districts, opined the district either ought to dissolve or combine with another larger service provider before the violations were revealed.

          Similar sludge storage issues and failure to have proper planning documents in place were outlined in an April 9 violation letter to the Groveland Community Services District that warns of $1 million in potential fines. In September 2011, the RWQCB fined thecity of Angels Camp $125,000 for a spill of less-than-tertiary treated wastewater into Angels Creek.

          Emerson clashes

          with board

          Tensions between Emerson, the district’s longest-tenured employee at 17 years, and directors have flared up in recent months.

          The board suspended him for 30 days without pay in September 2011 and denied his request to be paid for accrued vacation time during the suspension.

          Emerson requested the disciplinary matter be aired publicly at the Sept. 12 board meeting, in which MSD attorney Ken Airola revealed he had referred to then-Director Cynthia Trade in grossly profane terms specifically derogatory toward women in the presence of administrative staff Cindy Nugent and Marilou Miloslavich.

          Airola noted Emerson later apologized to each of the three women.

          “There’s no excuse for losing one’s cool,” Emerson told the board. “It’s obviously not what I think of Cynthia. I respect Cynthia. There’s no justification but it was a series of events that took place.”

          Emerson said he heard Trade had told staff they would not receive raises in the next year, “and then I hear from a staff member that an evaluation form that I use, that I developed, to evaluate my employees was being asked to be changed without coming to me.”

          Then-board member Jim Riggs noted Emerson’s words included “degrading terms against women.”

          Director Patricia Davies said Emerson had also violated a district policy against practical jokes and once hid her car keys from her.

          “It was meant in good-hearted fun,” Emerson replied. “There was no maliciousness. I am so sorry you were offended by that.”

          Riggs also explained that he heard from Emerson that three local business people informed the operations manager Riggs had been seeking out potentially negative information about Emerson.

          Emerson hesitated to name those individuals.

          “They don’t exist,” Riggs said. “That’s why you can’t name them.”

          “I have a lot of the names but a lot of them are your friends and it doesn’t look good for them if their names come out because then you’re going to ask, ‘Where’s the trust?'” Emerson said.

          It seemed to hurt Riggs to bring the complaint forward, calling Emerson “a friend of mine” he had gone hunting with in Minnesota in the past.

          District operators Brain Langley and Tyler Giuffra strongly urged the board not to dismiss Emerson, prior to the board entering closed-session discussion of Emerson’s punishment.

          At the district board’s meeting last month, Guerra addressed a letter from Emerson’s attorney seeking records of MSD board meetings for the past year. Guerra said the request surprised him and he would have provided the data to Emerson upon simply asking verbally. Emerson said he had “no particular reason” for requesting the information, adding that he had missed some meetings and “wanted to know what people are saying about me.”

          In an April 26 meeting of the board’s personnel committee, a proposal to demote Emerson from “operations manager” to “field supervisor” was discussed, a move that may lead to a cut in his $62,400 annual salary. Emerson submitted a letter in protest, showing his salary is lower than most area agencies’ compensation for employees with similar experience.

          “I don’t feel it is right to take money from me when I am already underpaid for my experience and years of service,” he wrote. “I don’t receive daily instruction from anybody and am trusted to make the appropriate decisions for daily operations and will continue to do so.”

          District office

          ownership conflict?

          The Murphys Sanitary District office at 90 Big Trees Road, Suite B, is owned by Director Patricia Davies, who receives $350 in rent from the district each month. A five-year lease for the offices was approved in November 2010 during a brief hiatus from the board by Davies.

          Then-board President Beth Hartline submitted an agenda item for the Oct. 12, 2010, board meeting to address what she saw as a likely conflict of interest. Prior to that agenda item, Davies submitted her letter of resignation “based solely on Government Code 1090,” which addresses conflicts of interest, according to meeting minutes.

          Hartline resigned when the board next met on Nov. 8.

          Hartline said her formal reason for leaving was she lacks time to devote to the board.

          “But, for the record, I turned down a board position at MSD three times before I accepted, and … it was clear to me after ethics training, that state law prohibits directors from benefiting financially from their position. When I realized that I couldn’t get enough votes to prevent or correct significant risk to the district or myself, I resigned.”

          In a Nov. 15 special meeting, the board approved the lease with Davies, now a private citizen. However, she applied and was appointed to fill a vacant board seat at the next meeting on Dec. 13.

          When asked Monday if the lease represents a conflict of interest, Davies said, “I never thought there was. At one time, there was a question and it was straightened out as far as I know.”

          Airola was more cautious.

          “Right now, we’ve avoided any conflict of interest but it will be a problem in the future,” he said.

          No modifications, renewal or addendum can be made to the lease, Airola said.

          “It’s not an ideal situation,” he said. “We’re taking steps to avoid any violations … but we can’t find a cheaper place. That’s a function of being in Murphys.”

          Guerra said he submitted a possible relocation as an agenda item in the February meeting but the board took no action.

          The Union Democratsought a legal opinion on the situation from the Calaveras County Counsel’s office but a spokeswoman said Wednesday that the office only gives advice directly to government agencies.

  • Mediation would save both sides considerable expense and I hope the GSD can see the merit in choosing that path. It might be the best way to limit damage from the scrutiny that would result from other paths being taken.

    • Cranky; GSD should have insurance for this situation, so it’s not like the GSD ratepayers are going to be on the hook for any attorneys fees or court cost. What is puzzling to me, is that in the letter above, from Tina’s attorney, 5th paragraph down, its states:

      “Herb Schwartz has been retained as her mediation consultant”

      Let me remind folks, Herb Schwartz is a past appointed GSD Board Member, past GSD Board Chair and worked as interim GSD General Mgr after Mark Bryant left. Herb Schwartz was on the GSD Board during some its most aggressive, egregious and controversial projects 2004-2012. And it was Herb Schwartz that did not want public meetings during; the purchase of the Garberville Water Company, new wastewater treatment plant construction, new water treatment plant planning and environmental review phases, Kimtu Waterline, new Sphere of Influence or expanding GSD’s district service boundary (annexation). Most of those decisions were made in private between himself, GSD staff and the developer and or property owner. It was not until members of the public and local newspaper reporters questioned this, and only then did Schwartz allowed the public into these discussions and ad-hoc committee meetings…

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