On the evening of October 25, a friend texted me to watch the Oceano Community Services District meeting live, featuring the wild ravings of OCSD Director Charles Varni. I was admittedly hesitant to do so for a couple of reasons.
One: I’m a Morro Bay resident. Seeing how Los Osos’ self-proclaimed “government watchdog” Julie Tacker has awkwardly and extensively made her presence known at many OCSD meetings without publicly disclosing her reasons why, I didn’t want to watch and immerse myself in politics from a community I don’t live in. For the longest time, I was made aware of the craziness and various controversies whenever the local media dared to cover it. It was far easier for me to absorb the paraphrasing and summarizing of news coming out of their community than to actually immerse myself in it.
But my curiosity with Oceano piqued earlier this year when I came across several moderation reports and complaints pertaining to freshman OCSD Director Varni, who regularly lambasted community members, board colleagues and district staff on the social networking platform Nextdoor. After winning his November 2022 election in a low-turnout race, Varni used his position as a bully pulpit to pen scathing missives aimed at his perceived political adversaries and anyone he believed was conspiring against him.
I soon discovered that Varni saved most of his venomous ire for women. He derided residents as “know-nothings” and “anti-Democratic censors” for expressing their opposition to annexing Oceano into Grover Beach. And when the Oceano CSD rejected the annexation proposal on a 3–2 vote, Varni set his crosshairs on the swing vote he thought he had in his back pocket: OCSD President Allene Villa.
Villa had previously served alongside Varni on the Oceano Advisory Council, which was formally unrecognized by the SLO County Board of Supervisors last year. The board voted to unrecognize the OAC partly because there were numerous videos showcasing misconduct and meltdowns between Varni and other members. This all went down while Varni served as OAC chair. Shortly after the annexation vote was cast, Varni called on residents to target and harass Villa for her vote. Instead of accepting the 3–2 vote as-is, Varni felt compelled to make her pay for it.
A deeper dive into his various posts, comments and musings on social media showed he held extraordinary animus toward women. When it came to his female colleagues on the board that he clearly didn’t like — OCSD directors Linda Austin and Shirley Gibson in particular — Varni resorted to using vulgar slurs to describe them. In good conscience, I won’t recite them here. Then he would hastily edit his remarks, likely realizing it wasn’t a good look for an elected official to act like that on social media. Then his posts would magically disappear. Varni denied removing any of his posts, yet when his Oceano neighbors specifically addressed and condemned his remarks, Varni would gaslight them by denying the existence of said comments.
I thought it was strange how his angry and bizarre tirades remained unchecked by district legal counsel since he was also heavily critical of the OCSD General Manager Will Clemens and district staff. In addition to violating commonly held standards of decorum for elected officials, Varni exposed the district to Brown Act violations and litigation. I sent his posts to the OCSD and received no response from the board when I called for his censure. My emails to the OCSD were forwarded along to the New Times. Villa responded to the press and was dismissive of my inquiry, chalking Varni’s misconduct as mere exercise of his First Amendment rights. New Times’ Shredder subsequently mocked me for raising these issues, comparing what I wrote to government censorship that took place in Tennessee and Montana around that time, which made no sense.
A short time later, an OCSD director attempted to file a restraining order against Varni. OCSD Director Shirley Gibson alleged Varni confronted and verbally assaulted her following a board meeting. Though a judge dismissed Gibson’s restraining order request, three eye witnesses observed Varni lying in wait until she was alone and then angrily confronting her up close. And after the restraining order request was dismissed, Varni sent a rather hostile email to Gibson, clearly not taking the hint.
Fast forward to the October 25 OCSD meeting.
I could not believe what I was watching. At that meeting, the General Manager announced his retirement. Legal counsel announced they were resigning. Both the GM and counsel would remain involved in the district until they were effectively replaced. I watched board members call each other out, residents skewering directors from the podium when they were not skewering each other. And in the eye of the storm was Charles Varni, who — despite being repeatedly advised to not violate the Brown Act for airing grievances about personnel and closed session matters — did exactly that. He was warned repeatedly the entire district would be held legally liable for his actionable misconduct, but he persisted. He read off a six-page manifesto of personal grievances against Clemens and legal counsel, but he supplied no evidence to substantiate his claims — from claiming Clemens “erupted into a rage of yelling, standing up and leaning towards [him] with his fists clenched in a threatening manner” to reportedly siding with Varni’s perceived adversaries on the board to “manipulate the board’s outcomes.”
Varni was particularly incensed because he felt the GM and legal counsel conspired together to “cover up” alleged embezzlement by a once-trusted district employee, which was found in the district’s annual audit on July 22. The district placed the employee on administrative leave and subsequently terminated their position while they performed a forensic audit to determine how much money was reportedly embezzled. Once the forensic audit was completed in August this year, the OCSD referred their findings to the SLO County District Attorney. Two County officials involved with investigating the OCSD case independently corroborated the timeline Clemens provided to the public.
But Varni remained unfazed by facts and due diligence of the district. In a lengthy screed published on Cal Coast News, Varni doubled down on his “cover-up” and conspiracy theory allegations. Days after he rambled and yelled at one of the most chaotic board meetings I’ve ever seen happen on the Central Coast, Varni expressed hope that “civic and civil minded Oceanoans will step forward in support of positive changes, organizational transparency, and civil discourse.” Days after the district’s General Manager publicly blamed him for the dysfunction he experienced during his tenure, Varni vowed the OCSD would have a “fresh start.”
Wait a minute. Who, in the right mind, would actually want to work for the district after watching a meeting like that? I know I wouldn’t.
This is the same Charles Varni who had a well-publicized, long and sordid history of outburts and dysfunction when served on the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District in the late nineties when he publicly trashed district staff, his own colleagues and residents. I heard from members of the Santa Maria farming community, who read my comments on Varni. While there were political disagreements — which everyone is certainly entitled to having, mind you — Varni would communicate his disagreements with extraordinary hostility that elected officials should not have. And even then, he would chalk his misbehavior up to shaking up the status quo.
Varni tries to portray himself as a ball-busting activist-slash-underdog with a populist agenda. But more often than not, he came across as profoundly unhinged.
Frankly, nothing has changed since his days on the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District. Unless he is recalled or voted out, nothing will.
One does not have to live in South County to know that Charles Varni is unfit for public office. He lacks poise and restraint to effectively lead. He has zero comprehension of what is required to hold elected office. He doesn’t want to comprehend. He doesn’t understand that there are laws, bylaws and legal guardrails in place to protect municipal bodies. He may be concerned about possible embezzlement of the district and how that costs ratepayers, but his words and actions will undoubtedly hurt ratepayers even more. He may be concerned about the General Manager, but qualified job candidates will see his public evisceration of district staff and walk away. The end does not justify the means.
For many years, Varni was an active volunteer for the South County Democratic Club of San Luis Obispo. He also worked with Democrats on environmental policies and measures including Measure G (local fracking ban). He was endorsed by District 4 Supervisor Jimmy Paulding and has maintained close ties with him through their mutual involvement with the Oceano Economic Development Council, as shown in the meeting archives. Paulding endorsed Varni for the OCSD in spite of hours of readily accessible videos showing Varni’s antics, some of which was actually played at the County Board of Supervisors and submitted for the public record. Paulding maintained his support for Varni despite pushing forward a “unification compact” to maintain peace between the Oceano advisory councils — and that compact was formed partly in response to Varni’s outbursts when he served as chair on the OAC.
The Democrats and Paulding have remained silent about Varni and what transpired at the Oct. 25 OCSD meeting. Frankly, that silence is inexcusable. Charles Varni is now Paulding’s albatross. And if Paulding continues to remain silent, Charles Varni will become his brand.
Paulding and Oceano have a clear choice they need to make, but they need to make it soon before the OCSD loses all of its integrity as an able municipal body and Paulding loses all credibility as a leader trying to unify a clearly fractured community.