The agency overseeing the county’s garbage and recycling collection did not improperly fire an employee in retaliation for her questioning contracts allegedly awarded to a friend of the executive director, an outside consultant concluded.
In a statement released late Wednesday by the South Bayside Waste Management Authority, the agency said independent investigator Emily Prescott determined there is "no evidence” to support the allegations of illegal activity or retaliation.
Prescott, senior labor counsel with the firm Renne Sloan Holtzman and Sakai, said it is "unfounded” that the SWBMA proposed eliminating recycling coordinator Cathy Hildago’s job because she acted as a whistle-blower against the agency’s activities and policies.
The agency launched the investigation into Hidalgo’s claims about the board and Executive Director Kevin McCarthy after she filed a complaint about the proposed elimination of her position in May. Hidalgo said her job was on the chopping block because she repeatedly complained about and questioned contracts that were awarded to Betsey Meyer, a close friend of McCarthy.
Hidalgo contended that charges to the agency’s Master Plan construction fund for the education center by Meyer should have only been $100,000 but that the figure was changed to $200,000 in violation of the agency’s purchasing policy.
Prescott said earlier media reports of the extra $100,000 were inaccurate as is the claim the money went to McCarthy’s friend. Hidalgo did not make such allegations, Prescott wrote.
Hidalgo’s attorney, Ellen Mendelson, did not respond to inquiries for comment.
Prescott wrote that the allegation Hidalgo did make, about disclosing wrongdoing, is also unfounded and she never filed a formal complaint, email or letter to anyone to report what she thought was a violation of law or policy.
Prescott found one instance in which a contract that needed board approval was not put forward but otherwise held that the agency’s staff and McCarthy complied with contracting policy, did not overspend on the agency’s master plan or attempt to hide spending information from the board.
In that case, McCarthy did not follow purchasing policies by failing to get board approval for a $5,000 change order to a $77,000 block leader program contract.
Prescott also concluded that McCarthy did not violate the agency’s conflict of interest policies.
In response to the report, board President Jim Porter said that the board will look at the agency’s policies and procedures for contracting.
The SBWMA, also known as RethinkWaste, represents Atherton, Belmont, Burlingame, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Hillsborough, Menlo Park, Redwood City, San Carlos, San Mateo, San Mateo County and the West Bay Sanitary District. It owns the Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos and its board is made up of staff members of member cities. According to Prescott’s 30-page report, McCarthy built his fiscal year 2013 budget "against what he felt was a backdrop of significant political pressure to reduce budget costs because of ... rate increases.” Prescott wrote that McCarthy was "loathe” to eliminate a "valued employee” — Hidalgo — but thought the agency would be best served by cutting her job and increasing hours for Education Center employees.
Hidalgo’s claims also attracted the interest of Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who urged the board to investigate and questioned McCarthy remaining in his position during the process.
Hill said he was anxious to see the report and remained "kind of suspicious” of the investigation because of his discomfort with the board being composed of non-elected officials and McCarthy not being removed during the investigation.
I want to see exactly how independent that investigation was. It may be fine and then again it might not be,” Hill said.
Michelle Durand can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.