After more than 17 years of service and weathering tumultuous political storms, Peter Grenell, general manager of the San Mateo County Harbor District, unexpectedly announced his retirement.
Grenell, 75, informed the Board of Commissioners Wednesday night he would be leaving the district effective Jan. 3, 2015. Grenell, who also previously served as the executive director of the California Coastal Conservancy, said he’s considered retirement for several years and with the recent birth of his first grandchild, decided to focus on time with his family.
“I applaud him for his strength to be able to come up and make that decision, I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision because he is good at what he does,” said Pietro Parravano, president of the Board of Commissioners. “I’ve seen him continue his dedication toward the betterment of coastal communities and the sustainability of marine resources. … I think the district is in a better place because of what he’s done.”
Grenell’s announcement came just weeks after his employment contract was extended another two years and two months before a pivotal election which has three incumbents running against six challengers.
Commissioners Jim Tucker and Will Holsinger said they believe Grenell’s retirement likely coincides with some of his and the district’s legal matters being cleared.
Within the past few years, Grenell has worked amidst a civil grand jury investigation into the district, allegations of harassment and the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s investigation into the California Maritime Infrastructure Bank and Authority, of which he is president.
“I knew Peter was of retirement age and eligible for retirement, so there’s been some question as to how much longer he would serve,” Holsinger said. “I think having those complaints filed possibly delayed his decision to retire. … I think the contract extension perhaps subtlety, without us knowing, was his was of saying he’s going to fight this thing until it’s done.”
Tucker and Holsinger said Grenell has been cleared of any impropriety, however, the District Attorney’s Office recently received a complaint regarding the bank and is making inquiries.
Commissioner Sabrina Brennan filed a harassment complaint against Grenell and expressed concerns about district resources being used for the infrastructure bank. Brennan, Tucker and Parravano each said they were interviewed by an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office.
Assistant District Attorney Al Serrato said a letter was sent to the district’s counsel soliciting information regarding the bank. Serrato said the District Attorney’s Office is making preliminary inquiries and has not committed to or ruled out a formal investigation.
Holsinger and Tucker said they are encouraged it won’t turn into a formal investigation and clouding Grenell’s reputation is unwarranted.
“I think it’s taken an emotional toll to be accused and threatened and challenged the way that he has. Sabrina Brennan has been … punitive in her dealings with him,” Holsinger said. “But the reality is he’s handled himself professionally throughout.”
Brennan previously stated she was discriminated against by Grenell and often felt uncomfortable visiting the district’s office. Brennan said she couldn’t comment on the district attorney’s investigation but was surprised by Grenell’s announcement as his contract was recently renewed.
Grenell said his disputes with Brennan, the civil grand jury report and other investigation did not influence the timing of his decision.
“I had started thinking about retirement before [Brennan] joined the board and, again, there have been things that I was in the middle of that I wanted to see through,” Grenell said.
Grenell said he wanted to make sure the district’s start of its strategic business plan went smoothly, ensure several infrastructure developments and projects benefiting the public were addressed and is working to finalize permits for improvements to the West Trail near Mavericks.
Grenell said he also wants to ensure the district’s more than $19 million debt issued for harbor and marina developments will be retired a year early.
The district had accrued the debt just before Grenell started and Tucker credits him for keeping the district afloat and improving its finances.
“This man took this agency and 17 years later it’s much better than it was. I’m very proud of the work he did. He’s done nothing but good for us,” Tucker said. “I think it was just his time and he chose his time and he did it his way so to speak.”
Grenell said he has much to be proud of and is thankful for district staff. As for the political controversy, he said it comes with the territory of a divided governing body.
“In my tenure, there have been periods where things were relatively calm, comparatively other times it’s been a bit more turbulent. That’s just part of the political process, the democratic process,” Grenell said. “So you work with it, deal with it, and again, always keeping your mind of what’s the purpose of the agency, the district? What are you supposed to be doing? And that’s what I, and what the rest of staff, continue to focus on. Taking care of business.”
The commissioners were mixed as to when they would start the process of hiring a new general manager. Tucker and Parravano said they wish to start looking immediately as it will take time to find a qualified applicant. Holsinger said he thinks it best to wait until after the election and Parravano agreed that would be when a final decision is made.
“To lose somebody like your general manager like that, unannounced to me, was a game changer,” Parravano said. “I think the idea that he’s leaving, there’s a lot of knowledge that goes with Mr. Grenell. A lot of knowledge about coastal communities, harbors and ports, legislation, the man was like an encyclopedia on coastal legislation. … He was very focused on the human values that are associated with the coastal communities and that was one of his strengths.”
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