Turmoil in county planning department

Rumors were flying Friday that San Benito County Planning
Department Director Rob Mendiola has been asked to resign the job
he has held for more than 20 years or be fired, and one
highly-placed county source confirmed that he has been asked to
leave the powerful post.
Hollister – Rumors were flying Friday that San Benito County Planning Department Director Rob Mendiola has been asked to resign the job he has held for more than 20 years or be fired, and one highly-placed county source confirmed that he has been asked to leave the powerful post.

Mendiola, whose department recently was the subject of a county investigation, was told Wednesday he had 48 hours to decide whether he will resign and possibly receive a severance package, or be terminated, according to a county source who asked to remain anonymous.

Mendiola, who did not return phone calls Friday, is an at-will employee of Acting County Administrative Officer Susan Lyons. Lyons declined to comment Friday on Mendiola’s employment and a closed session item listed on Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors’ agenda as “public employee discipline/dismissal/release.” But any action taken during the closed-door meeting will be reported to the public, she said.

While the investigation into the planning department commissioned by the Board of Supervisors was concluded earlier this week, Lyons said the board is not releasing it because it involves pending litigation in an ongoing civil case against the county and former Supervisor Richard Scagliotti.

That suit, brought by lawyer Michael Pekin and which involves the anonymous group Los Valientes, included declarations from planning department employees Ken Speciale and James Stevens who said they could implicate Mendiola in the corruption allegations against Scagliotti.

Pekin’s suit alleges Scagliotti pressured the Board of Supervisors to take its vehicle repair contract from Autoworks to San Benito Tire, the owner of which was a tenant of Scagliotti’s. The suit also alleges Scagliotti abused his power in the county to have the Churchill Nut plant rezoned from agricultural to manufacturing land, which made him a profit of $1.2 million. Speciale and Stevens’ allegations centered on the speedy rezoning of the land by the planning department.

Finally, the suit states Scagliotti violated the Brown Act open meeting law along with the county’s four other supervisors while drafting the growth control initiative Measure G for his own personal gain.

A criminal grand jury investigation into Pekin, which culminated with five felony charges, revealed that when Speciale testified before the grand jury about his declaration he was unsure about some of the allegations he made in it, according to the transcripts. Special Deputy District Attorney John Picone said later Speciale perjured himself when giving testimony, and Speciale now is the target of a criminal grand jury investigation. Scagliotti said the allegations against Mendiola, which spurred the investigation, were untrue.

Scagliotti believes that board members are executing a “special” agenda in ousting the long-time department head.

“It’s a terrible thing, and it’s going to cost the taxpayers of San Benito County millions of dollars if they don’t wake up and realize people have rights,” he said. “If it’s true, it’s part of their agenda that he’s an obstacle to the out of town developers’ interests.”

Supervisors were mum on the subject Friday. When asked by the Free Lance whether the investigation clears Mendiola of the corruption charges alleged by Speciale and Stevens, Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he “can’t comment on that right now.”

Supervisor Reb Monaco declined comment on the matter, Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz said he didn’t’ know anything about it and Botelho said he’d only heard rumors about Mendiola’s future.

“We have an employee (personnel issue) on the agenda on Tuesday and I assume that’s what it’s about,” Botelho said. “I really don’t know what the final determination is. I’m going to hold off until Tuesday and let Susan (Lyons) bring her decision about this forward, and we’ll go from there.”

Supervisor Pat Loe was unavailable for comment and Supervisor Don Marcus did not return phone calls Friday.

Lyons said the investigation is not a personnel document and that once litigation in the corruption case is completed it should be a public document. Lyons said she has received about 60 hours worth of bills from the investigator and expects to have a few more filter in. She said the final bill should come in right around the $10,000 cap.

The investigation into the planning department commenced when Pekin took declarations by Speciale and Stevens before a judge in an attempt to obtain a restraining order against Mendiola to include in his case against Scagliotti. A judge denied the order, but the Board allocated $10,000 for a Santa Clara County investigator to inspect the department and the employees’ claims.

Pekin’s case against Scagliotti and the county has been put on hold temporarily because of the five felony charges pending against the Salinas lawyer, which include obstructing justice, eliciting perjury and filing frivolous lawsuits. The charges stem from a criminal grand jury indictment of Pekin’s conduct in the suit against Scagliotti and the restraining order he attempted to get against Mendiola.

Erin Musgrave covers public safety for the Free Lance. Reach her at 637-5566, ext. 336 or [email protected]

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