The decision to not renew the contract of Robert Gay, the manager of the San Mateo County Mosquito and Vector Control District, was a long time coming but ultimately a good one. Gay was the head of the organization when it fell victim to high-level embezzlement by two of its workers and while he was not the one who engaged in the criminal activity, he was the one who hired the ringleader of it without a simple background check.
The crimes were ongoing and egregious and included hundreds of thousands of dollars stolen from public coffers. Under Gay’s watch between 2009 and 2011, former finance director Joanne Seeney worked for the district under the name Jo Ann Dearman. Prosecutors who eventually filed charges say she and accounting assistant Vika Sinipata embezzled at least $650,000 by giving themselves extra pay at a higher rate and fraudulent time off, excessively contributed to their deferred compensation funds, used credit cards for personal purchases and electronically transferred money into their own accounts.
At the time of the embezzlement and the subsequent exploration of dissolution by the San Mateo County Local Agency Formation Commission, Gay defended his work and how he operated the district. But his defense was lackluster and, quite frankly, he seemed in over his head.
It was almost two years ago that the Daily Journal on this page called for new leadership for the district — and that meant Gay should have been removed then. The rationale at that time was the same as now. Just because the district’s leadership said it was changing its ways didn’t mean it would not fall victim once again to lackadaisical management once the spotlight was off. And any corporation whose top executive failed to do a background check on someone in charge of its finances would be fired immediately once that person was arrested and convicted of embezzlement. Why should it be any different for a public agency? It shouldn’t.
The district expanded in 2003 during the West Nile threat and given a 21-member board with a representative from each Peninsula city to allow a funding source through an assessment. The county once handled rodent responsibilities but transferred them to the district in 2008 and shifted all vector control three years later. In prior years, board members were mostly interested community members and while the embezzlement was uncovered by San Carlos’ representative, new board members likely reflected cities wanting those who have higher expectations.
Those expectations now include a manager with more of a handle on how to operate such a largely unseen but critical organization for our county’s public health. That critical work is funded with our tax dollars. And its finances and leadership must also be solid for the public trust to continue in its existence.
Removing Gay from the equation was a step in the right direction.