Eric Fresch, the former Vernon city administrator who once raked in $1 million a year, was found dead Thursday evening at a Bay Area state park — the same day the state issued a scathing audit of the city's finances.
Fresch had been bicycling with his wife at Angel Island State Park, but the two became separated, said Ed Lynch, battalion chief of the Tiburon Fire Department. When he did not return to the ferry terminal, his wife reported him missing.
Searchers found Fresch's body in the water, at the bottom of a 150-foot embankment. It appeared he had suffered head trauma from the fall, Lynch said.
It was not immediately clear whether Fresch's death was an accident or a suicide. Lynch said he was not aware of any suicide note. Investigators said they have ruled out foul play.
Fresch, 58, was seen by many as a power behind the throne in Vernon. He went to work for the city in 1982, and was appointed to the city's top job in 2005. Though he stepped down after only a short time as city administrator, he stayed on as a paid legal consultant to the city's Light and Power Department. He charged the city $525 an hour, and billed $5.4 million in the six-year period from July 2005 to November 2011.
The state audit faulted the city for failing to monitor spending under Fresch's contract — and under many others — and for not putting such contracts out to bid. The audit also took the city to task for financial mismanagement over the last several years — much of the blame for which can be assigned to Fresch. Fresch also had his pension stripped earlier this year.
Last fall, as the city faced intense pressure to reform or be abolished, Fresch announced he would resign in May. His contract expired on May 31, said city spokesman Fred MacFarlane. Fresch did not cooperate with the state audit. In response to the audit, state Sen. Kevin De Leon on Thursday asked the attorney general to open an investigation into whether Fresch benefited personally from the city's mismanagement.
On Friday, De Leon issued a condolence statement to Fresch's wife and family. “My prayers are with them,” De Leon said. The city of Vernon also issued its own “heartfelt condolences to the family of former Vernon City Administrator
Eric T. Fresch in their time of great personal loss due to his
Fresch's death caps a dramatic week in Vernon. On Wednesday, Councilman Bill Davis interrupted his vacation in Italy and flew back to set up procedures to adjudicate the disputed June 5 council election. Reno Bellamy is leading Luz Martinez, 34 votes to 30, but the Chamber of Commerce alleges that 10 of Bellamy's votes were cast by people who live outside the city. Davis' presence was required to make quorum at the meeting, because rival Councilman Rick Maisano declined to show up.
The Marin County Sheriff's Coroner Division is investigating the death, and expects to issue a report in the next two to six weeks.
“We don't suspect foul play, but we will look through all the circumstances before making any specific determination,” said Sgt. Keith Boyd.
City Administrator Mark Whitworth, who has led the effort to reform Vernon in the last year, defended Fresch when he resigned last November.
“He was able to stand up to the ridicule,” Whitworth said. “He's earned his time to relax a bit.”
Update: Elaine Howle, the state auditor, said that her office wanted to talk to Fresch about two items in particular: the sale of the city's Malburg Generating Station, and the financially disastrous purchase of a 15-year natural gas contract.
“When we met with city officials and other consultants, they kept telling us, 'You need to talk to Eric Fresch about that,'” Howle said.
The auditors attempted to reach him by email and his cell phone. When he did not respond, they issued a subpoena. Though the state's process servers attempted to track Fresch down at his home and office several times, they were unable to find him.
The state was also frustrated by the lack of documentation the city provided regarding the sale of the power plant and the purchase of the natural gas contract.
“Those were big transactions, and we would have expected to see those transactions documented,” Howle said. “I don't know whether it existed or not. If it did exist, they either didn't provide it to us or they no longer have it.”