Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Grand jury: Two Orange County agencies have leadership, morale problems

SANTA ANA – Rampant infighting, ineffective leadership and aging computer systems have created poor morale at the public administrator and public guardian offices, according to a report released Monday by the Orange County Grand Jury.
The watchdog agency focused on how splitting up the offices of the public guardian, which handles the welfare of county residents unable to take care of their own needs, and the public administrator, which manages estates of those who die without a will, has impacted the embattled departments.
Until 2014, an elected public administrator oversaw both agencies. After two scathing grand jury reports and a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, the Orange County Board of Supervisors split up the agencies, with the public guardian office becoming part of the county healthcare agency and the public administrator duties being turned over to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
The grand jury determined that workers in the public guardian office have been the hardest hit, describing themselves as the “stepchildren of the Healthcare Agency,” left to fend with “increased red tape, a reduction in basic office equipment, and a neglected workforce.”
Vacant positions have been left unfilled, a “pressure cooker” atmosphere has prevailed and workers are reliant on aging software, the grand jury says.
Officials with the Orange County Healthcare Agency said they had just received the grand jury report and were still reviewing it.
“Preliminary review suggests that there are findings that we agree with and are already addressing,” said Rachel Sellack, a spokeswoman for the agency.
“In addition, there are findings that we are in partial agreement with and some that we disagree with,” she said. “(The healthcare agency) will be forming a working group to review and respond to this report through the Board of Supervisors as well as to take appropriate actions to improve the operations of our public guardian office.”
By contrast, the grand jury acknowledged that the public administrator employees have “fared much better” since the split, but contended that they “did not escape unscathed.”
“Staff morale was adversely affected by the hiring of people who had a known relationship with top district attorney officials,” the grand jury report says of the public administrator office.
Officials with the D.A.’s Office disputed the grand jury’s findings. A statement released Monday said “big strides” had been made, and there’s been a reduction in a large backlog of cases since the office took over the public administrator’s duties. A “toxic culture” was rehabilitated through “fresh ideas and private business acumen.”
“The public administrator is now run efficiently and is known to go above and beyond, even on occasion taking home a beloved family pet left behind until a decedent’s next of kin or forever home can be located,” the statement says.
The grand jury investigation, however, found that new employees at the public administrator’s office with personal ties to D.A.’s Office officials were quickly hired and moved up the ranks without traditional training.
In their statement on Monday, D.A.’s Office officials blamed the allegations raised in the grand jury report on “disgruntled staff that went through the transition of the public administrator to the Orange County (District Attorney’s Office).”
D.A.’s Office officials also said that interviews with senior management staff who oversee the public administrator employees were not included in the grand jury report.
Among the two dozen recommendations included in the grand jury report is better communication and training within the two agencies, the adoption of a new electronic case management system, and the creation of a more formal process to hire qualified workers for the public administrator’s office.
May 23, 2016
The Orange County Register
By Sean Emery

[Santa Barbara County] Lake Cachuma’s ‘paper’ water supply not accurate, grand jury says

The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury believes the contract governing the Cachuma Project is outdated and the maximum supply of water on paper is not the actual supply available, according to an 18-page report the body released Thursday.
Cachuma Lake, the county's main reservoir, supplies most of the South County — Santa Barbara, Goleta, Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria — and the Santa Ynez Valley with water, and it's currently at 14.7 percent capacity with just 28,373-acre-feet of water.
An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or the amount of water generally needed to supply the annual needs of four to 10 people in an urban environment. 
The reservoir has a capacity of 193,305 acre feet, and has provided up to 85 percent of the water needs to approximately 340,000 acres of agriculture and 250,000 residents. Its water supply has been allocated with the goal of lasting over a six- to seven-year drought cycle.
"The lake was last full to the point of spilling in March 2011 and after four years, the lake was virtually dry," the report reads. "This reality indicates that the contract is outdated. The maximum supply of water on paper is not the actual supply available, and the supplies from Lake Cachuma are over allocated."
The 1995 master contract between the United States Bureau of Reclamation and the Santa Barbara County Water Agency for water service for the Cachuma Project is up for renewal in 2020, and the grand jury is recommending that the contract be updated during the next renewal process.
Jurors want to see the annual safe yield of the reservoir recalculated based on the water available, with the recalculation taking into account lower reservoir capacity due to siltation, demands for downstream water rights and federal requirements to maintain fish habitat that didn't exist when the current contract was first approved.
The report also recommends that the contract should require frequent reviews to address changing water needs, while also evaluating a new operating mode that distributes water at an annual rate to maximize the efficient use of the lake.
County Deputy Director of Water Resources Tom Fayram agrees with the grand jury's report and its conclusions, saying that the calculation supply for the reservoir hasn't kept up with changes over time, such as increased sedimentation in the lake and downstream water rights.
"You can drive by the lake," Fayram said about the depleted supply. "It's proved itself over time."
The report, "Lake Cachuma – Protecting a Valuable Resource, You Can’t Drink Paper Water," can be viewed online at www.sbcgj.org.
May 21, 2016
Lompoc Record
By April Charlton

[Orange County] Grand jury: O.C. should plan a light-rail network to link local populated cities and L.A. County

The Orange County grand jury is calling for transportation officials to devise a plan within a year aimed at constructing a light-rail network that would link densely populated local cities and ultimately connect to transit systems in Los Angeles.
Such a plan would mark an aggressive shift in Orange County, which has lagged behind neighboring San Diego and Los Angeles counties in planning for and building a regional light-rail network that reduces air pollution and road congestion.
In recent years, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Anaheim and Fullerton have begun planning or studying streetcar systems – currently in various stages of conception – to run along relatively short stretches within their borders. While the grand jury commended those efforts, it found that there is no comprehensive plan for a regional system, and called on the Orange County Transportation Authority to develop one.
“These steps, although incremental, provided a much better venue for local political and public consideration,” the grand jury wrote in its report released last week. “OCTA’s role took the place of the ‘core city’ presence that had characterized both Los Angeles and San Diego over the past 25 years.”
Garnering widespread support for light rail has proved politically unpopular in the past few decades, when plans for larger networks have withered after residents opposed their high costs, questioned their benefit and argued they would serve only a small portion of the county.
Those disagreements highlight a debate that has dragged on for years in Orange County: What’s the best way to spend money to improve mobility and ease congestion – roads or rail?
In the 1980s, faced with increased air quality concerns, Los Angeles and San Diego counties began constructing light-rail systems. Since then, Los Angeles’ network has grown to 79 miles and San Diego’s to 76 miles.
“These networks have been largely successful in helping to reduce traffic congestion and smog by reducing the number of automobiles on the roads,” the grand jury wrote.
As its neighbors built train systems, Orange County chose instead to spend on building and improving roads. The grand jury blames that trend partially on the divergent views and needs of the county’s 34 cities, but also on locals’ mistaken views that the county isn’t urbanized and is better served by cars, buses and freeways.
In fact, the report points out that Orange County has a population density 57 percent greater than Los Angeles County and five times greater than San Diego County, according to 2010 U.S. census data.
“There is no demographic answer as to why light rail system development is more readily supported in both Los Angeles and San Diego Counties than in Orange County,” the report states.
To convince the public of the need for light rail, the grand jury calls for a widespread campaign to recruit more cities and residents to advocate for an interconnected light rail system.
Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, who sits on OCTA’s board of directors, said such a plan would be disastrous – costing hundreds of millions of dollars, serving “less than one-tenth of 1 percent” of the county’s population, taking up lanes on congested roads and reducing bus routes by diverting operational funds.
“Light rail is the equivalent to a bus line that has no flexibility to it,” Tait said.
Since 2008, OCTA’s bus ridership has dropped by 30 percent, resulting in cuts to some service. Even the grand jury acknowledged concerns over that decrease.
But OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik said the agency is encouraged by light rail’s success elsewhere and confident that locals would use the system.
“OCTA strongly believes that building a streetcar will attract riders that may not routinely ride the public bus system,” Zlotnik said. “Santa Ana has the fifth-densest population of any large city in the nation and we believe the demographics are ideal for building strong ridership.”
Zlotnik said OCTA is working to create compatibility between Santa Ana and Anaheim’s planned streetcar routes. But he said the agency has no plans to link Orange and Los Angeles counties by light rail.
OCTA is seeking funding for the county’s light rail projects through the state’s Cap-and-Trade Program, Orange County’s Measure M2 half-cent sales tax and federal transportation programs.
May 19, 2016
The Orange County Register
By Jordan Graham