San Luis Obispo County Administrator Jim Grant has thoroughly dismissed the allegations of conflict of interest between Public Works Director Paavo Ogren and former Los Osos Community Services District director Maria Kelly as having “no factual basis” during the morning portion of Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. Grant listed each facet of the investigation that he focused on, and stated unequivocally that Ogren was cleared of conflict of interest on all allegations raised by the local media.
Grant confirmed that Ogren and Kelly have maintained a romantic relationship since January, and they have been friends before then. This comes juxtaposed with phone records that show Kelly had lengthy phone conversations with Ogren on nights before the County achieved project milestones. Records also show that calls were made to Ogren on days before she made speeches, like this one, that indicated 218 votes were reflective of community support for her candidacy. Razor Online had concluded that it was more likely than not that she collaborated with Ogren to influence voters.
The Tribune reported on September 30 that Grant was planning to unveil the results of the County’s investigation into the alleged conflict of interest between Public Works Director Paavo Ogren and former Los Osos Community Services District director Maria Kelly. The announcement comes months after allegations were raised by local media and community members. The allegations were raised around the time that Kelly’s son and Ogren’s son were involved in a car accident in mid-June. Kelly subsequently resigned from the LOCSD to focus on tending to her family, but the abrupt resignation — along with the accident involving Kelly and Ogren’s children — led many to suspect that Kelly was having a romantic relationship with Ogren. Kelly admitted that the she was dating Ogren, but only for six months.
Supporters of Ogren, Kelly and the Los Osos wastewater project have opined that the investigation was based on the project opposition’s push for their technical and affordable solutions. Indeed, many supporters of the investigation have said that Ogren’s “conflict of interest” misconduct highlights the flaws of the current project and the character flaws of those who are managing, designing and operating it. Some who spoke at Board of Supervisors meetings have called for Ogren’s resignation, and a change of plans for a sewer that is now in more progressively advanced state — with funding and permits — compared to the last project incarnation from 2005. Construction is slated to break ground next May.
Ogren has been accused of conflict of interest before. In 2009, a formal complaint against Ogren was presented to the BOS regarding his involvement with controversial contractor, MWH Americas, when Ogren was the interim General Manager of the LOCSD 10 years earlier. The complaint, which was prepared by former LOCSD director Lisa Schicker, was later dismissed as being “almost exclusively of her personal opinions, without corroborating details or documentation.” Then Board of Supervisors chairman Bruce Gibson ordered Schicker to stop “the assaults on the integrity of Mr. Ogren,” and echoed County Counsel Warren Jensen‘s reasons for dismissing the complaint. Schicker called the dismissal “bogus,” and has consistently maintained her positions regarding Ogren.
Ogren has been accused of having a conflict of interest with Kelly, given the significant probability of Kelly sharing information with Ogren regarding the district bankruptcy, ISJ/water purveyor negotiations, and the transferal of the district’s solid waste franchise to the County. The Tribune did not report on these additional aspects, and chose to focus on the wastewater project angle. On the surface, that makes sense since the most vocal supporters of the investigation have opposed the sewer project. However, it was Kelly’s ex-husband, Shaun Kelly, who initiated the allegations regarding her relationship with Ogren, and spoke to the local media about it. Combined with community suspicions of a relationship between Ogren and Kelly, Mr. Kelly ultimately became the catalyst that sparked the investigation. Interestingly, Mr. Kelly now says that he “stay out of the public eye and get into a stable situation,” and has expressed disappointment about his family’s problems becoming public.
Mr. Kelly’s disappointment about his family’s problems being publicized flies in the face of the Mr. Kelly from February, who posted comments on Razor Online as “Pissed Off Spouse”:
Wouldn’t you like to know that one of our LOCSD directors Maria Kelly has been intimately involved with the county sewer project for quite a long time now. Working deals directly with Paavo Ogren. Why yes the two have even been having quite an affair for some time. This sickness has lead to personal bankruptcy, foreclosure of her house and divorce for Ms Kelly. She has personally put her family through hell, all for a relationship with Paavo and pursuit of power in Los Osos under the guise of healing the community. It is a really sick relationship whereby information is leaked to and from the county and the LOCSD thereby shoving the project down the throats of the people of Los Osos.
This is all true and more I know I have lived through it all. Let me know I have lots to tell. Pissed off spouse.
We later received confirmation that the one who posted this information was, in fact, Mr. Kelly. However, with all due respect to the concerns expressed candidly by Mr. Kelly, we removed his comments because he was publicizing unverified family problems in the midst of a divorce. These comments were made months before local media printed it as “proof” of conflict of interest, which led to the County investigating the allegations.
County supporters have verbally assaulted and placed blame squarely on public comment speakers for endorsing the investigation when the investigation was actually the byproduct of a war of words between two ex-spouses. Some of the public comment speakers, who prefer to remain anonymous because of fears of further retaliation, told Razor Online that threats have been communicated to them regularly on an almost daily basis, and they feel that they should not be “persecuted for seeking answers” under their First Amendment rights to free speech. Adding insult to injury, the Board of Supervisors have openly condoned this persecution before the results of the investigation were even released, which is a very unusual and shocking move that most local governing bodies do not consent to, certainly not unanimously.
The dismissal of allegations by the County Administrator was expected — so there should be no reason to be shocked. There has been a failure by investigation supporters to understand what “conflict of interest” is, and the extraordinary burden of proof that is required to substantiate that claim. This failure to understand “conflict of interest” — compared to the appearance of it — has become a black eye for the project opposition. However, it’s virtually impossible for people not to suspect that “conflict of interest” could manifest in a relationship between a vocal supporter of a wastewater project on the LOCSD and the Public Works Director who is orchestrating the design and operating of that system. “Conflict of interest” is well within the realm of possibility with that relationship, but that’s only the appearance of it. Only Kelly and Ogren know the truth, and they’re sticking to their story.
These allegations were inspired by — and also diminished by — a very contentious “he said, she said” divorce. That divorce — which should have been a private, civilized proceeding — transmogrified into tabloid fodder that involved children, unproven allegations about drug use, and who-lives-where speculation that does not belong in the discussion. Once people read more deeply and took these evidence-deficient allegations seriously, rather than recognize the superficiality of their crusade, they continued to allow themselves to be distracted from the core focus of achieving a cheaper, more sustainable wastewater project for the community. Meanwhile, the County has made supporters of the investigation out to be villains that ought to be stripped of their fundamental right to express dissent, and that overzealous vilification has clouded the County’s ability to make rational, objective decisions on behalf of thousands of homeowners.
Maria Kelly and Paavo Ogren should be held accountable for the public positions they take and the words they speak. In turn, the public should and must continue to scrutinize their government when there is solid justification in readily obtainable fact. Today’s dismissal of the allegations by Mr. Grant should not invalidate concerns. Instead, it should be a teachable moment for all of us — to hone in on the pressing issues that directly affect Prohibition Zone homeowners, not on the trials and tribulations of two consenting adults having a relationship.
– Aaron Ochs