Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Tuolumne Utilities District Director Kent Johnson has stepped down as chairman of the district's Finance Committee following a tense committee meeting May 21.

Fellow TUD director and committee member Michael Sarno said Johnson will be replaced by director John Maciel. Johnson has kept his seat on TUD's Board of Directors.

The finance committee is hammering out the district's preliminary budget for 2013-14. Johnson and Sarno have pressed TUD department heads to cut spending by 15 percent.

At the May 21 meeting, Johnson grilled Finance Director Steve Sheffield about what financial statements should be included in budget documents. As they went back and forth, Johnson asked if the meeting was over.

"Because if this meeting is over, and you don't understand or comprehend what I'm saying, there's no reason for you to be here or working here," Johnson told Sheffield.

Sheffield called Johnson's actions "inappropriate."

On a tape recording of the meeting, Johnson can be heard cutting off public comments. He says no members of the public can speak until they are asked to speak.

A largely inaudible sequence of exchanges lasts a minute or so on the recording, including Johnson telling members of the public at one point to leave, someone loudly saying "watch your mouth," and an inaudible gesture or exclamation leading to multiple people at the meeting to gasp or say "hey."

Some observers said Johnson used profane language and hand gestures.

Sarno ended the meeting abruptly.

Sarno said Friday that people at the meeting later had "open discussions" after the end of the meeting to "vent" and reconcile any concerns.

"Everyone on that board is trying to do as good of a job as they can," Sarno said. "Unfortunately, if someone loses their cool, we have to go on. We have to move on."

Johnson did not return a phone message seeking comment.

In an email reply, he said, "Stay very alert. Think way out of the box."

Sarno, Johnson, Maciel and Jim Grinnell were all elected in November, a voter backlash against rate increases imposed by the last board.

Sarno, Johnson and Grinnell have pressed TUD staff members on spending and operational issues regularly since taking office.

"If budget talks didn't get contentious, then the board isn't doing their job," said Sarno, who is board president.

Former board member Ron Ringen, who lost his seat in November, but still attends meetings, described last week's exchange as "bizarre," though he did not give any more details than what could be heard on the recording of the meeting.

"It was disgraceful. I'll just leave it at that," he said.

Ringen said he's concerned about the new board's direction.

"More people should be watching this and getting involved," Ringen said.

Laurie Sylwester, a former county supervisor who was at the meeting and stayed for the discussion, also described the events as unlike anything she's ever seen at a public meeting. However, she did say she sensed the "clearing of the air" afterward was more productive than the discussion during the meeting itself.

"I think we could work with them," she said, speaking as a member of the public who wants to work with the district.

"Some of us have ideas they could really get ahold of, and really make it look promising," she said.