Big Trouble in Little Santa Maria? – Art Montandon

Big Trouble in Little Santa Maria? BY SUN STAFF We looked it up. Right there in the dictionary. Scandal. To paraphrase Mr. Webster, it’s damage to reputation, public disgrace. Defamatory talk and malicious gossip. It’s what happens when someone’s conduct brings shame or offense. If you haven’t noticed, that’s what’s going on in Santa Maria right now, and it involves everyone from the city council, to the city attorney, to former police chiefs from two different cities, to alleged prostitutes, to the district attorney’s office. Scandal. We don’t use that word lightly. Just about everyone involved will tell you that the other side—those guys—they’re the ones stirring up trouble, perpetuating the lies, fueling the fire of hate. They’re the ones who may tarnish the good name of the city, and that of anyone who gets in their way. Or that they’re the ones who started it all in the first place. So who to believe? We decided that the only way to be fair would be to get all the facts we could, and then let everybody speak for themselves. In the following pages, we delve into past problems, present events, and the possible future of this troubled issue. Read it all; we’ve broken it up into three separate stories for you. And take your time. The gossip won’t go away anytime soon. We just hope the truth will outlast it.


The past: Did history repeat itself? Central Coast residents pose parallels between one city attorney, two cities, and two dismissed police chiefs BY ANDREA ROOKS He was visible. He was popular in the community. He worked well alongside the police officers association. The police chief enjoyed success in the community he protected. And then he was gone. To the community, it appeared sudden. Seemingly with little explanation, the city manager placed the chief on paid administrative leave. The city council and city administration couldn’t be as forthcoming as everyone—themselves included—would have liked, but suffice it to say the chief’s leave was a personnel issue. Modest public outcry ensued. After the city council upheld the chief’s termination, he worked out a retirement settlement and left city employment. To Santa Marians, this sounds like a rough rundown of what happened to former Chief John Sterling last year. To Atascadero residents, it’s along the lines of what happened to former Chief Richard “Bud” McHale in 1996. “Reading what went on in Santa Maria with Sterling—it’s a repeat of what happened here,” said former Atascadero Mayor George Highland. The link, assert some in the community, is Santa Maria City Attorney Art Montandon, who was Atascadero’s city attorney until he resigned in 1998. As Highland reflected back on what happened while he was mayor of Atascadero, he viewed McHale’s termination and subsequent retirement as largely the city attorney’s doing. “In retrospect, it’s my opinion that Montandon got the confidence of a … city manager … who wasn’t sure of himself, and used that to attempt to get rid of anyone on staff who didn’t agree with him,” Highland said. “He used the naiveté of the city council members to get an investigation of McHale the way he wanted it done.” Montandon, on the other hand, explained that both terminations were justified and handled properly—at the will of the respective city managers, not due to his influence. ……

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