A district divided

Oceanside sanitation commissioner asks board chairman to step down

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At a contentious meeting of Oceanside Sanitation District No. 7’s board of commissioners on Feb. 7, Commissioner Tom Lanning asked Chairman John Mannone to step down, citing a decision to fire two long-tenured employees, which Mannone’s detractors claim was done without cause.

“I would like to ask John to step down as chairman and step away from the board,” Lanning said as some audience members applauded. After the meeting, Mannone told the Herald that he believed Lanning’s move was politically driven, done to appease his supporters ahead of the election in June, when his board seat will be up for grabs.

“He’s clearly pitted himself against our supporters and our side as he seeks his path to electoral victory based on the opposition to us,” Mannone said.“He sees kind of a last gasp for the old guard right now.” He also noted that motions cannot be made for elected officials to step down.

Mannone, who became chairman in 2017, supported Lanning when he ran for commissioner in 2015, but their relationship has soured in recent years. Lanning had not responded to a request for comment at press time on Monday.

The motion for Mannone to step down came after a discussion of the board’s Dec. 6 decision to fire General Supervisor Dan Faust and Treasurer Douglas Hernandez, citing “scandalous conduct.”

Four of the five commissioners voted to terminate Faust and Hernandez, while Lanning abstained.

Faust appeared before the board at its Feb. 7 meeting, and said he had been fired without a proper investigation. Mannone said there were two pending grievances against Faust and Hernandez at the time of their firings. Reached by phone after the meeting, Faust said he was advised by his legal counsel not to speak to the media as he appeals the decision through CSEA 880, the union that represents the district’s administrative staff. A date for the appeal hearings has not been set.

In November, Commissioner Austin Graff shared documents in a Facebook post that proved that former Commissioner Joe Cibellis remained on the district’s dental plan from July 2016 through January 2017, even though he was no longer paying for the benefits.

According to the post, after the mistake was discovered and Cibellis was taken off the plan, he was reinstated in April 2018, even though he was no longer a department employee. He served as commissioner from 2008 to 2016, and lost to Graff in a contested race last July, with the final tally not announced until nearly three weeks after the polls closed. In his post, Graff wrote that those who “turned a blind eye” to corruption would be terminated.

Graff and Mannone acknowledged at the Feb. 7 meeting that Wayne Hernandez was the employee in charge of insurance, but blamed Faust for not putting a stop to Cibellis’s coverage. Faust said that insurance was not in his job description, and that the board fired him without a thorough investigation, while referencing Graff’s Facebook post. “So you terminated me without a complete investigation?” Faust said. “So the only thing we have now is Facebook. Jesus. Facebook runs the district. Terrific.”

Faust was an employee of the sanitary district for 23 years. He told the Herald shortly after his firing that he was blindsided by it because he had an unblemished record until then. Douglas Hernandez had worked for the department for three decades. Hernandez was not present at the Feb. 7 meeting.

Mannone took issue with Faust’s comments. “Mr. Faust has every opportunity to come to us with either himself or his union to sit down and discuss this and ask what the basis is,” Mannone said. “He instead elects to show up with a small group of people and try to interrogate us in a public forum, which is not appropriate.”

In his statement on Facebook, Graff said that those who knew about Cibellis’s remaining on the dental plan would be punished. The decision came amid a push to shake up the Sanitation Department, which has had a history of controversy.

On Sept. 6, members of the board voted to end the practice of providing health and dental benefits to former commissioners and supervisors, a move that was aimed at stopping employees from abusing their taxpayer-funded positions to benefit themselves. At the time, Graff told the Herald that he introduced the measure because Cibellis was still reimbursing the district for the cost of health and dental benefits that were not approved by the board, but were authorized via a letter from Douglas Hernandez.

Graff also cited former supervisors Michael and Charles Scarlata — who were accused of collecting more than $800,000 in illegal deferred retirement payments, according to a state comptroller report — for calling a vote to amend the bylaws to prohibit former administrators from reimbursing the district for dental insurance premium payments. Two separate audit reports — one by the state and one by the county — also found that the Scarlatas were grossly overpaid for their services.

Graf, an attorney, had previously represented former and current sanitation employees in cases against the district before becoming a commissioner.

In his Facebook post before Faust’s and Hernandez’s firings, Graff lambasted members of the department. “For too long government in Oceanside has hidden from the taxpayers and the residents bad news and scandal,” Graff’s post read. “. . . Unfortunately, there is more to tell the residents about what was uncovered that has made me so angry and made me realize it’s time for people to lose their jobs over scandalous conduct.”

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for March 7.

Peter Belfiore contributed to this story.