Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Mendocino County Grand Jury reports on Parlin Fork Fire Crew Camp

Conservation camp found to be ‘well-managed’

The Grand Jury, a citizen organization established by California law to review and investigate the government of a county and its cities, has its roots in 12th century England and was brought to America in 1635.

The Grand Jury has been part of the California Constitution since statehood in 1850 and the Mendocino County Civil Grand Jury operates under a constitutional mandate that calls for a GJ in every county.

It is Mendocino County’s only independent watchdog of government agencies and services, and is composed of 19 citizen volunteers who investigate and monitor the performance of county, city and local governing entities, including special districts.

Empowered by the judicial system, the Civil Grand Jury makes recommendations to improve local government and is independent of administrators, politicians and legislators.

On Feb. 19, the Mendocino County 2019-2020 Civil Grand Jury conducted a site visit to Parlin Fork Conservation District #6 in Jackson State Demonstration Forest on Highway 20.

Parlin Fork is part of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and is overseen by correctional officers and operated in conjunction with Cal Fire. Established in 1949, it is the oldest conservation camp in Northern California and the second oldest of the state’s 47 camps.

The primary goal of the camp is rehabilitation with a secondary goal of inmates serving the community, contributing to events including the Fort Bragg Salmon Barbeque and the Willits Thanksgiving dinner at the Senior Center.

Low risk inmates, who must be physically fit, are trained for firefighting at the CDCR in Susanville, California, for two months before being sent to the camp. Their remaining sentence cannot exceed five years and working in the camp can reduce their sentence.

Camp capacity is 100 and at the time of the GJ’s visit there were 85 inmates who made up seven crews with up to 15 per crew.

Inmates clear brush and maintain the Jackson State Demonstration Forest and respond to disasters, including fires (at $2 per hour), nearby accidents, floods and earthquakes.

On the day of the GJ’s visit, while they toured the camp and interviewed staff from CDCR and Cal Fire, crews were clearing brush, assisting in making fire trails and trimming trees in the western hills in the city of Ukiah.

Reports from the GJ’s interview state there has been a reduction of inmates with trade skills such as plumbers, electricians, carpenters and mechanics and some do not possess basic life skills upon arrival at the camp.

Inmates have opportunities to improve their skills while performing valuable services to Mendocino County and the community and service experience and educational programs help to reduce recidivism; eighty per cent of inmates released from camp do not re-offend.

Programs available at the camp include Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and religious services. Inmates have the opportunity to obtain a GED diploma or an AA diploma from Lassen Junior College. College instructors visit once a month and the County Bookmobile visits weekly.

There is a hobby craft program onsite that allows them to create redwood burl, handmade clocks; picture frames; jewelry boxes; beaded jewelry; drawings and paintings. All products are donated to non-profits where they are sold.

There is an operational sawmill with up to 17 inmates working and  producing tables and other wood products for the State of California and the State Park system.

The water supply that comes from the South Fork of the Noyo River is purified at their water plant providing them with opportunities to become California Certified Water and Sewer Plant Operators through training provided at the camp.

Depending on their skill level, inmates can earn from $2.90 to $5.12 per day, money that can be saved until an inmate is released.

Visitation permitted only on weekends has increased partly due to prison reform laws and the easing of parole conditions. The camp uses “Out of Bounds” signs instead of boundary fencing.

Although the CDCR staff assists inmates in acquiring California driver’s licenses, the new Federal law requiring a REAL ID license or a passport to board an airplane—documents that are difficult to obtain while incarcerated—makes it difficult for them to fly home.

The GJ states that the camp appears to be well-managed with a dedicated staff—the CDCR and CAL FIRE are to be commended for  maintenance of the facility and for providing a positive model for inmates, creating an environment that allows them to develop a sense of pride and accomplishment while performing their work duties.

Ukiah Daily Journal
September 22, 2020
By Karen Rifkin

 

[San Luis Obispo] County Juvenile Hall adopts positive behavior methods

–The San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury has published a report on its website detailing a recent investigation into what it calls “unique and effective” positive behavior methods at the San Luis Obispo Juvenile Hall.

The report is a result of the San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury’s tour of the Juvenile Hall facilities and interviews with the staff. During the tour, the staff explained the programs and practices by which youth behavior is managed. This report describes and addresses the successful procedures by which the San Luis Obispo Juvenile Hall manages the behavior of youth assigned to its detention and Coastal Valley Academy facilities.

The full transcript of Grand Jury reports is at https://www.slo.courts.ca.gov/gi/jury-grandjury.htm. This website also provides information on how to apply to become a Grand Juror. It also has the “Grand Jury Citizen Complaint Form” available for the public to submit complaints regarding county issues to the Grand Jury.

Paso Robles Daily News
By News Staff
September 22, 2020

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Tuolumne County GOP calls for review of Grand Jury report on TUD

The Tuolumne County Republican Central Committee has asked the presiding judge of Tuolumne County Superior Court to review the Tuolumne County Grand Jury’s report on Tuolumne Utilities District that was released in July.

In a letter to Presiding Judge Donald Segerstrom dated Sept. 10, the committee stated that discrepancies needed to be resolved between the findings reported by the jury and the water agency’s responses that largely denied all of the allegations.

“The reputation and integrity of the TUD leadership and in particular, one member of the board has been seriously challenged and the dispute has not been resolved,” the letter stated. “We would also say that the reputation of the Grand Jury is at stake based on the lack of thoroughness of their investigation.”

The letter was signed by Randy Hanvelt, chairman of the committee and former county supervisor for District 2.

Copies of the letter were also sent to Judge Kate Powell Segerstrom, who was assigned to advise the jury; Ed Pattison, TUD general manager; and The Union Democrat.

Judge Kate Powell Segerstrom said any comment on the letter would have to come from Presiding Judge Donald Segerstrom, who was in a trial Monday afternoon and couldn’t be reached for comment.

The letter stated that the resolution should be swiftly and publicly disclosed due to the upcoming election Nov. 3 in which three seats on the TUD Board of Directors will be up for grabs.

Ron Kopf, an incumbent TUD director whose ties to the business and development interests were investigated by the jury, is seeking another four-year term on the board and will be on the ballot.

Kopf, who was identified in the report only as “Director B,” denied the jury’s findings about real or perceived conflicts of interest in an article published in The Union Democrat on July 3 two days after the report was released.

“Assuming this situation is left to continue; to ferment on its own without resolution, it will be a huge disservice to the people of Tuolumne County, especially in an election year for the board member in question,” the letter from the committee stated.

The letter also asserted that the July 3 article received “broad front page coverage” in The Union Democrat while TUD’s responses to the jury’s report did not, though an article about the district’s then-proposed responses was published on Aug. 8 in the same location on the front page.

Another article about the district’s responses and infighting over them among members of the TUD board was also published on the front page of the newspaper on Aug. 13.

Hanvelt said in an interview on Monday that the committee has not endorsed Kopf in the nonpartisan race for TUD board, though it feels the vast differences between the findings of the report and the district’s responses should be resolved.

“Normally, you don’t see that in grand jury reports and responses to grand jury reports,

he said. “This one is a virtual rejection.”

The jury’s report largely focused on Kopf’s connections, the district’s financial well-being overall, a water service agreement that it found was difficult to decipher, and TUD’s membership in the Tuolumne County Business Council, of which Kopf is the executive director.

In TUD’s response to the jury, the district noted that Kopf’s ties have been vetted by the California Fair Political Practices Commission and that he has recused himself whenever a potential conflict arises.

Information from the FPPC provided by TUD to the jury that found no conflicts in Kopf’s position with the business council was also omitted in the report, the district noted in its response.

The district’s responses also said the agreement in question was vetted by the district’s legal counsel, that the jury had blurred certain revenue streams and funds when analyzing the district’s financial health, and that being a member of private organizations such as the business council helps the district stay apprised of planning activities and decisions.

“There’s a difference between the two and what’s correct, and we want them to straighten it out,” Hanvelt said. “The people don’t know. I’ve heard all sorts of people who have read one side and not the other side. I personally have a tendency to believe TUD because they said the grand jury talked to them and didn’t use their information.”

However, not all TUD board members agreed with the district’s responses to the jury.

The board voted 3-1 to approve the responses that were drafted by Pattison and TUD staff, with directors Kopf, Bob Rucker and Jeff Kerns in favor and Director Barbara Balen opposed.

Balen is also seeking reelection on Nov. 3 in a field that includes Kopf, educator Lisa Murphy, former TUD board member Jim Grinnell, and recently retired longitme TUD employee David Boatright.

Director Ron Ringen did not vote on the responses because he dropped out of the meeting that was held via Zoom on Aug. 6, but he expressed strong disagreement with how they were written.

Hanvelt said the public perception over the report will impact the election, which is why they believe the court should address them before ballots start getting mailed out on Oct. 5.

“I’ve got to give credibility to the grand jury, they are dedicated people, but I’ve got to give credit to TUD,” he said. “When there are two things that are diametrically opposed, I say someone’s got to resolve it.”

The  Union Democrat
Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.net 
September 18, 2020

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury raises red flags with private defender program

San Mateo County needs to evaluate its private defender program, and if serious changes are not made, should consider switching to a different system to provide legal defense for those who can't pay for it, according to a recent civil grand jury report.

San Mateo County, the jury report said, is the only county in California with a population over 500,000 that does not have a county Public Defender Office.

The program has undergone increased scrutiny since a first civil grand jury report in 2015 and subsequent evaluations found that the program had some financial irregularities.

According to findings of the 2020 Civil Grand Jury in a report called "Balancing the Scales of Justice Between the Prosecution and Defense in San Mateo County," there are a number of potential problems and areas with limited oversight when it comes to the county's private defender program.

While the program has been in effect since 1968, the county has never completed a comprehensive independent review of the program to evaluate it against national public defense requirements, compare the program to other models or make recommendations to improve the current model, the report said.

The program relies on a panel of about 100 attorneys who work as independent contractors in lieu of a formal Public Defender's Office. They are responsible for defending people in court who can't afford other representation.

It also has less than half the budget of the District Attorney's Office – and the gap in funding levels is widening. The private defender program budget has increased about 6% in the seven years between the 2014-15 and 2020-21 fiscal years. The budget is now $19.6 million.

The budget for the District Attorney's Office has increased significantly more during that period, to $45.2 million in 2020-21 from $29.4 million in 2014-15, the report stated. That's an increase of about 54% during the same time period.

The private defender program, which is run by the San Mateo County Bar Association, also doesn't have resources or processes to analyze, monitor or report on the quality of legal representation that its attorneys provide, the jury report said. It doesn't have performance benchmarks that are compared to state or national programs or analyzed in the broader context of other programs.

The funding gap between the Private Defender Program and the District Attorney's Office in San Mateo County has widened significantly in the past seven fiscal years. (Data courtesy 2019-20 San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury.)

Recent California legislation, AB 5, changed some rules for independent contractors. Lawyers are exempted from the legislation and may remain independent contractors without being considered employees at the law firms where they work. However, the grand jury report noted that some staff members of the private defender program indicated that the law could limit what they perceive to be the program's ability to oversee individual attorneys.

Finances

In an audit of the program in 2016, the County Controller found that attorney invoices did not comply with the fee schedule in the private defender program contract with the county. During the review, there were 189,000 invoices issued and 593 were selected for review. A quarter had errors that resulted in the county bar association making incorrect payments. The audit resulted in 12 recommendations.

By a second audit in 2018, only three of the 12 recommendations had been implemented, and still pointed to "significant deficiencies" that "indicated that the PDP's financial accounting records could not be relied upon."

A third audit, in 2019, showed that only six of the recommendations had been completed. The Bar Association had adopted further practices to bring them into compliance, but that not during the review period so it wasn't captured in the audit.

By June 2019, when the current contract was adopted, the County Manager reported that the follow-up audit had found that the program was complying with financial reporting obligations, but that information was not supported, the grand jury report stated.

By July 2020, a fourth audit was completed for the 2019 calendar year. By then, all of the 12 recommendations had been implemented.

Some of the recommendations that the board of the county Bar Association adopted were to separate the executive director from the chief defender position; require board members who work as attorneys for the private defender program recuse themselves on votes about how the program is managed; change accounting firms and replace accounting staff; and adopt different procedures and policies for accounting, according to the report.

Unequal resources

The civil grand jury report compared the private defender's program to the San Mateo County District Attorney's office and found them to be unequal in the areas of professional development, attorney oversight, resources and program accountability.

The District Attorney's office and private defender program cover 20,000 cases per year, and cover about 85% to 90% of the same cases.

While there are only about 100 defense attorneys in the private defender program, about half of whom are full-time and the rest part-time, there are about 137 full-time employees at the DA's office, which includes 60 full-time attorneys, 10 senior management positions and 67 investigative staffers, paralegals, and information and administrative staff members.

While private defenders are responsible for their own legal research and case management, attorneys in the District Attorney's office have lawyers and paralegals who help research case law, as well as access to "brief banks" to make it more efficient to create legal briefs and best practices, the report said.

The District Attorney's office also gives attorneys continuing education via daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly mandatory meetings and training organized by topic, skill level or type of crime, and participation is tracked via a customized professional development plan. Senior staff also help new attorneys talk through pending cases, issues, case law and more while new attorneys help more senior ones to prepare court documents and briefs.

The Private Defender Program has in-house training and $750 for each attorney to use for continuing education, but the civil grand jury reported there was no information about how many classes each attorney attends or the content, and it does not track attendance, though it does have a mentor program and email list.

Recommendations

In the new report, the Civil Grand Jury issued recommendations for the Board of Supervisors, urging it to provide greater oversight over the program. These recommendations include:

  • The County Controller should audit every contract with the private defender program before it is renewed or implemented.
  • Informational materials about the private defender program and the judicial process for clients and their families should be translated into multiple languages on the private defender program website.
  • The private defender program should consult with the District Attorney's Office to learn more about its programs for professional development and career advancement, processes, systems and resources by the end of January 2021.
  • The private defender program should replace its performance benchmarks with ones that align with state and national defense performance benchmarks and be audited annually. Those should also be reported annually to the Board of Supervisors.
  • And, starting in the next fiscal year, 2021-22, the Board of Supervisors should work on addressing the large funding gap "between the defense of indigents and their prosecution," the report stated.

If those changes aren't made, the county should consider "providing the San Mateo County Bar Association with a two-year notice to terminate the contract and start developing a new legal defense model," the report concluded.

Almanac
by Kate Bradshaw
 September 14, 2020

Saturday, September 12, 2020

[Mendocino County] Grand Jury: Teeter Plan burdening general fund

In 1993, the County Board of Supervisors voted to institute the Teeter Plan, providing the county with an optional alternative method for allocating property tax revenues to Special Districts—special service operations under independent operational jurisdictions such as water, fire, cemetery, hospital, ambulance service, sewer, recreation—allowing the county to pay 100 percent of the assessed tax revenue to special districts. Once the money owed to the special districts was paid, the balance of revenue collected was to be transferred to the general fund.

Special districts, found in  most California counties, are able to plan budgets based upon guaranteed full projected revenue from the Teeter Plan assessed taxes; these advances are paid whether or not the County actually receives 100 percent of those property taxes. Historically taxes are received at 95-97 percent of the assessed total. The problem occurs when the 3- 5 percent deficit is not repaid.

According to the Mendocino County 2019-2020 Civil Grand Jury’s report: future funding sources may become insufficient; the local districts could cost the county millions of dollars; and the county needs a plan to address this financial burden.

Installments, paid to the districts throughout the year – December 60 percent, April 30 percent, and June 10 percent –  amounted to $4.9 million in the 2019-20 budget. This method of calculating revenue allows the districts to manage their operations; however, budgeting with money that has not been collected has created a Teeter Plan deficit.

In 2012 when the grand jury reviewed the work of the Board of Supervisors in regards to its management plan of the Teeter Plan, it was determined that the plan needed restructuring.

A committee was established to oversee the impact of the Teeter Plan on the county budget; however, the GJ found no oversight by this committee at that time stating that lack of oversight to repay the Plan could directly impact law enforcement, labor and county services to the current date.

In 2015 the BOS developed a restructured repayment plan to the Teeter fund whereby the principal and interest were repaid from actual taxes received resulting in a balanced account. The actual revenue was balanced against projected revenue to provide a more realistic picture of the solvency of the Teeter Plan.

Initially this plan worked, but according to the GJ’s report, the county is again fast approaching either a break-even point, or a point of insufficient money coming in from the property taxes, which means that funding for the special districts will come out of the general fund. The GJ found no plans to prevent a duplication of the 2012 deficit should a recession occur.

When property owners do not pay their taxes, or abandon their property, the County is responsible for this portion of the special district funding. Taxpayers have up to five years to pay their assessed property taxes. After that, the County can foreclose on a house and try to recoup the funding distributed to the districts. There is the example of Brooktrails, where hundreds of properties have been abandoned leaving the County unable to collect taxes and unwilling to foreclose. The County removed the Brooktrails Special District from the Teeter Plan in 2013.

The GJ reviewed documents, budget printouts, various state and local code sections and interviewed county staff and elected officials determining that the since the Teeter Plan was adopted in 1993, it worked well as long as the delinquent assessed taxes, plus interest, were repaid.

But, from 1993 through 2015 this repayment to the general fund was neglected and in  2015 this neglect resulted in a Teeter Plan deficit of $1.2 million.

In a required response from the GJ 2012 report, the County Executive Officer responded, “While there has been a lack of clarity on planned debt in the past, the CEO formation of an Investment Review Committee comprised of the CEO, Treasurer, Auditor/Controller and County Counsel has remedied the situation.” One of the responsibilities of this committee is to provide oversight of the Teeter Plan.

At the time of this grand jury report, the members of the review committee were unaware of that oversight responsibility. The committee meets on an as-needed basis and, from interviews with committee members, the grand jury understands that the Teeter Plan was rarely if ever discussed in those committee meetings. This means there has been no oversight or accountability of the Plan.

For several years there was an income from the Teeter Plan to the general fund from one to five years delinquent special district assessed taxes and penalties that provided surges of funding to the general fund, benefitting the county and giving a somewhat false picture of health.

This influx of funds has been decreasing annually to the point that for fiscal year 2019-20, the result may be no additional money deposited into the general fund. From year to year there is no guarantee of what amount of assessed taxes will be collected and what the County’s debt will be.

The County must be prepared to cover the cost of the special district tax obligation if the percentage of uncollected special district taxes becomes insufficient. This negative budget change could impact County services in all areas, including law enforcement and staffing levels.

In light of an anticipated economic downturn, the BOS has the option to exit from the Teeter Plan and revert to the position used prior to 1993 when special districts received only the amount directly owed to each district from the tax money collected. This would avoid the general fund being obliged to bail out the Teeter Plan for the unfunded portion—3-5 percent of the tax base.

It is clear to the GJ that this, along with other changes the BOS has placed on the budget, is going to severely impact the funds of special districts. The BOS needs to study the economic impacts of the budgetary changes they have already implemented on the special districts. Should the BOS end the Teeter Plan, special districts would have the ability to raise their assessed taxes through a 2/3 vote of its residents.

The GJ determined that over the past few years,  Teeter Plan difference between projected revenue and actual revenue collected has been increasing; there is no current strategic plan to protect county residential services such as public works, health and human services and law enforcement should a recession occur; and, in the event of a decrease in income from property assessed taxes, the special district obligation of 100 percent could create a deficit in the County budget.

The Grand Jury recommends that the county provide management/oversight of the Teeter Plan account; that the BOS terminate from the Teeter Plan all special districts which no longer contribute their full amount in taxes to the county; and that the BOS considers discontinuing the Teeter Plan for Mendocino County.

The Ukiah Daily Journal
By KAREN RIFKIN
September 11, 2020 

Southern Coachella Valley Community Services District struggles to afford law enforcement, [Riverside County] grand jury finds

A special tax district covering rural communities on the far eastern side of the Coachella Valley is struggling to pay ballooning public safety costs despite siphoning money from a waste management operation in recent years, the Riverside County Civil Grand Jury found.

Due to the lack of funds, attributed to stagnant property values within the areas represented by the Southern Coachella Valley Community Services District, the grand jury recommends asking voters to approve a tax increase to cover police services.

The district represents about 23,000 people who live within a roughly, 140-square-mile area that includes Mecca, Thermal, Oasis and Vista Santa Rosa.

Dissolving the district might also be necessary, according to the grand jury.

"The district will eventually run out of funds," the report reads. "The only foreseeable alternative is to go back to the voters with a ballot measure to increase the property tax supporting supplemental law enforcement."

But the SCVCSD decided against including such a measure on the November ballot, raising the question of when the issue will be dealt with.

Frank Figueroa, a district board member since 2016, said that he is aware of the grand jury's report but did not want to comment on its findings until the board has a chance to discuss it in session.

The district's next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 17, but a final agenda has not yet been publicly released. 

Generally, Figueroa said, the board recently passed a budget that pays for law enforcement services for the current fiscal year. Any proposed increase in tax assessments for district residents will be considered in a manner that allows for public involvement before any further action will be taken.

Still, Figueroa acknowledged the district's financial viability has been a concern. 

"We’re running on an operational budget that was established in 1986," Figueroa said. "And law enforcement has become very expensive over recent years."

The grand jury further recommended that the SCVCSD seek legal advice as to whether their previous fund reallocation could withstand a challenge in court and urged the Riverside County Local Agency Formation Commission to fulfill its oversight responsibility for these types of districts.

According to the grand jury’s report, SCVCSD’s general fund has been in the red since 2016, dropping to a deficit of more than $400,000 last year. Meanwhile, the district’s income from a waste management operation has just about doubled to nearly $250,000 a year since 2004.

SCVCSD has used $495,868 of money from the “rubbish fund,” as the district refers to it, to cover for law enforcement costs as of July 2019, the grand jury found. Exposing them to possible litigation and preventing those funds from being used for community cleaning, their intended purpose.

"It's the elephant in the room," district board President Rebecca Broughton told The Desert Sun last year. "We're all concerned about the district."

Palm Springs Desert Sun
Christopher Damien
September 11, 2020

Friday, September 11, 2020

Rouda, Levin, and Porter call for investigation of Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies

 Blog note: This report refers to an Orange County grand jury report.

Congressman Harley Rouda (CA-48), along with Reps. Levin (CA-49) and Porter (CA-45) sent a letter to the Caltrans Inspector General to urge further investigation into the activities of the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) following an Orange County Grand Jury report.

“California’s Caltrans Inspector General should immediately open an investigation to hold TCA to account for their impropriety and ineffective use of taxpayer dollars,” said Rouda.” From lobbying Sacramento to lining the pockets of senior management, it is clear that TCA is serving themselves — not the people of Orange County.”

“The Transportation Corridor Agencies have a responsibility to serve the public interest and use taxpayer dollars wisely. It’s clear that they have failed to meet that responsibility. TCA’s actions undermine public confidence, and the Caltrans Inspector General must hold them accountable,” said Levin.

“It is hoped that the limited findings of this Grand Jury report will convince the responsible county and state oversight agencies and elected representatives that the investigations and external audits of the Transportation Corridor Agencies and its two Joint Powers Authorities requested by multiple federal and state elected representatives over the past 15 months to the governor and other state agencies…will ultimately be acted upon in a manner befitting good governance and agency oversight rather than one of political expediency,” wrote the Orange County Grand Jury.

This article was released by the Office of Congressman Harley Rouda.

Orange County Breeze
September 11, 2020

Thursday, September 10, 2020

We’ve had plenty of warnings about potential for wildfire

Blog note: This article refers to a Santa Cruz County grand jury report.

  “As the specter of climate change increases, so does the fear and likelihood of more wildfires in populated areas. … Santa Cruz County faces increasing risk of life and property damage from a wildfire.”

So begins a Santa Cruz County civil grand jury report released on July 3 — 43 days before lightning sparked a series of fires that only seemed to burn half of the Bay Area. Grand jury reports are meant to illuminate budding problems in the community, but rarely are they this prescient. But then there have been 13 civil grand jury reports highlighting ongoing fire danger in nine California counties since 2007. If California burns to the ground, it won’t be because no one warned us.

The most recent report noted that Santa Cruz County is the only county in the state that falls mostly in the wildland-urban interface — largely rural or forested areas that are increasingly populated. Before the CZU Lightning Complex fires there were about 72,000 homes in the Santa Cruz County wildland-urban interface. Nearly 1,000 of them burned to the ground. In all, 77,000 people were evacuated at the height of the most devastating fires in these parts in recent memory.

One of the lessons we’ve learned again and again is the need for better, earlier warnings. Cal Fire only had one early alert camera in the area at the time of the CZU Lightning Complex fires. Text alerts and other high-tech notifications continue to be imperfect. Our own San Mateo County civil grand jury found last year that only 2 percent of our county residents knew of evacuation routes and emergency shelter sites before they needed them. The Marin County grand jury found last year that 90 percent of that county’s residents had not signed up for emergency alerts.

Again and again, these grand juries have found that we underestimate the potential for fire and just how quickly it moves. In the days after ignition, Cal Fire incident commander Assistant Chief Billy See said the CZU Lightning Complex was devouring 1,000 acres an hour. That is barely a crawl compared to the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise in 2018. The initial spread there was estimated at 4,600 acres an hour.

Many times, firefighters have described being overwhelmed in the early days of wildfire. Cal Fire said repeatedly in the early days of the CZU fires that it lacked resources to do more than keep people safe. Over and over we hear of evacuation roads that are overloaded as terrified residents creep toward safety. And most of us continue to ignore state law that mandates “defensible space” around our homes.

The Santa Cruz County civil grand jury makes more than a dozen recommendations to improve fire safety in a county that has now suffered the most destructive wildfire in recent history. Many are technical and involve better governance of agencies designed to protect us. It goes easier on those of us who choose to live amid the increasing danger.

We should honor the heroic firefighters who are still working to surround the fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains by doing our part — signing up for alerts, receiving emergency training, clearing our property and creating a family fire plan. Until we do, the warnings — and deadly fires — will continue.

Half Moon Bay Review
Clay Lambert
September 9, 2020

 

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Supervisors OK responses to [Humboldt County] grand jury critiques of county

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved responses to civil grand jury reports that found problems with the county’s cash handling, its civilian feedback and the overworking of its public health guardians.

Comprised of anonymous citizens, the jury issued seven reports this year outlining critiques of various county practices. The county then responds publicly to state which of the jury’s recommendations it will implement.

In response, the county pledged to create an online feedback form to receive civilian feedback for individual public departments and hire an additional public guardian to care for elderly and disabled residents.

But the county largely disagreed with another report that found errors in the government’s cash-handling practices and policies. In responses, the county’s board of supervisors pushes back on the notion that it needs an additional accountant or to adjust how it accepts cash.

“The Planning & Building Department has sufficiently accounted for its financial activity for many years with existing fiscal staff,” the county’s responses read.

At a meeting Tuesday, the supervisors acknowledged the jury’s investigations but agreed many of the findings are not new discoveries.

“Some of the items are already being addressed or are in the process of being addressed,” said board chair and 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell.

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn agreed, adding he welcomed the jury’s input.

“This opens a lot of eyes… A lot of scabs on things that need to be fixed,” Bohn said.

Eureka Times-Standard
Shomik Mukherjee
August 25, 2020

Revisiting the [Santa Cruz County] Civil Grand Jury Report That Warned About Santa Cruz County’s Wildfire Risk

Rich Goldberg has several air filters running at full blast in his Santa Cruz Mountains home, but that hasn’t been enough to stop him from developing a cough from the CZU Lightning Complex fire burning nearby.

Goldberg, foreperson for the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury, predicts that people will be talking about how to reduce fire risk long after crews extinguish the current blaze.

This past June and July, Goldberg and his fellow grand jurors released 10 reports, including two about fire safety, as previously reported by San Jose Inside’s sister publication, the Santa Cruz Good Times. One of those reports highlighted reasons the county was at risk for a serious wildfire.

Goldberg will be the first to admit that it’s too early to know whether the issues highlighted by the grand jury contributed to the devastating CZU Lightning Complex fire.

“I would never engage in ‘I told you so,’” says Goldberg, who watched the evacuation orders closely and was relieved not to be one of the 77,000 forced to leave. “But clearly, these issues are going to be top of mind going forward.”

So far, firefighting crews have contained 43 percent of the CZU Lightning Complex fire, which has charred 85,218 acres as of Tuesday morning. The fire has burned 1,453 structures, making it the ninth-most destructive blaze in California history, and investigators are still surveying the damage.

Hot Seat

In an era when hot temperatures and drought conditions are spreading wildfire more rapidly than ever, fire departments are relying on new technology for a helping hand.

Wildfire detection cameras can keep an eye on forests, often catching fires as soon as they start. One problem, as noted by the grand jury report, is that the Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit (CZU) only had one such camera for Santa Cruz County. Perched in Bonny Doon, the camera faced toward San Mateo County, not Santa Cruz County, and it was incapable of rotating to scan the area.

Cal Fire CZU Chief Ian Larkin says he isn’t sure if the crews got any good information off the camera in the early days of the current conflagration, while the fire started and spread. That fire quickly destroyed the camera on Aug. 19. The last image it took was a red blur, as flames engulfed the tower where the camera stood.

Since then, Cal Fire has added two new ALERTWildfire cameras, and Larkin says he can rotate them remotely to scan the mountainside. Plus, he says Cal Fire has initiated conversations with the city of Santa Cruz about placing a wildfire camera on the Municipal Wharf, facing back toward the mountains, to watch for future incidents.

The grand jury report also revealed that many local fire districts need to improve their response times, and additionally, it laid out the ecosystem of 10 separate fire districts in Santa Cruz County—home to about 273,000 residents. Other counties, such as Contra Costa and Los Angeles, have a unified fire chief for their entire region.

The report argued that Santa Cruz County’s framework creates a confusing web of bureaucracy, unclear chain of command, various inconsistencies and little accountability.

Larkin, who disagrees with those findings, says there are many ways to organize fire departments, and he doesn’t believe Santa Cruz County’s arrangement is problematic.

He stresses the unprecedented nature of the situation.

The state of California saw more than 10,000 lightning strikes—many of them unaccompanied by rain—over the course of three days, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The strikes started several large fires on the Central Coast and in the Bay Area. (The second- and third-biggest wildfires in state history are still burning in counties nearby.)

Firefighters were already fighting a fire in southern California, leaving them thinly stretched across the state. “It delayed us getting any resources to us because they simply weren’t available,” Larkin explained.

The grand jury requires written responses from 16 government agencies, officials and elected bodies. It’s requesting responses from nine more. All are due Oct. 1.

A report from Joe Serrano, executive officer of Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), agrees with many grand jury findings about the inefficiencies and limited oversight among the county’s fire agencies. LAFCo is planning a comprehensive service review of all fire districts in Santa Cruz County due in October of 2021.

Burning Point

The grand jury report didn’t lay blame solely at the feet of public officials. The general public in the county, the report argued, was woefully unprepared for the fire risk and did not show an appropriate level of concern about the havoc that wildfires can wreck.

It’s a topic that Cal Fire officials, like Larkin, have hammered home over the past two weeks. Larkin says it has been much easier to save houses where residents cleared dead brush and flammable objects from being anywhere near their homes.

Larkin says he’s seen homes where the owner took proper precautions to protect their homes interspersed with those that did not. Oftentimes, he says, those who protected their homes also protected their neighbors. But at the same time, those who ignored rules about clearing flammable material, he adds, endangered the homes of their neighbors.

“You have the house that didn’t do defensible space burn down; it burned down the house that did all the work; and the house that did all the work protects the house next to it that doesn’t have the defensible space,” he says. “And there are many examples of that throughout the community that are affected by that now.”

California’s defensible space laws are especially strict for the 10 yards surrounding each home. For starters, California law requires that homeowners remove dead or dry leaves and pine needles from your yard, roof and rain gutters, and within 30 feet of their houses, homeowners should remove dead plants, grass and weeds.

To firefighters, all this is considered fuel for a potential blaze. There are many other regulations, some of them extending to a 100-foot radius surrounding each house.

Cal Fire CZU, in its capacity as the Santa Cruz County Fire Department, does local defensible space inspections throughout the year. Larkin says he and other local Cal Fire leaders have determined that it’s best to deal with violations by working with the homeowner. Issuing citations doesn’t do much good, he says.

“If you look at the areas that don’t have defensible space, I think it would overwhelm the DA’s office with a bunch of misdemeanor fines,” he says. “We try to just gain compliance through the inspections and working with the communities. But I’ll be honest, I think we can do a better job. And after this incident is done, I think it’ll be a rude awakening for a lot of folks. We have fire here. We have a history of fires here.”

Many observers over the past couple weeks have pointed out the perfect storm of fire conditions—dry lightning strikes accompanied by heavy wind. But lest anyone assume this is a once-in-a-generation event, it’s worth considering that recent fire conditions could have been even worse—or at the very least that Santa Cruz County could be primed for a perfect storm of entirely different conditions in the future.

For instance, although the initial days of the CZU fire were hot and free of fog, a heavy marine layer did eventually set in, helping with the fight against the fire on the ground—a cooling event that can’t always be counted on.

Not only that, but the Grand Jury report notes that most Santa Cruz County residents live in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), which is at particular risk for wildfire. That means that wildfire risk isn’t confined to Bonny Doon and to Boulder Creek, where much of the current CZU fire is burning.

The WUI stretches throughout the entire region. Santa Cruz County is the only county in the state with the majority of its land in the WUI.

Also, according to analysis by USA Today and the Arizona Republic, several local communities have high wildfire risk—the highest among them being Lompico, which was spared from the nascent flames and which recently had its evacuation orders lifted.

Even the city of Santa Cruz—most of which is not in the WUI—is not immune from threat. It is home to several large groves of non-native blue gum eucalyptus trees, known to be particularly flammable, as noted in the report.

The city has, however, made investments in clearing out fuel buildup in overgrown areas, like DeLaveaga Park, in recent years.

In general, Larkin says, Santa Cruz County remains fire-prone.

“We don’t have that frequency of large fires—we have a lot of small fires that we’re able to contain,” he says. “We meet our mission of keeping them under 10 acres 90 percent of the time. We get the nice Mediterranean climate. We get the cooling coastal influence, but people don’t realize that this area is primed to burn.”

San Jose Inside
By Jacob Pierce
September 2, 2020