Robert Bernardo wants to talk about the positives achieved at the San Mateo County Harbor District — paying off its $20 million debt a year early, receiving state certification for its clean marinas, the search and rescue award, the replacement of docks and installation of a new vessel pump out facility for waste oil.
Bernardo wants to look to the future and celebrate the highlights of last year, however, the president of the Harbor District Commission said there’s a problem in getting the word out.
“It seems like nobody ever asks what are the good things that are happening,” he said.
Instead, Bernardo concedes the district is drawing community murmurs — not to mention an avalanche of mass emails and California Public Records Act requests — for less glowing matters.
The rescinding of videotaped meetings. A hacked credit card. Missing checks. Meetings that stretch out for hours. The upcoming plan to destroy old documents.
The matters linked by other members to Commissioner Sabrina Brennan are a list in themselves: seeking legal research and documentation beyond the standard staff reports which some fellow members say is costly and unnecessary; filing an anti-harassment complaint against General Manager Peter Grenell and being subject to similar harassment complaints by staff and wearing Google Glass to the first meeting after videotaping was nixed.
The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury is now reportedly investigating the district and the commission next month is looking at hiring a facilitator to see how the members can all play nicely.
Bernardo, who said he tries to remain neutral, said he hates the discord.
“I do not like conflict. We’ve got things to do and bickering does not move the dial forward,” Bernardo said. “It pains me and hurts me to see so much friction really, whether it’s on the commission level or the community level because it quickly turns to quicksand and we can’t move forward with projects. Progress gets pushed aside because of personality.”
Brennan agrees that the public is probably more aware of the district’s disputes rather than its issues and achievements.
“We clearly have public perception issues,” she said.
History of conflict
The Harbor Commission has long been a body of conflicts, even long before many of the current participants were elected. Dissolution was considered once, but shelved. The civil grand jury also looked at the district in 2000 and 2001, the last investigation resulting in recommendation of a mediator.
The posts attract passionate people who end to be lightning rods in the community, Bernardo theorized.
The current commission includes Bernardo, a former South San Francisco planning commissioner and Port of Oakland spokesman; Brennan, a graphic artist business owner and marine advocate; Jim Tucker, who has a law enforcement and development background; Pietro Parravano, whose background in commercial fishing moved into education and sustainability; and Will Holsinger, a Burlingame attorney twice appointed to fill two difference vacancies following a member’s death.
The taxpayer-funded district, which formed in 1933, runs both Pillar Point Harbor in Princeton and Oyster Point Marina/Park in South San Francisco. Parravano and Tucker have served on the commission for years while Brennan, elected in 2012, is the body’s newest member. She ran on a platform that included environmental protection and questioning the board’s financial decisions — a precursor perhaps to the current head-butting between her, the board and district staff.
Tucker thinks Brennan’s is stumbling while making the transition from seeking information as a “shotgun-approach” community activist to an elected official’s less confrontational mode.
“She came to us thinking that behind every decision or closed door there is something wrong going on,” Tucker said.
Tucker said Brennan is at odds with the staff and appears to undermine the district’s positives such as asking the committee handing out the coveted state Clean Harbor Award if it hadn’t overlooked bacteria still present.
Brennan kept asking the same questions and wouldn’t accept the answers, Parravano said.
“She was basically saying, I don’t believe you,” he said. “She wanted more out of something that had already been taken care of. She has difficulty letting go.”
Parravano said the same tenacity is apparent in her repeated requests for large volumes of documents.
Yet, “you can’t put everything on her,” Tucker said. “It’s us, too. Maybe we’re too old-fashioned and set in our ways.”
Tucker said it’s hard to find a lot of common ground with Brennan but does support her idea to add member email addresses to the district website and Wi-Fi at the harbors.
Long, contentious meetings and Occupy movement
The videotaping, however, Tucker and the others say is less a matter of technology and generations as it is maintaining sense of decorum at meetings.
Prior to Brennan’s election, the meetings ran short and were audiotaped. Now, after meetings that ran into the next morning — once they couldn’t even finish an agenda, Grenell said — an earlier start time and 10 p.m. hard stop is enforced.
“We’re not running the state of California here,” Tucker said.
Even so, Tucker, Holsinger and Grenell say if there are two hours of tape, 45 minutes of it will be Brennan speaking.
“As a matter of fact, at one board meeting after Brennan had been speaking for 25 minutes, a member of the audience called out ‘Do you have a question or are you making a speech?’” Grenell said. “That is a quote so even the public has been seeing this kind of thing.”
The rest of the meeting time, they say, is taken up by out-of-town faces with ties to the Occupy movement who never showed before and tend to tailor their public comment to supporting Brennan’s right to speak. The crowd grew so unruly with name calling and finger pointing that armed deputies now attend and the commission was asked to relocate its meetings, Parravano said.
“That to me speaks to the severity and lack of civility that other members are experiencing,” Parravano said.
The board, which had only recently started videotaping the meetings, also voted in a split 3-2 decision to end the practice and use podcasts. Doing so added fuel to the fire over transparency. More sparks came when Brennan wore a friend’s Google Glass during the next meeting’s discussion of the videotaping item. It was a last-minute decision at the friend’s urging and not meant to imply anything, Brennan said.
Then private citizens began doing their own filming. Former Half Moon Bay council candidate John Ullom in particular is videotaping which commissioner say they do appreciate, even if that is tempered with concern about slanted editing and splicing of the footage.
Parravano said the situation is unlike anything he’s experienced before on the commission and it leaves him exhausted.
“I leave from my house full of love and warmth and get to this meeting where I get beat up. Then I go back to my house full of love. It’s a spin cycle,” Parravano said.
Although the others pinpoint Brennan as the commonality for the disruptive meetings, she said they bother her, too. However, she felt the public actually acted better with the cameras and recalled Tucker being more pointed in his dislike of their use.
“He said videotaping is like a fungus,” she said.
Professional intervention, accounting issues
In a bid to heal the wounds and move forward, the commission is considering options for a professional third-party. Candidates will be interviewed at a special March 12 meeting.
Parravano understands the public might find it an unnecessary expense but “I think a lot of people don’t realize how deep these schisms are.”
The one thing they might all agree on is that the underlying personality conflicts color the perception of the district’s actions, particularly when headlines glom onto a former employee not depositing $38,000 in tenant checks or a bank-issued credit card being hacked.
The district’s new finance director found the 37 missing tenant checks were found in the drawer of an employee who later resigned. Two months later, the commission learned of the incident and Brennan demanded to know why they weren’t informed sooner of the discovery and accounting errors. Meanwhile, some of the boat-owning renters ended up in arrears and others weren’t charged monthly fees.
“Put that on top of the fact we did away with the videotape meetings, the common knowledge we are now being investigated by civil grand jury and, when you put it all together, it creates this cloud that hangs over everything,” Bernardo said.
Brennan said her inquiries and detailed questioning of staff and commissioners is meant to dissipate that cloud. If there is nothing wrong, the district has nothing to worry about and, if it does, it needs to be identified, she said.
The accounting issues are a red flag, for example.
“As a board member does it concern me? Absolutely,” she said.
Brennan feels where she’s turning a sharp eye to find improvement her colleagues prefer to look away and maintain the status quo.
“Sugarcoating is not dealing with it,” she said.
Requests, legal costs
But her questions come at a price both figurative and literal, according to her colleagues.
Tucker, who has worked hard on knocking down the district’s debt, was particularly rankled by the legal fees he said Brennan has racked up seeking opinions and information that she can get elsewhere. Tucker said he saved the district about $10,000 in renegotiated deals but that, within months of taking office, Brennan had spent just as much on attorney costs.
“Two months in office and she lost that $10,000. I was just livid,” Tucker said.
Grenell said the $10,000 figure sounds accurate off the top of his head. Since Brennan joined the commission, legal costs have increased in part because her emails to the commission as a whole or himself is often copied to the district’s general counsel, which is billed.
Brennan said she turns to the lawyers and uses Public Records Acts requests because Grenell and other staff are not giving her the information she needs and commission meetings grow lengthy because that is the only time she can really ask questions.
Grenell said three-fourths of Brennan’s requests are not tied to specific agenda items and often covers a broad range of topics and several years of documents like all written correspondence with the Coastal Commission related to a dredging permit application. Once provided, Grenell said he often fields requests from Brennan to which he’s already responded.
“It’s as if staff have to drop everything and deal with these incessant requests,” Grenell said, adding that he and the staff always respond but accumulating the document-heavy answers can take longer than what Brennan prefers.
Harassment complaints, friction
The dueling harassment complaints leave Brennan too uncomfortable to review documents like bills and claims at the district’s administration office and the files are too large to email and hard copies would be inappropriate. She said she’s offered to look at them at a neutral location, like the attorney’s office, but was denied. Tucker and Parravano say they understand it is Brennan who balked at the option.
“We’re trying to be accommodating to her and she can go to a public office like the rest of us but, because of the controversy, she won’t,” Tucker said.
Brennan is not at liberty to discuss the details of the harassment complaints but said her’s against Grenell is based both on gender and sexual identity.
Grenell similarly deferred discussing the complaints.
She said the problems with Grenell date back to her first failed bid to win a Harbor District seat when he allegedly phoned after she filed paperwork and told her a preferred candidate was already running for the open seat.
Grenell called the claim “untrue,” saying he would “never make such a statement. I don’t get involved in elections.”
Once elected on her second attempt, Brennan said the clashing continued as early as her first closed session meeting when a scheduled performance evaluation of Grenell turned into an opportunity for him browbeating her. She feels within her right sharing what happened at the meeting because the commission’s lack of abiding by the agenda is a violation of the Brown Act, she said.
Grenell also denies Brennan’s version and believes their friction may stem back to his questioning candidate information she provided the Smart Voter website about belonging to a commission committee of which only members can participate.
“I don’t know whether that is lingering, but there was that contact,” Grenell said.
Public Records Act requests
Feeling stonewalled by the district staff and her colleagues, Brennan resorts to Public Records Act requests to get answers and even then said those are rarely a quick resolution. She’s requested dozens which add even more dollar signs to the legal fees frustrating the other members.
“She has generated costs because of her presence,” Parravano said.
When she doesn’t have the answers, such as the details about the bills and clams, Brennan said she can’t even vote to approve the minutes because all she has is the limited treasurer’s summary.
“Who votes against the minutes?” Holsinger asked. “What I see happening is Sabrina looking for problems when there are none.”
“It’s not like I’m asking for something that surprising,” she said.
Brennan said her hands are tied and the public is right to question the district’s apparent lack of transparency because there is “no video, no minutes and useless podcasts.”
One possibility to cut down on Public Records Act requests is the district increasing its transparency like using an open government platform where the public can look for its own information, Brennan said.
Brennan isn’t the only one bombarding the district with Public Records Act requests. Ullum has made numerous requests for financial documents like accounts receivable. The requests are getting so voluminous the boardmembers say the district is considering hiring a new employee only to handle the documents.
Ullom said the recall fight at the Coastside Fire Protection District stoked his interest in local issues which ultimately drew him to the Harbor District where he said “the board and staff are very arrogant and piss people off although the fire board was far more grandstanding and out of control.”
He calls Brennan “pretty far left” for his personal taste but agrees with some of her politics and the desire to hold people accountable which is why he’s committed to public broadcasting and repeatedly asking for copies of financial records. Ullom believes the district needs better financial controls and calls its current records “sloppy.” He said he can’t prove any wrongdoing yet and thinks there is more negligence than corruption but he intends to keep looking.
The commissioners have varying opinions of Ullom and his requests. Tucker thinks a watchdog is never a bad thing although he believes Ullom is seeking a smoking gun. Holsinger compares his search to the Spanish Inquisition — look for sinners and wrongdoing and you will find them. Parravano sees him connected to Brennan, her mouthpiece now that she’s in office, and questions the result.
“What has been found after all these numerous requests? What has that uncovered?” he asked.
Brennan said she wouldn’t have necessary sought out items like the accounts receivable reports herself but did so after seeing Ullum’s push.
“When you have a member so interested ... the board should be looking at A/R,” she said.
Grenell has a slightly different take on Brennan’s interest.
“She or anyone in those positions have a perfect right and responsibility to be looking, no question about it. But if you take that and put it in the context of a year’s worth of constant inquiries for large amounts of data on all sort of subjects you have to take a step back and say wait a minute,” he said. “Isn’t there some other motivation underlying this?”
He also said the district can provide Ullom his information but that much of it relates to individuals’ accounts and personal information that must first be redacted.
“Basically we’ve said we will respond to the extent we can. It’s that simple,” Grenell said.
Records destruction controversy
The district’s latest brouhaha raised its head at the Feb. 5 meeting when the commission voted 5-0 to hold off on destroying 20 boxes of old records until after the civil grand jury investigation. The item first came up in January but Ullom pointed out that some listed records weren’t legally supposed to be shredded so the staff put it over to the next meeting. District staff later amended the list to clarify that some of those records are duplicate copies and not originals.
Grenell said there is no reason not to follow the routine destruction schedule as all public agencies do.
“It had absolutely nothing to do with anybody’s PRA requests. It’s just that we have boxes of stuff we have to get rid of,” Grenell said.
At the Wednesday meeting, Brennan raised the idea of digital archives and said scanning the documents would protect them in the event the district’s South San Francisco administrative building were to burn down.
Brennan also believes the alternative storage solution again highlights the technological divide at the district.
After the meeting, Brennan said during it she requested a staff report on the California Fair Political Practices Commission rules relating to recusals and walked out of closed session on fish-buying leases and fees at 10 p.m. after Holsinger twice called her a liar.
Going forward, the commissioners say they’re not sure what will happen with their personal dynamics but know that something’s got to give.
“We work together or we sink together,” Tucker said.
One change might come in November with the election. Tucker is up for re-election and hasn’t said publicly if he’ll run. But that answer is still many months away.
“We can’t wait for an election to get anything done,” Brennan said.
Even so Bernardo concedes change won’t come quickly or easily.
“I’m president for the next six months so I’m just trying to be as good a referee as I can be,” Bernardo said.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 102