West County Wastewater District board member Leonard Battaglia listens as calls for his resignation are made during a meeting of the board in Richmond,
West County Wastewater District board member Leonard Battaglia listens as calls for his resignation are made during a meeting of the board in Richmond, Calif. on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

RICHMOND -- It seemed like a political no-brainer when the elected directors of an East Bay sewer agency demanded one of their own members resign after his racially offensive comments in a newspaper interview left critics comparing him to iconic TV bigot Archie Bunker.

But documents and emails obtained by this newspaper now reveal the outraged West County Wastewater District board members were actually reading from a script. Not only did they keep secret a "crisis communications strategy'' on how to deal with longtime board member Leonard Battaglia, they also stuck taxpayers with a $1,200 bill for the advice from a professional.

As community members grew furious in late October over Battaglia's racial remarks in an interview with this newspaper, a Piedmont public relations consultant reached out to the district to pitch her services, documents reveal.

"This is perfect for me," consultant Kim Kellogg wrote to the district's general manager, E.J. Shalaby, in an Oct. 25 email. Shalaby agreed to hire Kellogg -- who had previously worked on a district marketing campaign -- at a rate of $120 an hour, writing that she should include "a key message (that) should be useful for board members."

"I didn't have the practical expertise in public relations," Shalaby said in an interview.


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Kellogg produced a six-page report that misidentified Battaglia as the "board chairman" and concluded that he "cannot continue to represent the diverse population of Richmond." She suggested district employees might file a "nuisance lawsuit" alleging that Battaglia had discriminated against them in personnel decisions.

In a separate email to Shalaby, she called Battaglia's comments a "derailment issue" and warned that they could "start snowballing among activists and minority groups" and "could be picked up nationally and used in other stories about race, and ethnic division in America today."

In the report, she said, "in essence, he should be fired." But the board quickly discovered it could only demand his resignation, not actually remove him from office.

Three months later, Battaglia has refused to resign, and the agency is struggling to explain what amounted to a tongue-lashing that cost taxpayers $1,200.

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin called that expense "ridiculous." Battaglia's remarks were so offensive that the directors should have been able to speak from their hearts, she said. "If someone can't stand up based on their own ethics and principles and renounce the injustice of what he said, then they are lacking."

What's more, government watchdogs say the PR strategy may have violated the state's public meetings laws because Kellogg's report was never discussed publicly.

For decades, Battaglia, 85, and his fellow board members largely avoided public scrutiny while sitting on a sewer board that serves a diverse section of Contra Costa County, including Richmond and San Pablo. Then, last fall, Battaglia caused an uproar with his bizarre remarks about blacks naturally "think slow" and the use of a slur to describe Asians when this newspaper revealed his pay and benefits equaled $592 an hour for his part-time service in 2012.

City Council members in both Richmond and San Pablo quickly condemned Battaglia, who eventually apologized for the tempest he caused. Members of those bodies didn't seek public relations advice, officials in both cities said. But sewer board President Alfred Granzella was reading from Kellogg's prepared statement when he publicly rebuked his colleague on Nov. 5, Shalaby said.

"We have a long-standing reputation for dedication to community service and building partnerships with citizens and diverse organizations in our geographic region, and we cannot let this incident tarnish that," Granzella said, holding a piece of paper in front of him.

Directors didn't wait for a public meeting -- as required by the state open meetings law -- to decide what to do, Granzella said in an interview.

"I wanted him gone," Granzella said. Directors and district staff members "had a discussion about it, what had happened, and the decision was made" before the Nov. 5 meeting to demand Battaglia's resignation, he said. Granzella declined to describe that conversation in detail or identify participants by name. District records show the board held one meeting to discuss finance matters between publication of Battaglia's comments and Nov. 5 and that no formal discussion of how to deal with the Battaglia matter occurred.

Kellogg's report was never mentioned by directors or included in the ream of documents that accompanied the public meeting's agenda.

All discussions over something as drastic as voting to demand a fellow board member step down should have taken place in public, said Terry Francke, general counsel of the watchdog group Californians Aware.

"I mean that's governmental capital punishment," Francke said of calling for someone to leave office.

Jim Ewert of the California Newspaper Publishers Association agreed, calling Granzella's admission of a premade decision "a textbook example of what the Brown Act was created to prevent, the backroom dealings that small government agencies engage in all the time."

Battaglia, a Korean War fighter pilot whose last name means "battle" in Italian, remains defiant. He said he hasn't decided whether to run for a tenth term in November.

But he also said he is being frozen out by his colleagues and never knew they received help in how to react to him.

Kellogg's secret report "is news to me," he said. "I have no idea what you are talking about. I am in la-la land (at the district). They don't tell me what's going on."

Contact Thomas Peele at tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.