Wednesday, April 1, 2020
[Humboldt County] Opinion: Your Civil Grand Jury in Action: Elections are well and good, but grand jury needs you
I believe people are basically good and they engage with the world via good intentions. Sometimes, however, people find themselves working within systems that make good intentions untenable.
This, I believe, is the situation in which the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors find themselves. They are basically good people, with good intentions, working in an untenable situation.
While the election next week gives many of us significant options— and let me be very clear about this, everyone should vote— continuing to place our hopes on elections, hoping that if our candidate gets in, that alone will solve the many very complicated problems facing us, is naïve.
Does it really matter who gets elected if the system is broken? As long as we think we are going to solve the problems through elections, nothing will change. What, if anything, can the citizens of Humboldt County do to fix an essentially broken system besides voting?
Volunteer to serve on the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury!
There is a dedicated group of county citizens, a group that has devoted a year of their lives to help make our lives better: the 2019-2020 Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury. Their year-long term will soon come to an end and we need county residents to step up and consider serving on next year’s grand jury.
Make no mistake, this is an immense commitment, with meetings twice a week, countless interviews, researching various aspects of county government and writing detailed reports that make viable suggestions on how to fix what does not work and highlights what does work, all with 18 other people, and for one entire year.
Who would agree to such an undertaking?
Humboldt County citizens who want to make a difference, citizens who take their civic responsibilities seriously, that’s who. They are people who understand that voting matters, but to rely solely on your vote to fix what needs fixing is naïve.
On the county website it states: “Civil Grand Jury service calls for diligence, impartiality, courage and responsibility.”
If you are one of those people, go to humboldtgov.org/518/Civil-Grand-Jury-Forms and fill out an application. Better yet, go by the courthouse Grand Jury Office and pick one up. While you are there, if you run into one of the current civil grand jury members, thank them for their service. They are engaged in the serious work of making life in Humboldt County better for all of us!
John Heckel authored this monthly column on behalf of the Humboldt County Grand Jurors’ Association. For information on the Association, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
February 29, 2020
By John Heckel
City manager says it’s a growing gap, ‘we need to fix’
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
Extra payments toward pension costs haven’t cut Redwood City pension liability — which has increased because of actions by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the city manager says.
Changes by the state to pension forecasts based on mortality, retirement rates and inflation — as well as more conservative investments by the state — led to the municipality’s $242 million pension liability, said City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz.
Diaz, who spoke during a mid-year budget report Monday to the City Council, said that pensions and health care costs for retired employees total more than $300 million — a gap she said “We need to fix.”
Amy Morgan, spokeswoman for the public employees retirement system, said CalPERS recognizes the impact that increased pension costs have on employer partners.
Most agencies are expected to see employer contribution increases for a few years and then see a slow and steady decline until around 2024, Morgan said.
Jack Dean, editor of the website PensionTsunami that tracks California’s public employee pension crisis, said the increased liability for Redwood City even as the municipality makes extra payments toward pension costs is not unique in the state.
“It’s happening everywhere,” Dean said. “It’s widespread.”
A day of reckoning will arrive for California and its pension costs, he said.
“It may not be in my lifetime,” added Dean, 72.
Cities and school districts in the state put tax and bond measures before voters that Dean said are pension taxes to cover such costs.
Joe Nation, a professor of public policy at Stanford and project director for Pension Tracker, said people assume local government pensions are guaranteed.
If I were a public employee working for a city or county in California and banking on retirement checks at age 55 or 60, Nation recounted, “I’d be a little bit nervous.”
Municipal and county government can reduce pension, he said.
Members of the Redwood City Council at their meeting Monday supported city staff recommendations that include paying $3 million to reduce pension liability, $1.5 million to support residents’ transition from homelessness or vehicle dwelling into permanent housing and spending $1 million toward climate adaptation initiatives.
A June 22 hearing is scheduled for the city budget.
The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury, in a 2018-19 report, commended Redwood City and seven other municipalities for additional pension contributions to CalPERS beyond yearly requirements.
February 29, 2020
The Daily Journal
By Ryan McCarthy
Tuesday, March 31, 2020
The senior population will double by 2030. Bureaucrats are planning for it, but big questions remain.
Blog note: toward the end, this opinion piece references a 2016 grand jury report.
Over the next 10 years, the number of California residents ages 65 and older is expected to nearly double, reaching 8.6 million.
And one of the places that population bulge will be most acutely felt is Orange County, where seniors represent the one age group projected to expand over the next couple of decades. All other age groups will decline.
Today, people age 65 and older make up 15 percent of Orange County’s nearly 3.2 million residents, according to 2018 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2040, that cohort is expected to account for 1 in 4 people living in Orange County. By 2050, that age ratio will be true for all of California.
For government leaders and others, around the state and in Orange County, the projected trends raise a worrisome question: Are we ready?
It’s been asked before. In fact, much of the planning for the coming aging boom involves assessments and projections that have been produced on a regular basis since the enactment of the federal Older Americans Act in 1965, and, later, the Older Californians Act of 1980. Both laws created official guidelines to help determine how federal and state dollars should be spent on issues related to aging.
But other initiatives are more recent and urgent. These are driven by both the ballooning census figures and by the personal experiences of a growing world of elder caretakers, including family members and service providers.
Still, much of the current prep work for our grayer future isn’t being tracked by the average resident. And, in the eyes of some, the planning might not be getting enough input from the people most directly affected — senior citizens.
In Orange County, some who work with seniors are calling for a concerted, collaborative approach that would involve both public and private dollars. That’s how the Be Well Orange County initiative has launched construction of a $40 million regional campus in Orange, which is set to open in early 2021. That public-private partnership promises care to anyone dealing with mental health or substance use issues, regardless of the patient’s ability to pay, and coordination of services.
“There’s a need to develop a comprehensive plan on aging for the county,” said Lisa Wright Jenkins, president and chief executive officer of the Council on Aging – Southern California. “As a community, we aren’t acting quickly enough to make that happen.
“The county would benefit by having an initiative for older adults similar to the Be Well initiative.”
Those who worry about both the politics and practicalities of providing meaningful and accessible services to older people — especially the money and labor to make that happen — are optimistic about some of the efforts now underway. But they also worry about wasted effort.
The state’s ambitious Master Plan for Aging is the result of an executive order signed in June by Gov. Gavin Newsom. In fulfilling a campaign promise, Newsom was partly driven by watching his father, former state appellate judge William Newsom, battle dementia and other health issues before he died in 2018, at age 84.
People who track public spending on older people applaud the idea.
“Now is the time to do this,” said Adam Willoughby, a spokesman for the California Dept. of Aging. “In his State of the State address last year, Gov. Newsom talked about how he experienced challenges navigating the system when his father was aging.”
Newsom is looking to create a blueprint for what he envisions as an “age-friendly” California. The master plan is due to him by October. (Weekly webinars on the plan, which include public engagement, can be accessed through the website Together We EngAGE.)
At least one expert offered a positive assessment of the work being done so far, tempered with a hint of caution.
“The state is really engaging in a purposeful and well-rounded initiative that’s bringing together stakeholders from business, health care, academics and service providers,” said Debra Rose, director of Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Successful Aging and co-chair of the Orange County Healthy Aging Initiative team that in 2016 put together a county-focused older adult profile.
“I hope this is not just another dotting of the I’s or crossing of the T’s.”
Rose sees Orange County’s healthy aging initiative, and the Strategic Plan for Aging produced last year by the same group of local leaders, as a forerunner to the state’s master plan.
The hard part, she added, will be implementation.
“We need the financial support to carry out those goals.”
The bulk of the money now used to provide services to seniors flows from the Older Americans Act and the Older Californians Act. Funding is tied to reports that, by law, must be produced every four years and submitted to the California Dept. of Aging for monitoring and compliance.
Officials determine fiscal allocations for each of 33 designated Area Agencies on Aging established in California — such as the Office on Aging in Orange County — using a formula based on the number of older adults in an area and how many of them live below the poverty line. Other local funding for services comes from tobacco settlement revenue, the county’s general fund, and Measure M transportation tax dollars.
Demographic projections from a year ago by the California Dept. of Aging estimated Orange County’s population of people 60 and older, the group covered by the Older Americans Act, at 674,732 — the fourth highest among Area Agency programs. (A draft of Orange County’s four-year plan is using a lower figure, 576,841, based on a 2019 update of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.)
The increase in older adults already is posing challenges for health care providers, said Jeremy Zoch, chief executive officer for St. Joseph Hospital in Orange. At St. Joseph, he said, doctors and other care providers are seeing many more patients in their 80s and older in the emergency room.
Often, in addition to whatever emergency medical problem they’re experiencing, older patients arrive in the ER with complex, chronic medical issues. A growing number of those patients don’t speak English as their first language, meaning interpreters — and cultural awareness — is needed to dispense medical advice, Zoch said. And once those older patients are discharged, he added, it is critical that they can connect to social services and nursing programs to continue their care.
“It’s really about getting out into the community, to help seniors where they are at.”
Zoch said his hospital helps provide a social worker to maintain contact with discharged seniors who have no family or are isolated, and need follow-up on aftercare.
But Zoch also noted that all hospitals need to beef up the resources they’ll need “to treat the illnesses that seniors are more likely to have,” like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurological disorders.
“There’s an opportunity for the state to help with that, and the county.”
The so-called “Four-Year Area Plan” that agencies like the county’s Office on Aging must submit to the state set out local priorities, goals and objectives for services to be provided. In Orange County, those include nutrition, transportation, legal aid, family caregiver support, a long-term care ombudsman, and health insurance counseling.
The Office on Aging’s annual budget is a little more than $16 million and has only slightly deviated from that amount over the past 10 years, said Ericka Danczak, director of the county’s Office on Aging and Veterans Programs.
Soon, more will be needed.
“At the state level, they really are trying to take a look at what the priorities are, what the gaps are, and how funding needs to be adjusted to be commensurate with the aging population,” said Danczak, who became the Office on Aging director three months ago.
It helps that California still has a revenue surplus, estimated at close to $6 billion, and lawmakers currently focused on the needs of older adults.
“There’s a will on behalf of the administration to do something about this now,” said Willoughby at the state Dept. of Aging. “There also seems to be a lot of willingness and leadership in the legislature to do something about this now.”
On the federal level, the money situation is mixed.
Federal dollars earmarked for aging have been stagnant for years, reduced during the Great Recession. But there is legislation for a boost.
In October, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill — the Dignity in Aging Act of 2019 — to reauthorize the Older Americans Act with increased funding recommendations (7% in the current fiscal year and 6% in each of the next four years). A Senate version waits approval, with a final bill expected soon.
It’s been a smooth bipartisan process so far. Although advocates had hoped for higher funding recommendations, they are pleased by the legislative support and anticipate President Trump’s signature.
“He is expected to sign it and, boy, we hope he will,” said Amy Gotwals, chief of public policy and external affairs for the National Association of Area Agencies in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, the 2020-2024 Orange County area plan is due to the state by May 1.
Danczak described the four-year area plan as more of a retrospective or accountability report. The county has already received the money it will use on aging, and now must tell the state what those services will look like and how they are being delivered.
“There are other factors that contribute to the amount of money that Orange County gets,” she added. “It’s not necessarily directed by just the area plan.”
And, historically, Danczak said, the four-year plan “has never been used as an advocacy document to bring about change or policy.”
But the plan sets spending priorities and establishes service goals and objectives for the contract programs. And it must include a needs assessment, which is where public input can play a role.
The Office on Aging recently held focus groups and sought input at a public hearing — and conducted its first-ever public survey — as a way to identify key needs for seniors. But only about 30 people attended the public hearing, held on Valentine’s Day, and almost all were service providers. And the 10 focus groups attracted a total of 75 participants. The survey garnered 2,188 responses, but some were invalid.
Overall, enhancing quality of life, safety, and security was a recurring theme, the county report says. Based on answers from 1,639 of the respondents, 82% listed “safety at home” and “help with personal affairs, such as finances,” as most important. The survey also found that “52% of participants said they are most concerned about falling and/or bodily injuries.”
While the Office on Aging serves as the lead advocate for older adults in Orange County, almost all of the services it oversees are provided under contracts with nonprofit organizations. The office says that’s the preference of county supervisors and of local seniors.
A 2016 report from the Orange County Grand Jury pointed to changes that might be needed to handle the coming aging boom.
The report, “Gray Matters,” described the Office on Aging’s work as “effective.” But it also said county management and the supervisors needed to make the Office on Aging a priority “to ensure that future services keep pace with growing demand.” Among the Grand Jury recommendations: kick in about $1.3 million in county general funds or “any other reliable, permanent,” source of funding — an amount that would be about $2.20 per senior resident.
At the time, the county’s general fund contribution to the Office on Aging was $778,438. Today, it is about $1.2 million, money that is earmarked annually and, according to officials, is enough to meet a required match for the state and federal funding. The office currently has 13 staff, one less than they had prior to cuts that came in 2007, the first year of the recession. But now there is additional administrative support shared with two other community resource programs that didn’t exist in 2016.
Still, aging experts fear already stretched resources could fall short as the county’s senior population grows. And Rose, the Cal State Fullerton professor, suggested the coming aging boom will be a stiff, social challenge.
“There is so much that we need to do in the state of California to make life better for older adults.”
February 28, 2020
The Orange County Register
By Theresa Walker
I would like to clarify a statement made by Sonia Waraich in her article “PG&E is blamed for delay in response” (Times Standard, Feb. 26, Page A1). Ms. Waraich states, “Once a year, a group of citizens are impaneled … to investigate local public agencies and nonprofits … .” The grand jury’s training manual specifically states: “There is only one nongovernmental entity the grand jury can investigate: a nonprofit corporation that was established by or is operated on behalf of a local public entity (PC§933.6). There are very few nonprofit corporations that meet this definition.”
One of the goals of the Humboldt County Chapter of the California Grand Jurors’ Association (HCC-CGJA) is to educate the citizenry of Humboldt County on the workings of its Civil Grand Jury. We try very hard to make sure all media releases and articles are correct and true in their content. Transparency fuels the truth.
February 28, 2020
Letter from Timothy P. Hafner, president, HCC-CGJA
[Solano County] Sheriff’s Office optimistic about Rourk Center’s growth despite challenges in Grand Jury report
A recent report by the Solano County Grand Jury opined that the Rourk Vocational Training Center, offered by the Solano County Sheriff’s Office, was “underutilized” given the amount of classroom space it offers.
Undersheriff Brad DeWall acknowledged that there have been challenges along the way but said the facility is on the path to growth.
“We’ve been faced with some challenges in implementing some of these classes and students, but we’re gonna get there and we’ll start creating more relationships and get it more operational (with) more students,” he said.
The Rourk Vocational Training Center opened last year adjacent to the Stanton Correctional Facility in Fairfield to provide vocational skills to inmates who volunteer for the program. The center was funded with $23.04 million from Senate Bill 1022’s Adult Local Criminal Justice Facilities Construction Financing Program, $2.66 million from county funds and a $1 million in-kind contribution.
With the goal of reducing recidivism, the center offers classes in operating forklifts, welding and employment soft skills. The center has 9,940 square feet of classroom space, including seven classrooms and training bays intended to house pre-apprenticeship programs like welding, carpentry, automotive maintenance and more.
The Grand Jury had toured the facility on Sept. 17. Based on the visit, the Grand Jury authored a four-page report that was released on Feb. 14 which wrote that the center was “new, well-designed and clean, with many resources available,” but added, “It is unfortunate that classrooms are empty and learning/training spaces are not utilized.”
The Grand Jury wrote that the center was designed to provide training for more than 100 inmates, but at the time of the tour, there were four being trained as forklift operators. In the previous month, the center had graduated its first group of seven students from the forklift program.
The report issued three recommendations: for the Sheriff’s Office to “fast track the development of plants to utilize the facility to its full potential,” use data employment trends for the future to plan and implement offerings and seek additional partners and entities to utilize the center.
DeWall said he understood the Grand Jury’s concerns.
“We understand they would like to see it more occupied,” he said. “So do we. We’re all working toward the same thing. It just kind of emphasizes the fact that we need to work hard to get more students in the center and create more relationships to get that done.”
Capt. Bill Hornbrook, division commander of the Custody Division, said Rourk was one of several programs available for inmates, including Health Right 360 for substance use disorder treatment, a chaplaincy services program, a library for self-education, the Five Keys Charter School program which has given out 70 high school diplomas since 2016, the PEAK Parenting Program, Women’s Re-entry Achievement Program and Veteran’s Justice Outreach Program.
Excluding Rourk, DeWall said there were 1,940 inmates who went through some type of program offered by the jail system in 2019. Last year, 13, 270 inmates were booked and had an average length of stay of 20.2 days. The average daily population for 2019 was 733 inmates, but Hornbrook said not everybody stayed.
“The bulk of those people either bail out in the first couple hours, or they get cited out for their misdemeanor,” he said. “If you have 13, 270 people that get booked, if you divide that by the days that the inmates stayed, the average length of stay is only 20 days.”
Hornbrook said the sentenced population, whose average length of stay was 55 days, was focused on programming. However, he said they represented only 20 percent of the daily population.
“The concentration of programs ends up being a small percentage of actual inmates that are coming through the jail that see all this stuff,” he said.
Rourk held its first class in March 2019 with 11 women enrolled in the Health Right 360 class. From there, DeWall said began offering the forklift class for men and women, the welding class and an employment soft skills class to provide further skills for students who went through one of the vocational classes.
“The men who went through the welding class and graduated went through a second class (for) employment soft skills, so they know what to expect and how to prepare themselves for the workplace,” DeWall said.
DeWall said there were 40 students who went through Rourk last year. One of the challenges he noted was bringing in faculty to teach these courses. The department has an open contract with Solano Community College where the department has to agree on a training it can host within a certain timeframe.
“The average stay is 55 days, so we’ve gotta find courses that will fit within the parameters of that or at least be able to offer a transition plan where they could finish it,” he said.
Hornbrook said one student had started taking welding, but his time in custody ended before he could finish the class. The student was able to take the class at Solano taught by the same instructor and finish the course.
“That’s exactly what we want,” Hornbrook said.
DeWall said the center is about to host its second welding class, an advanced welding class and offer automotive technology in the fall. Other planned courses include scissor lift operation, a safety harness course, truck driving and a potential cosmetology class. The center also has a contract through the Workforce Development Board of Solano County to offer labor apprenticeship programs.
“There’s a lot of challenges with not only developing and establishing the course work and the instructors but with our current population,” DeWall said. “From the inception of the whole Vocational Training Center, the laws have changed that have created some of these challenges that we’re working through, with AB 109, Prop. 47 — they’ve created some of the challenges that we face to get try to get our inmate population here and in training.”
Hornbrook also said inmates from other programs will eventually be moved over to Rourk, but it will depend on the security and mental health levels of the inmates.
Nonetheless, the department remains optimistic about the growth of the center.
“Now that things have gotten going in 2019, this is the year we build on all that we started,” Hornbrook said. “We tested a lot of things out in 2019: how we get inmates in there, the equipment that’s there…a lot of that was happening in 2019, and I think 2020 is the time where we build and make it bigger and get some of these other programs over there and into the classrooms.”
DeWall agreed, noting that there were challenges with construction and providing equipment in the planning phases.
“In 2020, the focus is we know some of the challenges,” he said. “We just gotta get these classes (and) relationships on line with contracts and courses and get them on the calendar, and then we have to get the relationships to get the students in play.”
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” he added.
February 27, 2020
By Nick Sestanovich
Monday, March 30, 2020
Blog note: this article references a 1999 grand jury report.
A proposal to initiate a pilot program restricting the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in certain areas of San Clemente will go before the council for consideration later this year.
During the council’s Feb. 18 meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ferguson made the proposal for city staff to draw up an agenda report and potential ordinance that would ban the landscaping tool from being used in high-density areas west of Interstate 5 on a one-year trial basis.
“People use these leaf blowers; the gas-powered ones are so polluting, and people have to close their windows on a beautiful day, and a lot of people have their allergies,” Ferguson said, before suggesting the pilot program.
Councilmember Gene James supported Ferguson’s motion, allowing the topic to be agendized for a later council meeting.
Citing residents’ complaints centered on pollution issues and the loud noise created by such devices, the city had previously sought the council’s approval to adopt an ordinance regulating gas-powered leaf blowers.
That draft of that ordinance would have required those who own commercially operated leaf blowers to have their business information displayed on the device. Such information included the business name, address, phone number and business license number.
Those leaf blowers also would have had to be certified by the American National Standards Institute, ensuring they didn’t exceed a 65-decibal noise level, measured from 50 feet.
The city noted that those amendments would have reduced exhaust and noise, as well as helped code compliance staff avoid the use of a noise meter to verify whether the blower violated San Clemente’s noise ordinance.
However, that ordinance died last September in a 2-2 stalemate, with Ferguson and Councilmember Kathy Ward opposed. The two had instead advocated for an outright ban in residential and mixed-use areas, while allowing homeowners associations (HOAs) and golf courses to request exemptions.
Councilors revisited the leaf-blower discussion at their late-February meeting, during which Ferguson cited a 1999 Orange County Grand Jury report on the pollution hazards and other impacts caused by the daily usage of two-cycle gasoline-engine leaf blowers.
In the report, the grand jury implored cities and school districts “to cease using gas-powered blowers in their maintenance and cleanup operations,” stating the use of the blowers “outweigh the questionable economic benefit blowers may bring to the cities and the County.”
It also noted that the California Air Resources Board (ARB) had calculated leaf blowers to “inject 2.11 tons of combustion pollutants per day into Orange County air.”
Mayor Dan Bane expressed concern with how serious of an issue this was to the community, stating that since being elected to office in 2018, he’s only heard from five “vocal” individuals who are calling for a ban on leaf blowers.
“That’s it. This hasn’t been an issue,” Bane said.
He later stated that his position on the matter would be the same as it was last August, when he and Councilmember Chris Hamm backed the ordinance to regulate the gas-powered leaf blowers, but not ban them outright.
HOAs, Bane added, have the ability to ban the leaf blowers, putting the responsibility on them to enforce such a rule, rather than have the city’s code enforcement do so when staff “is already stretched incredibly thin.”
According to news reports, roughly 60 cities in California have imposed bans on gas-powered gardening tools, while the state is currently considering a statewide ban on such items.
Though Ward, who had supported an outright ban last summer, stated that the pollution caused by the gas-powered device is an issue, she said during the latest meeting she was in favor of waiting for the state to decide on the ban.
“It looks like the state is going there, anyway, but what they’re going to do is take away the gas-powered ones, and there’ll be programs to trade to electric,” Ward said. “I can go either way, but I’m leaning toward not doing this for now and waiting for the state.”
Ferguson initially proposed initiating a buyback program as part of her suggested ordinance, allocating city coffers to offer rebates for residents who replace their gas-powered blowers with electric ones. However, with Councilmember James stating he wasn’t willing to support such an initiative, Ferguson backed off that plan.
Per interim City Manager Robert Dunek’s request, the draft of the new ordinance will include a sunset provision to terminate the ban after one year of implementation.
February 27, 2020
San Clemente Times
By Shawn Raymundo
In a recent endorsement editorial, you pointed out that 38.4% of Butte County’s population lives in the unincorporated areas. But then you wrongly asserted that, because 61.6% of county residents are represented by city councils and receive city services, it is only right that the Board of Supervisors be controlled by non-urban dwellers who care mostly about fire and police protection, roads and farming.
However, most county agencies — district attorney, clerk-recorder, auditor-controller, libraries and such — serve all county residents. Nevertheless, previous boards have operated as though their responsibility was only the unincorporated areas. This has been especially apparent to those of us who have observed the board’s lack of action to numerous Grand Jury reports over the years.
For example, the 2011-12 grand jury, of which I was a member, identified deep-seated problems impacting the county’s human service agencies — Behavioral Health, Public Health and Employment and Social Services — and strongly recommended that the county live up to its responsibility of oversight for the planning and coordination of these necessary services. This dereliction of duty is evident by the number of mentally ill citizens on every city street. The report also pointed out that these agencies comprised half of the county’s budget and created 6,700 jobs and $366 million in labor income.
We cannot afford to allow this neglect to continue. It is time for voters to elect people to the Board of Supervisors who will take all of its responsibilities seriously.
February 26, 2020
Letter to the editor from Ken Fleming, Chico
Sunday, March 15, 2020
A Psychiatric Emergency in Contra Costa County — Part Two
Blog note: this opinion piece references a grand jury report.
After months of collaboration between mental health commissioners, patient advocates, and hospital workers, a proposal to re-use an empty hospital ward to remove children from Contra Costa County's violent and chaotic psychiatric facility was summarily squelched in 2016 by the hospital's finance chief.
The empty ward known as "4-D" seemed to offer a promising solution to the growing problem at the county's Psychiatric Emergency Services department — a crowded and dangerous facility that houses adults and children together. A feasibility report prepared by the chief of the children's program, Vern Wallace, showed potential budgetary savings for the hospital by opening a new impatient ward for behaviorally troubled youth.
"We were all excited about the prospect of opening a new inpatient facility in 4-D," former Mental Health Commissioner Kathi McLaughlin said. "The children's program chief felt like he had the support of the administration and he worked with children's advocates, mental health advocates, hospital staff and various committees. It looked good."
But with little ceremony or public explanation, hospital finance Chief Patrick Godley declared Wallace's report was not feasible, and killed the project.
Now, four years later, the overcrowded psych ward has become more dysfunctional and more violent. Instead of creating a safe harbor for troubled and pained minds, the facility breeds aggression, chaos and violence. Traumatized young people experiencing debilitating anxiety and severe depression are just as likely to have their symptoms aggravated in the chaotic facility, rather than soothed.
Psychiatric Emergency Services saw a 68 percent rise in aggressive incidents during 2019, including physical violence and property damage, according to statistics recently released by the county. Meanwhile, a grand jury report last year warned of serious unresolved issues at the facility: overcrowding, chaos, violence, staffing shortages, little to no access for families, patients regularly sleeping on the hallway floors, and emotionally vulnerable children sharing hallways and waiting areas with volatile adults.
Wallace had examined two potential options for separating juvenile patients from adults — one for a 20-bed facility and the other for 10 beds. According to his report, start-up costs such as retrofitting, supplies, and durable goods would have been paid for through the Mental Health Services Act. Consequently, the report claimed that the ward would have saved the county money provided that its unused beds were leased out to public hospitals from nearby counties, which also are experiencing an acute shortage of inpatient beds for children and adolescents.
Wallace had generated interest in potential bed leases from the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda and Marin as well as Kaiser Hospital. Wallace estimated that full occupancy for a 10-bed program would have saved the county $1.7 million per year, including savings from Contra Costa County no longer having to lease roughly five inpatient beds daily in other counties. Even at 85 percent capacity, Wallace projected the county would save money.
Godley was not impressed. He said there were no contracts in place for bed leases and that Wallace's report underestimated the hospital's staffing requirements. He also asserted that the county's need for inpatient beds was simply not high enough to justify the risk of opening a children and adolescent's ward. "It was more like bar room talk," Godley said of Wallace's report. "Once I saw it, I gave it like two minutes of evaluation and ended it."
The exact reasons that Godley killed the project are not entirely clear. He did not write an evaluation of Wallace's report so there is no formal rationalization for his opinion that the proposed plan was unsalvageable.
Dr. Scott Zeller, the chair of the National Coalition on Psychiatric Emergencies and a consultant who has helped develop more than 20 psychiatric crisis stabilization units, described Godley's response to Wallace's proposal as not unusual.
"All the hospitals I go to, inevitably there's one administrator that uses the same tired Field of Dreams reference: 'I'm worried if you build it, they will come.'" Zeller said. "Meaning 'we don't want too many of those people on our campus.' Guess what, they're already here, and you're just stacking them in the back room. What we've shown if you improve the system, there's rarely unwanted inquiries. Instead you're providing much better service and finding alternatives for these folks, which benefits everybody."
Godley claimed there were no contracts to lease beds in place, but Zeller noted that no hospital is going to lease beds in a project that is years away from opening its doors. McLaughlin said Godley's other stated objections to the plan seemed more like fixable details than deal-killers.
Even Godley himself admitted at a 2017 Mental Health Commission meeting that the plan would be worth considering if the cost of staffing was shared. "Yes, if our county can partner or get another county to commit, we can reconsider the possibility," he said.
But instead of exploring further options for the empty hospital wing, or continuing to seek out partners for an inpatient facility in 4-D, Godley shut the effort down. And then he took steps to push Wallace out and gain greater control of the Mental Health Commission, which had supported the therapist's plan.
In an April 26, 2016 email that Godley wrote to Hospital Director William Walker, he laid out a plan that could be interpreted as retaliatory toward Wallace and the Mental Health Commission. "Find a new 'chief deputy.' Layer over Vern and side line him."
In the same email, Godley also laid out a plan to restructure the Mental Health Commission, which by some accounts, had become dysfunctional. "Meet with CCounsel [County Council]. Validate what we can or cannot do to develop a more functional Commission. Sell it to the Board. Maybe have only the CAO [County Administrator's Office] or HSD [Health Services Director] screen and make recommendations to the Board for appointment."
The result of the project's cancellation was that the Mental Health Commission and various sub-committees never again discussed Wallace's proposal to move children and adolescents into a safer ward. Nor did they ever discuss any new proposals to move minors out of Psychiatric Emergency Services.
"Anytime the children and adolescents were brought up, we were told 'hospital staff was working on it,'" McLaughlin said. "Then we were patted on the head and told what a good job we were doing. It was bullshit."
Hospital administrators have since put forward three options for remodeling Psychiatric Emergency Services. Yet none of the options removes the children and adolescents from the obsolete, windowless facility.
"I hope it isn't another red herring," McLaughlin said. "I would rather see the children moved to someplace healthy and safe."
Godley has no medical or psychiatric training, and is not even a Contra Costa County employee. Rather, he is an accountant whose firm contracts with the county for an undisclosed amount.
He also seems to have an apparent lack of empathy for the kinds of patients and families served by Psychiatric Emergency Services. That attitude was on display in an unrelated 2016 email in which Godley appeared to mock the mother of a boy who suffered from severe psychosis. In a Jan. 2, 2016 San Jose Mercury story about a shortage of emergency beds for children experiencing psychiatric crisis, Alison Morantz, a Stanford law professor, referred to her son by using the affectionate term "polka-dotted swan." Godley emailed the story, along with a snide comment about the pet name, to then Hospital Services Director William Walker. In a recent interview, Godley described the email as "just a joke."
Despite his attitude, Godley does have substantial influence throughout the hospital. Even Health Services Director Anna Roth, Godley's superior, defers to him as "Mr. Godley." Many committee members and hospital employees claim new projects must first have Godley's approval or they don't happen.
Some county officials credit the dapper Godley as being a miracle worker when it comes to finding money for popular hospital programs. He is valued by the Board of Supervisors for staunchly holding the line on hospital spending, which is critical for Contra Costa Health Services because the hospital is always operating at a financial loss.
Psychiatric Emergency Services is the last stop in the county for people suffering mental health crises and Godley is largely credited with keeping its doors open. "He has done some amazing things in terms of finding money for important projects," Supervisor John Gioia said. "There are a lot of people who are very grateful for the work he's done."
When Godley killed Wallace's proposal to open 4-D as a children and adolescents inpatient ward, he may well have saved the county money. But at what cost?
Answering that question is difficult due to the reluctance of hospital officials to provide the public with information, even as conditions for children and adolescents at the facility have worsened.
With regard to the proposal that Godley suppressed, the county's most recent civil grand jury report recommended that "The Board of Supervisors should consider directing Contra Costa Health Services to investigate the use of the Medical Center's vacant wing (4D) as a temporary holding area for children and adolescents waiting for long-term placement in other facilities by December 31, 2019." Yet the administration's response was so terse it bordered on petulant. "The recommendation will not be implemented due to regulatory restrictions." Despite repeated requests from the East Bay Express to spokesmen, administrators, and Godley, no one in the hospital administration could identify what those "regulatory restrictions" are.
A more serious issue is that the hospital has refused to disclose how often it uses mechanical restraints on patients in Psychiatric Emergency Services. With a 68 percent increase in aggression, there is likely a corresponding rise in the use of mechanical restraints.
When used on children, restraints can be particularly dangerous. According to a 2017 story published in Psychiatric Annals, 140 U.S. patients died during the 1990s while being subjected to mechanical restraint. Many of the victims were children who were asphyxiated by chest compression or by being left in a fatal position.
When mechanical restraints are used, health officials are required by state law to monitor and record blood pressure, respiratory rates, and length of time in restraint. For example, because children are the most vulnerable to injury and death from mechanical restraints, they cannot be kept in restraint or seclusion for more than an hour without a renewal order from physician or licensed practitioner.
And that information is considered public provided the identities of the patients is withheld. However, the hospital administration has refused to disclose any information about its use of restraints including how often restraints are used on children.
February 26, 2020
East Bay Express
By John Geluardi
[Alameda and Contra Costa Counties] Opinion: Serve on county grand jury for a life-changing experience
Deadline to apply, to help improve local government in Contra Costa or Alameda County, is March 13
Do you want to have a positive life-changing experience?
That is what most people say they had after serving a year on their county’s civil Grand Jury. In this age of alternate facts and partisan politics you will find it refreshing to work with like-minded people who seek objective and practical ways to improve government.
If this interests you, the Contra Costa and Alameda County grand juries are seeking members for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The application deadline is March 13.
Using citizen complaints or issues generated by jurors themselves, grand juries investigate topics involving local government operations. They can review any public agency or political entity within a county, including agencies such as BART, local water districts, school districts, and all cities.
The juries do independent research, visit work locations, and interview government workers and the people they serve. They then write reports evaluating what they find and make meaningful recommendations on ways operations could be improved.
The grand juries of the two counties from 2017-19 produced reports on topics such as:
• The unfunded liability for retiree health care coverage growing to $860 million in Oakland. This report prompted police officers and firefighters to step up and make concessions to save taxpayers tens of millions.
• The millions of dollars wasted on Oakland school administration, with recommendations on improvements to free up money for classrooms.
• Alameda County supervisors’ unaccountable spending for non-profit organizations, totaling millions of dollars.
• Concerns about the effectiveness of charter school oversight in Contra Costa. The Contra Costa County superintendent of schools and county Board of Education have or will soon implement the recommendations.
• BART crime and the budget to combat it. The report included recommendations on ways BART might better use its resources.
The investigated agencies are required by law to respond to the report findings and recommendations.
Grand juries are comprised of 19 volunteers from the county. A Superior Court judge picks a group of 30 qualified citizens from which the jurors are randomly selected. They serve for one year, under the supervision of the county Superior Court. With the number of investigative journalists on the decline, the role that grand jurors play in being a “watchdog” over local government — county, cities, schools and special districts — becomes increasingly important.
To be a civil grand juror, you:
• must have been a resident of the county for at least a year.
• should be willing to commit about 20-30 hours per week to service.
• must be willing to keep your investigations secret until they are published.
• must be able to work co-operatively with fellow grand jurors.
• need good writing and analytical skills.
• must be a U.S. citizen and age 18 or older.
The application period for becoming a grand juror will end March 13 for the term that goes from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021. If you are interested, you can get an application at the following sites:
• For Alameda County residents: http://grandjury.acgov.org/join-us.page?
• For Contra Costa County residents: www.cc-courts.org/civil/grand-jury.aspx
If you do serve, you will be rewarded with knowing you helped your local government improve the way it supports us all, become a more-concerned citizen, and make new friends.
February 26, 2020
The Mercury News, Milpitas Post
By Scott Law and Robert Finlayson. Scott Law, a finance systems expert, served on the Alameda County Grand Jury from 2015-17 and is president of the Alameda County chapter of the California Grand Jury Association. Robert Finlayson, an insurance claims executive, served on the Contra Costa County Grand Jury from 2015-17 and currently trains incoming grand jurors in counties across the state.