A civil suit filed by Mary Bryant, founder of The Real Mooney Grove Project, against the County of Tulare was dismissed during a hearing May 25. Tulare County Superior Court Judge David Mathias dismissed all causes of actions but left the door open for her to re-file.
Bryant’s suit accused the county of mismanagement in running county parks, personal injury and wrongful death.
Her accusations of mismanagement include: killing of federally protected wildlife, engaging in unfair bidding practices, violating the clean water act of 1977, and the mismanagement of Mooney’s oak preserve leading to the loss of several dozen mature oak trees.
The county countered that Bryant’s “complaint does not state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action.”
The Defendant’s (County) notice to demurrer states,
“The Complaint basically alleges that Tulare County engages in unlawful behavior causing harm to county parks. Plaintiff (Bryant) must allege a minimum factual and legal basis for each claim that is sufficient to give the defendant fair notice of what plaintiff’s claims are and the grounds upon which they rest. Plaintiff’s Complaint is not only uncertain, i.e. ambiguous and unintelligible, but no facts are included. Plaintiff fails to state any facts or provide any information whatsoever to support these causes of action.”
Bryant disagrees and she plans on pursuing her suit.
Her case includes seven causes of actions, the first two concern Tulare County Parks and Recreation Director Neil Pilegard’s violation of the California Fish and Game Commission. In her case Bryant alleges,
“On one or more occasion, Tulare County park employees were seen driving their trucks over the migratory geese and waterfowl residing in Mooney Grove Park with clear intent to maim or destroy the targeted animal. Neil Pilegard was seen using a crossbow to kill or maim migratory geese. Josh Franklin brought a dog to Mooney Grove Park, allowed the dog to run loose around children and other adults attempting to enjoy the park. To the horror of the people within view of the employee’s loose dog, they watched as the dog viciously attacked the waterfowl residing in the park. For those birds who were not quick enough to escape the attack, they were torn to shreds in full view of onlookers, which included the child, the child’s parents, one former employee and his girlfriend.”
Clyde Slusser, who worked under Pilegard when he was the Senior Parks and Grounds Worker, said that Pilegard told him he had permission from the Fish and Game Commission to hunt ducks with a bow and arrow.
Slusser was also told by Kenny Withnell, a current Parks and Recreation employee, that he was instructed by Pilegard to “ply into a duck if you see them” when driving the maintenance truck or gator, the park’s four-wheel drive vehicle.
Pilegard confided in a former Tulare County Museum employee that he and his friends hunted geese and ducks with bows and arrows on the weekends in Mooney Grove after everyone had left. The former employee tried to dissuade Pilegard from shooting the wildlife with arrows after one of the geese was injured and took days to die.
Bryant’s third cause of action states that Tulare County has been in violation of the Fair Trade Commission Act by engaging in unfair business practices. Her case states that, “Tulare County Supervisors voted to bypass fair bidding practice laws to call the well diggers of their choice, by declaring the well conditions an emergency in 2016.”
John Rogers, a Visalia farmer, confirmed that Mooney Grove wells have been failing since 2008. He said Mooney Grove sits on top of one of the strongest aquifers in the Valley and the lack of water was not an emergency but a case of incompetence. According to a 2008 invoice from CJ Hammer Machinery Company it noted that one well had completely gone dry and another was nearly dry.
Slusser said that Pilegard rarely hired anyone to do the maintenance on the wells and that’s why they stopped working.
“Neil, Ken (Withnell) and Josh (Franklin) would work on the water system but they didn’t know what they were doing. They don’t know anything about fixing a water system.”
Bryant’s case also alleges that Pilegard, “allowed one of his friends to design and build a competitive disc golf course in Mooney Grove Park, without permissions from the county leadership, an environmental impact study, proper budgeting for the project, or safety hazard studies. Basically, everything required for a fair bid for a county job was completely and totally bypassed.”
Slusser said that when he worked at Mooney Grove he witnessed that the man in charge of renting the park for disc golf tournaments paid Pilegard directly and was related to Pilegard by marriage. Slusser did not directly accuse Pilegard of keeping the money but thought it strange payments would go through him and not the county.
In Bryant’s fourth cause of action she accuses the county of not upholding the original request of Mr. Mooney to maintain the oak preserve in perpetuity. She claims that multiple oak trees have been cut down and the wood sold at a private auction instead of publicly. She also says that there has been no accounting of the money made from the wood sales.
Bryant’s fifth cause of action claims that the county violates the Clean Water Act. Through witness statements it has been reported that the water may contain rat poison, asbestos, E. Coli and propane accelerant. Water samples have to be sent to Denver for analysis and the results have not yet returned.
“It All Boils Down to Lack of Management”
Clyde Slusser, a former Senior Parks and Grounds Worker for 11 years, says that the problems with Mooney Grove and Balch Park “all boil down to ego and lack of management. There is no organization, no procedures and it is an unsafe work environment.”
Slusser alleges that Supervisor Josh Franklin was promoted even though he had no management experience whose only degree was a GED. Franklin was Slusser’s direct supervisor.
“Neil is a control freak and puts people underneath him that he can control,” said Slusser.
Slusser claims that Franklin takes the county truck home whenever he wants and took the county’s bobcat to his home to level his yard. Withnell and Franklin are the first to get overtime and they take work days off whenever Withnell has a private tree trimming job. Slusser said there is a lot of favoritism going on because there is no accountability.
Withnell has a private tree trimming service he owns with his father.
Other mismanagement claimed by Slusser is the lack of emergency equipment in the county trucks as required by CalOsha, no procedural manuals, and no training or protective gear for high risk jobs such as cutting wood or using the wood chipper.
“I asked Pilegard for a procedural manual and he said he would look into it. That was nine years ago.”
History of Mismanagement by the Parks and Recreation Department
Tulare County Parks and Recreation, with Parks Director Pilegard as supervisor, used to be in charge of patrolling Lake Kaweah and Lake Success. The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department took over lake patrol in May of 2016. County Lake Patrol employees had complaints similar to Slusser ‘s regarding mismanagement.
Two former lake patrol employees claimed that the VHF radio equipment on the boats worked sporadically and there was no training on how to use them. The employees received no training on how to drive a boat and there was no procedural manual on how to handle a drunk driver, tow boats or the procedure of impounding boats, handle assaults, or any other work-related responsibilities or emergencies. The lake patrol employees had no search and rescue training or CPR training. The boats lacked vessel emergency equipment such as a equipment to handle a trauma or floating back brace.
“We did have a first aid kit,” said the lake patrol employee.
“I just think Neil is incompetent,” said one former employee who declined to give his name out of fear of retaliation.
The two former lake patrol employees reported that in the final two years they worked at the lake they only saw Pilegard three times.
They said that the boats were poorly maintained and barely ran. It was a running joke, they said, that Pilegard was receiving kick backs because the patrol boats went to the same repair place, Hans’ Boat Shop, year after year but they would come back in the same shape as before. “Hans and Neil were friends. The boats were never in good condition. They just used bailing wire to keep them running.”
Just a Coincidence
Bryant’s sixth and seventh causes of action to her case concern her cousin, Robert Turner. Bryant charges that Pilegard and former County Council Kathleen Bales-Lang “engaged in gross negligence, dereliction of duty and criminal activity” relating to the tampering and retaliation of a witness, victim or informant.”
It states that on the evening of Saturday, July 18 2015, “police forced their way into the Plaintiff’s (Bryant) residence citing a call for suspected ‘Elder Abuse’ however no warrant was obtained or issued.”
The Visalia Times-Delta said that the Visalia Police Department was acting on an anonymous tip.
Bryant was released Tuesday evening just short of the 72 hour maximum that someone can be held without charges. No charges were filed.
Coincidently a custody case for Robert Turner, the alleged victim of the elder abuse, had been scheduled for Tuesday, July 21, at 8:30am–which Bryant missed because she was in jail. In her absence, custody of Turner was handed over to Tulare County, which then sent him to an undisclosed Orange County facility where he died several months later.
Robert Turner was the former head grounds keeper for Mooney Grove for 15 years and allegedly was an informant in a case against the County.
Bryant’s Cause of Actions continues, “Later, a witness came forward and stated that he overheard Neil Pilegard bragging that he got someone arrested for ‘elder abuse.’ Pilegard had been named as the perpetrator to many violations against Mooney Grove Park by both Robert Turner and the Plaintiff.”
When Bryant returned home from her three-day incarceration she discovered that her front door had been kicked in and her house burglarized. Missing items included family antiques, laptops, and Real Mooney Grove Project files for the case against Tulare County.
She also discovered that news of her arrest for elder abuse spread to approximately 30 papers all over the county and the United States.
Bryant’s current suit is similar to a federal case she filed in California Federal Court Eastern Division in Fresno in November of last year. In her federal case, The Real Mooney Grove Project filed an emergency restraining order against the County of Tulare, former Tulare County Supervisor Phil Cox, and Tulare County Parks and Director Neil Pilegard to stop all unlawful activities at Mooney Grove Park.
Bryant then amended her case on January 3, 2017 to include former County Council Kathleen Bales-Lange. Coincidently, on January 18, Bryant was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon when an intruder broke into her garage. Though Bryant alleges she sustained a knife wound to her forehead and other injuries, she was arrested and the intruder was let go.
Bryant was detained for 13 days without charges and missed crucial court deadlines. Her federal case was ultimately dismissed.
Sergeant Brent Miller was the arresting officer for both the 2015 and 2017 incidents.
After 13 days in custody no charges were filed against Bryant.
Amy Dickinson, a member of The Real Mooney Grove Project, said that she and Bryant will be filing a motion to reconsider the demurrer May 31. If the judge will not reconsider the demurrer Bryant will discontinue the current case and re-file a new case with all the proper paperwork.
‘This will go to trial,” said Dickinson. “The County is not going to get out of this.”