Up in the Air
Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District investigates its top management.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
It’s a good thing for air quality on the Monterey Peninsula that there’s not enough sun or water to easily grow grass; running a lawnmower for an hour emits as much air pollution as a new car driving 300 miles.
But a proposed $15,000 trade-out program at the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District, which would allow tri-county residents to swap diesel hogs for electric lawnmowers, is unlikely to ever rev up.
That’s partly because a leading electric lawnmower manufacturer is downsizing. But it’s also because the air district board authorized an investigation into employee allegations that funds are being improperly allocated, and management is being abrasive.
The board in November authorized spending $25,000 on an investigation in response to two critical letters from the air district’s 26-member SEIU Local 521 union, which just finalized a contract in which employees narrowly avoided having to offer concessions.
The first letter criticized the decision to fund programs like the lawnmower trade-out from a pool of cash designated for motor vehicle improvements. The second missive reamed the union members’ boss, Air Pollution Control Officer Richard Stedman.
“Our collective bargaining unit has voted overwhelmingly to send this vote of no confidence to your attention,” Local 521 organizer Joel Hill wrote. “[Stedman’s] contact with staff is so limited he rarely even says hello when entering a room.”
Hill also criticizes Mike Gilroy, Stedman’s deputy, for a “Draconian and confrontational” style.
The investigation was voted on in closed session. It’s being run by San Francisco-based attorneys with labor law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore. The board expects an update at a Dec. 21 board meeting, and a final report in January.
“I personally welcome the investigation,” says Stedman, who’s scheduled to meet with an investigating attorney Dec. 16. “It will help daylight some issues.” All expenditures in question are vetted by counsel and the district board, he adds.
Employees declined to speak on the record for fear of retaliation; board members would not discuss specifics because the investigation is ongoing.
“We want to be sure the work environment is as positive and productive as it possibly can be,” says Jane Parker, county supervisor and district board chair.
After months of negotiation, Local 521 just voted to sign a new contract, expected to be on the agenda for approval at Wednesday’s board meeting.
The union’s letter also slams Stedman for plans to take a small chunk of the district’s $13.5 million budget to rename and rebrand the agency.
Stedman sees improved visibility for the district, and a more manageable acronym, as worth the estimated $5,000 cost of new signage and letterhead.
Stedman was prepared to offer $100 of his own money in a contest on renaming the agency, but says there’s no winning idea yet; Monterey Bay Clean Air Agency is the current frontrunner.
The union’s letter says such expenses, which do not directly result in emissions reductions, violate California vehicle code. “The staff is also concerned with the apparent lack of fiscal responsibility,” the letter states.
Since Stedman took the helm three years ago, the closure of a Davenport cement factory has cut about $1 million in revenue from the district’s heavy-polluter fees. The district generates roughly a third of its revenue from such fees, paid for by gas stations, dry cleaners and other emitters.
But district board member Steve McShane, a Salinas city councilman, says the district’s headed in the right direction.
“It’s never been in a better financial position,” he says. “I’m proud of where leadership’s at.”