Pressure to bring back Skeel intensifies
Plot thickens with reinstatement petition, recall meeting and dissension on board
El Dorado Hills residents frustrated with stalled negotiations to reinstate Community Services District General Manager John Skeel, who’s now spent more time on paid leave than he did working, have begun taking matters into their own hands.
An online petition calling for Skeel’s immediate return to work had garnered 239 signatures through Saturday. An estimated 25 residents, including several CSD employees, met last week to discuss a possible board recall effort.
Several spoke with Village Life but asked that their names not be used in this story.
Board President Guy Gertsch wouldn’t comment on the petition or the recall specifically. “People are entitled to their opinion,” he said. “This board is working hard behind closed doors to bring this matter to closure in the best interest of the community.”
He insists that negotiations with Skeel remain active, and that he still hopes to reach agreement on goals and objectives contained in a remediation plan that was supposed to have the suspended GM back on the job in September.
As for the details, “There’s not much we can discuss on what’s happening behind closed doors,” Gertsch said.
One recent strategy was evidenced last Thursday night, when the directors met to consider an agreement with Folsom-based McMurchie Law Firm, which specializes in public sector human resources matters.
The meeting was the latest in a series of special meetings, most of which have consisted of a public comment period followed by a closed session. Like many of its predecessors, the meeting was held in the cramped parks conference room. Residents who attended the standing-room-only affair complained that the chosen location felt like a strategy to discourage participation.
They came out to hear about the potential hiring of attorney James McMurchie, an El Dorado Hills resident, at $265 an hour, Vicki Hartigan at $240 an hour and $100 an hour for clerk and paralegal work. During the meeting, board members discussed options to cap the agreement at two weeks, $5,000, $30,000 or $50,000.
Reached by phone over the weekend, Gertsch explained that bringing in outside counsel was a reaction to residents who asked for “another set of legal eyes” on the matter.
But the effort went south quickly. According to meeting attendees, Director Bill Vandegrift broke ranks with his fellow directors, questioning why they were considering hiring more lawyers when they haven’t spoken to their current legal counsel, Bob Thurbon, in nearly a month.
Reached by phone over the weekend, Vandegrift said, “I’m not even sure why this was on the agenda. At this point, I’m ready to bring John back and see how he does.”
One long-time CSD activist who attended the meeting said McMurchie seemed like a “hitman” being quietly brought in by a board who states publicly that its willing to reinstate but still hopes to be rid of Skeel.
Meeting attendees reported that Gertsch was asked about McMurchie’s past connections to the board, and replied that he and Director Noelle Mattock met the attorney at a conference and asked him to submit a proposal.
The same sources reported that McMurchie later said he’d known Director Wayne Lowery for many years and currently serves as legal counsel to Mattock on another board.
The employees and residents in attendance, many of whom spent the prior evening at the inaugural recall meeting, reportedly howled their disapproval. The motion to hire McMurchie’s firm failed to get a second.
Gertsch subsequently confirmed that Bob Thurbon remains lead counsel for the district, and that hiring McMurchie’s firm remains a possibility.
Reinstatement petition organizer Don Clark was also present Thursday night, and said he joined the chorus in opposition to spending an estimated $30,000 to $50,000 on outside counsel, a battle that Clark worries would get very expensive very fast, especially if Skeel “lawyers up” to oppose the district.
He concedes that even if Skeel was a “bad hire” the board’s actions leave them with few good choices. Clark suggests that if the board really wants to be rid of Skeel the directors “swallow their pride” and simply pay out Skeel’s contract, which, he said, would be “less of a liability to the residents than their current approach.”
Alternatively, Clark offered several options to reinstate Skeel and hopefully blunt potentially expensive legal action. His ideas include some combination of the following:
• Reorganizing the management to make Skeel an overpaid director.
• Hiring former GM Lowry to mentor Skeel.
• Forcing all Skeel’s decisions to go through the board.
• Or simply “keep him around for two more years then don’t renew his contract.”
Clark doesn’t support a recall effort, at least not yet. “There’s better ways out of this mess,” he said.
An Intel executive and youth soccer activist, Clark said he got involved in CSD politics last year when board members told him they didn’t have $28,000 to improve his soccer fields and cited the general manager vacancy as one of the reasons.
Clark said he subsequently raised the money himself, meeting with Skeel three times and working closely with Recreation Supervisor Frank Sianez, both of whom he developed a deep respect for.
In November he started an online petition calling for Skeel’s immediate reinstatement, and subsequently built a website that contains information on the issue and a link to the petition — www.edhcares.org.
An informal “recall group” met on Nov. 30 to consider the merits of a recall effort. Attendees reported that the group as a whole was frustrated with a board they say botched the firing and rehiring of Skeel, and has not been forthcoming to the public along the way.
They also worry that the board let its Human Resources manager garner and wield excessive power, resulting in a hostile workplace.
Two separate attendees, who requested anonymity, reported that the group contained factions — some ready to initiate a recall process and others who cautioned the group that the time and cost required for a recall effort could be substantial. Both said the group decided on a “wait and see” approach. Several attendees have reportedly asked the El Dorado County Grand Jury to investigate the CSD.
“The whole Skeel thing has been handled very unprofessionally,” said Serrano resident Bonnie Solberg, who has ties to the group but couldn’t attend the recall meeting. She cited an estimated 18 board meetings going back to June with Skeel on the agenda.
“It seems unconscionable that there would be all these special meetings without a resolution,” she said. “I understand it’s a personnel matter, but they owe us an update, at the very least.”
Solberg was also disappointed to learn that the suspended GM was included in very few of those meetings. “How can you resolve something like this if you don’t meet face to face with the man?
“They need to take a stand, deal with the problems with John Skeel and also deal with the other problems reported out of that organization,” she continued.
“Ethics have to play a part in this,” Solberg added. “There’s obviously a lot more going on with the HR manager than they’re telling us. What does she have on them?”
Sacramento-based management consultant James Carney made a late appearance Thursday night after spending most of the meeting in the parking lot. According to his website, Carney specializes in risk management, strategic planning and reorganization. Gertsch said Carnie was acting as an unpaid advisor to the board.