Sara Gray was living in Valley Ford with her husband and two children two years ago when she got an offer she couldn't refuse.
Her boss, former Santa Rosa Recreation & Parks Department director Marc Richardson, asked her whether she'd like to live in a 1,400-square-foot home on six acres on the outskirts of Santa Rosa for just $100 a month.
The place needed a little work, but the decision was an easy one for Gray, who at the time was the marketing director for Santa Rosa's ArtStart Program and today is its executive director.
"I couldn't really turn that down!" recalled Gray this week from outside the home on Burbank Avenue in Roseland where she and her family have lived since August 2011.
She enjoys living on the property, which has plenty of space for her young children to play, a rustic red barn and Roseland Creek running through it.
"I would love to stay," Gray said as a flock of wild turkeys meandered down her gravel driveway.
But the arrangements Richardson struck with Gray's family and another family renting a second city-owned home nearby for $200 per month raise further questions about the management of the department and the ongoing efforts to sort out issues left in the wake of Richardson's retirement.
As a department director, Richardson wasn't authorized to unilaterally authorize leases, City Manger Kathy Millison said. That's something only the City Council or city manager acting on council direction can decide, she said.
After learning about the leases following Richardson's decision to retire in December, Millison initiated an "internal personnel investigation" into the matter, the results of which are confidential, she said.
It's the second such investigation Millison has undertaken involving Richardson.
The first was in October after she learned he had been playing golf for free at the Bennett Valley Golf Course. The probe confirmed that Richardson and his second-in-command, Rich Hovden, had accepted thousands of dollars worth of free golf access and other undisclosed gifts from the golf course operator over several years.
Both longtime city officials repaid the operator for the gifts, retired quietly and amended years of disclosures with the state Fair Political Practices Commission to reflect the gifts. The commission fined both men a total of $9,500 for the failure to disclose the gifts, and, in Richardson's case, having a conflict of interest by accepting gifts from an operator while renegotiating his contract.
Millison explained that the city has a process for leasing out publicly owned properties and it would typically involve some type of public announcement or advertisement, she said.
She said she became aware the Burbank Avenue home had been leased to a city employee, but declined to discuss those details, citing the confidential investigation.
Gray was hired in February of 2010 by the city as a special activity instructor working for ArtStart, the publicly funded nonprofit that installs public art projects around the city, such as murals and painted benches. She is now its executive director making $25 an hour.
Not long after Gray was hired, the city acquired the six-acre parcel at 1400 Burbank Ave. from the developer Schellinger Brothers for $2.5 million with a grant from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.
The parcel is the southernmost of four rural properties the city hopes to one day transform into a 20-acre park called Roseland Creek Community Park.
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