Monday, January 19, 2015

[San Mateo County] Senator blasts school officials: Jerry Hill wants civil grand jury to look into district actions, conduct

After a sometimes tumultuous relationship with the public over issues like the Burlingame pool usage and the placement of a new charter school in the district, state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is asking the civil grand jury to investigate a school board’s interactions with the public.
At a San Mateo Union High School District Board of Trustees meeting Thursday night, the senator brought up his concerns that the board has lost its way and that its actions give little confidence that it can find its way back.
“This attitude is unacceptable,” Hill told four of the five school board members, as board Vice President Stephen Rogers was absent. “It is clear that you do not recognize in yourselves the offensive, divisive and unfitting behavior you have exhibited. Our constituents must be served in a better way. And our schools must be responsive to our citizens. Therefore, I will be asking the grand jury to institute an investigation into your conduct and actions.”
The district said Friday that Hill’s comments were inflammatory and take away from the fact that the district’s mission is to educate students to the best of its ability.
Hill, however, referenced how Burlingame Councilman Michael Brownrigg told the board at a Dec. 11 meeting that the board and district might be out of step with the public.
“For the better part of the last year, constituents shared with me their serious concerns that the lack of transparency, and the disdainful attitude of some board members, have eroded the public trust in this district,” Hill said. “Some parents feel so estranged from this board that in order to get your attention they felt they had to place an advertisement in the San Mateo Daily Journal. Others hired a community relations firm to try to reach you.”
The Mills’ Vikings Parent Group ran an ad calling for the district to find a new location for the charter school, Design Tech High School. The district has been grappling with finding a new location for it next school year, as it is temporarily co-locating with Mills High School in Millbrae. By law, the district needs to provide facilities the charter with facilities by Feb. 1. The San Mateo Adult School was worried, and rallied, when asked to be placed at the Adult School’s SMART Center location in San Mateo. The district is also looking to house its alternative high school, Peninsula High School, which is located on the site of the aging former Crestmoor High School in San Bruno, but has run into trouble as there are few facilities on the Peninsula fit for a public high school. The district is looking for new facilities for its district office as well.
Trustee Linda Lees Dwyer said that elected representatives should work together to solve problems — like the location, and would appreciate Hill’s assistance, as the district works to find the best location for the charter school.
“We all know that the current location is less than ideal and if everyone who believes the charter school needs a new location works on finding a new location, we all benefit — and in particular the students at Mills and benefit,” she said.
Hill noted that dozens of interested citizens came to the Dec. 11 meeting to engage the board in a discussion about the future of the pool at Burlingame High School, which is shared by the district and city and closed for the month of January. The district also recently threatened litigation against the city of Burlingame in relation to the city not responding to the district’s request for additional space in the 50-meter Olympic size pool for its teams and more payments from the city for its usage.
“The board did not place the pool on the meeting agenda,” Hill said. “This move allowed trustees to posture at length on the issue during their comment session and avoid a public discussion because the topic was not on the agenda. Instead of asking yourselves ‘what is it about the way we do business that would cause the parents of our students to do such things?’ instead of engaging the parents in a dialogue, your response has been shameful: you deride them for their efforts, rant about what you claim are false allegations and you point the finger of blame at the very people you are obligated to represent and serve.”
He noted the board demonstrated its contempt for the public and its complete lack of interest in hearing what the community has to say, when at the Dec. 11 meeting, it determined that it would vote on a matter first and take public comment after the vote. He added it may have been a violation of the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law.
The board issued a strong reaction to Hill’s comments, stating that his speech contained accusations based on misinformation that only hinders the public process.
“From erroneously asserting that members of the board do not read letters from constituents, to board members not allowing public comment, Sen. Hill made a number of unsubstantiated claims directed at the SMUHSD board,” said board President Marc Friedman in a prepared statement Friday. “The SMUHSD board continues to tirelessly move forward in finding a home of its own. The board’s intent was not to offend any member of the public who attended the Dec. 11 board meeting. This public matter has regrettably caused much frustration. Sen. Hill’s comments last night do little to diminish what has been a very difficult situation for everyone involved — including students.”
Millbrae Councilman Wayne Lee and Millbrae Vice Mayor Reuben Holober came to the Thursday night meeting as well and asked the board to try to resolve the issues with finding a new location for
“I see you’re trying to make progress,” Lee said. “I do have respect for elected officials — it’s not easy. Some things the public doesn’t have total grasp of, but we’re asking you to know the community. Some of you have expressed you don’t have to know the community. The point is when I go overseas and Mills comes up and I ask, ‘why are you asking about Mills 4,000 miles away?’ Because there is a great investment in the city of Millbrae and Mills High School.”
Hill went on to state that he was appalled when he read one trustee’s recent communication to a concerned parent where he wrote that he has ‘an extreme negative reaction when I see children and foreign nationals/immigrants unfamiliar with our system so obviously being manipulated and used as I witnessed at the December board meeting.’”
Board members want to stress board members serve as board members for one reason — to ensure the best educational experience for all the community’s high school students.
“Wanting an education that will help prepare our teens for future success is a common interest that we can all agree on,” Friedman said. “A common interest that will allow all of us to move forward in working collaboratively together to provide that all students have a school they can call their own.”
Recently, the district also dealt with an upset San Bruno Relay for Life at Capuchino High School when the district changed its 24-hour event to a 12-hour one because of a new policy of closing campuses after midnight.
At the same meeting, the district interviewed search firms that will work to help find a new superintendent, as Superintendent Scott Laurence will be leaving the district at the end of the school year. The district selected Leadership Associates after interviewing it and other firms such as Dave Long & Associates, Education Leadership Services, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, McPherson & Jacobson, L.L.C., The Cosca Group and Ray and Associates, Inc.
The district will hold a special meeting on the budget and financing 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 27 at the Adult School, 789 E. Poplar Ave. in San Mateo.
January 17, 2015
The Daily Journal
By Angela Swartz

[Santa Clara County] Palo Alto: Council to consider closed session voting policy

The Palo Alto City Council is slated Tuesday to answer the lingering question of whether it should always vote before holding a closed session.
The issue is returning to the council after its Policy and Services Committee deadlocked on a recommendation.
The question sprang from a discussion in September about a Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury investigation that criticized the council for meeting in secret to discuss billionaire developer John Arrillaga's proposals to build a mixed-use project at 27 University Ave. and to purchase a 7.7-acre parcel deeded to the city for conservation purposes.
Councilman Greg Scharff has led the charge to make it standard operating procedure for the council to vote before holding a closed session. He has argued that it would increase transparency.
"I see no real downside to doing it," Scharff said at the Policy and Services Committee meeting on Oct. 21. "Almost always we'll vote to do it, but at least we'll be thinking about it."
Scharff found support for his position in then-Councilman Greg Schmid, who is now the vice mayor.
However, Councilman Larry Klein and Councilwoman Gail Price weren't convinced that anything needed to be changed. Klein and Price both stepped down from the dais earlier this month.
"I think this is a solution in search of a problem," Klein said at the same meeting. "I don't think there is a problem."
Klein added that he had never been questioned by a member of the public about a closed session.
"That's not the same thing at all," Klein said when Scharff reminded him about the controversy over the 7.7-acre parcel.
The civil grand jury blasted the council for meeting in a closed session to discuss Arrillaga's $175,000 offer instead of following an established public process for selling surplus public property.
The family of Palo Alto Medical Clinic founder Russel Lee granted the land to the city in 1981 with a deed restriction that it "be used for conservation, including park and recreation purposes." The council ultimately voted to add the parcel to residents-only Foothills Park.
The council also waited nine months before telling the public about Arrillaga's proposal to build four office towers and a performing arts theater at 27 University Ave., according to the investigation.
The council is allowed under the Brown Act, the state's open meetings law, to hold closed sessions to discuss personnel matters, litigation, real estate transactions and labor negotiations.
The council already has the authority to vote before holding a closed session, according to a memo from City Attorney Molly Stump.
"Having a formalized procedure would ensure that it occur each time the council holds a closed session," Stump wrote, adding that San Francisco is the only city in the Bay Area with such a policy.
The council meeting is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Monday in the Council Chambers of City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.
January 16, 2015
San Jose Mercury News
By Jason Green

[Orange County]: Grand Jury Faces Chronic Shortage of Applicants

The deadline to apply for a spot on the 2015-2016 grand jury has been extended to January 30, a recurring issue in recent years as too few candidates, generally from north Orange County, apply for a spot on the watchdog body.
“We are hopeful that by extending the application deadline, a sufficient number of qualified individuals will apply, especially from the cities of Anaheim, Brea, Buena Park, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Fullerton, La Habra, Placentia, and Santa Ana,” said Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge Charles Margines Tuesday in a news release.
It’s the third straight year judges have extended the deadline for those interested in serving on the 19-member grand jury.
“It’s more and more a struggle,” to attract qualified grand jury applicants, court spokeswoman Gwen Vieau said last year. The problem stems in part from the fact that serving on the grand jury is essentially “a full year, fulltime commitment.”
Vieau noted last year that some other large counties, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Riverside, have created two separate grand juries, one to handle criminal matters with the District Attorney’s office and the other as a civilian watchdog. But Orange County retains the traditional system of combining both roles.
Grand jurors receive $50 per day for up to five days a week, plus mileage and free parking, although in the past when county supervisors didn’t like grand jury findings, the supervisors threatened to cut their pay and refused to provide $20,000 to finish one study.
And the 2013-2014 grand jury recommended the county establish an independent ethics commission, a subject of debate in the current campaign to fill the Board of Supervisors seat held by Janet Nguyen who was elected to the state Senate in November.
The jurors perform three roles. They conduct “civil oversight of local government” including reviewing, evaluating and writing reports with findings and recommendations on county and city agencies, jails, school and special districts.
Separately, they consider potential indictments in criminal cases and review complaints submitted by citizens.
The new term begins July 1 and ends June 30, 2016.
To serve on the grand jury, the law requires a candidate to be at least 18 years old, a U.S. citizen, a resident of Orange County for at least one year, have a good command of written and spoken English and be “in possession of sound judgment and a sense of fairness.”
Qualified applicants are interviewed by Superior Court judges. The pool is narrowed to 25 to 30 nominees representing each of the five supervisorial districts. The final 19-member grand jury comes from a random drawing of the 25 to 30 nominees.
Application forms and additional information are online at Applicants may also call 657-622-6747, or apply in person at the Jury Commissioner’s Office, 700 Civic Center Drive West, Santa Ana.
January 15, 2015
Voice of OC
By Tracy Wood

Sunday, January 18, 2015

[Santa Clara County]: San Jose man finds new purpose in civic duty

Mike Smith, of San Jose, took early retirement in 2001 because he was "seriously burned out" after almost 33 years with General Electric as an engineer and manager.
He took a year to decompress and catch up on long-postponed tasks before figuring out what to do with the rest of his life. What he found was a talent for advocacy.
Q. What was your thought process after retiring?
A. I knew I wanted to keep the brain and body active, not just sit around and watch television or whatnot. I wanted to do something I found interesting, learn new things, do something worthwhile. Not just for me, but for the community, too.
So I looked into some volunteer opportunities. Nothing felt quite right. Then my wife showed me an item in the paper recruiting for the next year's civil grand jury.
I applied, went through the selection process and got on the jury for 2002-2003.
The system here is unique to California. Most people think of it as the criminal process that does or doesn't indict people. Here, in addition, the jury is given responsibility as a civic watchdog to local governments, able to make recommendations. I found that absolutely fascinating. It's a lot of work, equivalent of a half-time job.
Q. But you didn't stop there?
A. No, after that, I did a little traveling, pursuing hobbies. Then I decided I wanted to (serve on the grand jury) again. I applied for a second year and was asked by the presiding judge to serve as the floor person. So I did another year.
After that, I got involved on local government boards. I'm currently on two, and the chair of both -- the San Jose Ethics Commission and the oversight committee for Measure H (a San Jose school bond measure passed in 2012).
The ethics board has an advisory role, advising the City Council on ethical issues, possible changes to the municipal codes, and there's a quasi-judicial role. We are authorized to investigate complaints, we hold hearings and have the authority to impose penalties.
On the Measure H committee, we review how the money is used, if it's consistent with what voters were told in first place.
Q. What are the benefits of this work?
A. I really, really enjoy it. It's something I think a lot of people don't really know about, and it's particularly good for retirees. Boards meet during the day, and retirees can bring a lifetime of experience and a broad perspective to it all. Not that every board should consist of all retirees, but it's something we can offer there.
There's a lot to learn, too. I've been on the Ethics Commission for eight years. It's a fair amount of work -- voluminous reports to review. Probably not for everybody, sitting cooped up in a committee room somewhere.
But for me, I enjoy it. It goes back to my career in engineering, where I did a lot of writing and editing reports. What I was looking for when I first started on this adventure is that I wanted to be able to use some of the skills and abilities I'd developed over my career, and use some of those things in a different way.
Q. What's next on your agenda?
A. Well, I have two more years on the Ethics Commission before I term out. So that'll carry me through 2017. On the school bond oversight committee, I have another four years plus. But I kind of keep my eyes open for things. I've got a couple of ideas.
Q. What's your takeaway from this work?
A. I always thought I was a very informed citizen, but I learned so much and have continued to learn so much -- I realize I didn't know anything. It really opened my eyes to the workings of local government.
January 10, 2015
Oroville Mercury Register
By Angela Hill, Oakland Tribune