Mayor attempted to have city manager fired over spills

Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez in a September meeting pushed to have other council members fire City Manager Bill Avera over two wastewater spills last summer into the San Benito River bed, according to a source familiar with the consideration.

The mayor didn’t get support for Avera’s termination from either of the two other council members present that day in the room—Karson Klauer and Mickie Luna—while needing it from both to move forward on terminating the city manager.

Two city council members at the time, Ray Friend and Victor Gomez, were absent from that September gathering, according to agenda minutes.

The mayor’s pursuit came as a direct response to Avera’s handling of two 2016 sewage spills, one of which happened just days prior to the Sept. 19 council meeting where Velazquez tried to have the staff official fired.

The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board issued Hollister a notice of violation Jan. 13 related to two sewage spills into the San Benito River bed. The two spills occurred July 16 and Sept. 6, but city leaders never issued a public notice about the matters.

Instead, the city filled the related leak of a diversion valve in the sewer line with inflatable plugs, and one eventually failed. That valve is downtown near the San Benito Foods cannery, from which waste heads to the domestic plant on Hollister’s west side miles away.

Avera on Tuesday said he wasn’t present at the Sept. 19 closed session where the mayor wanted him terminated.

Councilman Karson Klauer declined to comment when reached Tuesday.

“I can’t speak on any closed-session items, but it’s unfortunate that there’s someone who thinks that they can,” Klauer said.

Klauer said he couldn’t confirm if the council held Avera responsible for the spill.

“He is the city manager, so the buck stops at him,” Klauer said.

Velazquez said his initial reaction was frustration when he heard about the spills.

“When I found out about the incident, I was very frustrated that we were even having these same issues,” Velazquez said. “I had asked other council members for support to hold somebody accountable and terminate their employment with the city, which I did not get support for.”

He called it a “frustrating issue.”

“For the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to come up with new concepts for alternative treatment and ways to handle the industrial treatment plant, but I have not had the support I needed to get it done because everyone felt the way it was working was fine. This is the result of not being proactive and waiting for these things to come back and fail on us.”

Velazquez in 2015 publicly supported the use of a “floating islands” concept for sewage treatment that was projected as much less expensive and more natural than traditional methods used by the city. Other council members opted for a more traditional sludge removal.

The latest waste spills, totaling about one million gallons, came nearly 15 years after 15 million gallons of sewage spilled into the San Benito River bed and prompted the state to force Hollister to build a new, nine-figure treatment plant while shutting down all construction until its completion.

The city is recovering from the state’s building moratorium, or ban. It affected homes, industrial jobs and commercial development for years afterward. At the time of the spill, city officials blamed the breach on a gopher hole.

Hollister officials’ reactions varied on the matter.

City Attorney Brad Sullivan said late Tuesday he couldn’t comment on the closed session.
“I can’t comment on closed-session items; it’s illegal for anyone to,” Sullivan said.

Councilman Ray Friend said he must have missed a meeting because he’d never been to a closed session about firing Avera. He declined to comment further.

Council members Mickie Luna and Roy Sims did not respond on the matter.

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