Thursday, September 14, 2017

[Marin County] Access to public records crucial for government (Readers’ Forum)

On July 8, the Marin IJ published a wonderful editorial: “Grand jury nudges agencies to open their doors.” Our civil grand jury has also recently published a report, “Public Engagement in Marin,” for which responses from Marin’s 12 cities are due by Sept. 26.
Accountability and transparency are the life blood of good governance and our grand jury should be applauded for their efforts.
While advocating for a more responsive government, the grand jury is quick to point out that “Public Engagement is a two-way street, requiring vigilance on the part of the public as well as the agencies who serve them.”
Access to public records is a critical component in this civic partnership. The California Public Records Act provides government agencies with both the time (24 days) and latitude they need to fulfill the public’s requests.
In a test of the act, I recently filed seven records requests (following a format suggested by San Rafael’s First Amendment Coalition) over two months with the Marin Telecommunications Agency. All requests followed days after attending MTA board meetings and were germane to agenda items.
The MTA failed to meet their statutory duty in all seven instances and is now 45 days past the 24-day response window on two requests, and more than 30 days past due on two more.
Unfortunately, there is no penalty for breaking this law and thus no incentive to comply — hence the need for an assertive civil grand jury to continue nudging our elected officials in the direction of open government.
September 13, 2017
Marin Independent Journal
By Bruce Vogen, San Anselmo

[San Diego County] Imperial Beach welcomes LimeBike tentatively

"Who takes care of that situation, if they're blocking sidewalks?"

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
As other beach areas shed their bikesharing stations, with 15 to be removed this week, Imperial Beach is paving ground for the new wave; dockless.
On September 6, the Imperial Beach City Council passed a resolution giving the green light to LimeBike, a San Mateo startup that will bring a fleet of 250 free-range cruisers.
A six-month trial will help the city figure out things like where to add more bike racks, said assistant city manager Steve Dush, comparing it to the way colleges may put in sidewalks once a path is established.
"We're trying to be smart about it because we don't know where they're all going to go,” said Dush.
Poor planning is one reason bikesharing has run into potholes in San Diego, which partnered with DecoBike to roll out the carbon-free transportation network in 2015. Bikesharing is a key part of the city's climate action plan, making it easy to rent a bike from an unattended kiosk and return it to any station with an open dock. But not long after the program launched, a county grand jury report found it faltering.
DecoBike was failing to deliver the "last mile" promise that brought them here in the first place. The kiosks were in the wrong places, not linked to transit stops, too wide for some beach streets, and resisted by transit officials in tourist areas like Balboa Park.
"If DecoBike cannot site kiosks where they will further the program’s planning and financial goals, it will fail," the report predicted. Now, many of the stations are being relocated to downtown and other areas closer to mass transit. With LimeBike, the problem of where to put kiosks comes down to racks that are easier to move. Users will help decide the best locations as the city receives monthly data from the company showing where the bikes are congregating.
"Bikes will be staged where bikes would normally go," Dush said. They'll likely be around bus stations, places of employment, hotels, and bike paths. "They'll be going outside our city limits as well." The bikes rent for $1 for each half-hour; can be rented any time, day or night; are found and unlocked via a smartphone app; and can be left anywhere. Their ease of drop-off has also been a glitch in the Uber-style bikesharing company, which is now operating in several cities.
Unlike DecoBike, the program is no cost to the city, but in some places, headaches have followed.
What if people leave them all over?, asked councilmember Ed Spriggs. Nothing prevents riders from just putting down a kickstand, locking up and leaving bikes on streets or lawns, wherever the trip ends, he noted. "Who takes care of that situation, if they're blocking sidewalks?"
In China, which helped make dockless bikes popular, that's exactly what happened, leaving people in an uproar over bikes piling up in business entryways and on sidewalks. "You leave it where you normally would leave a bike," Dush said.
The city's agreement, which can be terminated after six months, says the bikes can't block sidewalks. If they do, a regional coordinator will be notified and they'll be picked up. Colin McMahon, who is setting up LimeBike's program in San Diego, told the council the company will hire a local ground crew, with service requests usually handled within an hour. The bikes have GPS tracking, he said, so they can see who had it last and weed out the bad riders.
Another complaint about far-flung bikeshare companies is that they're competing against local bike shops. But no one at the meeting knew of any shops that might be harmed. The new bike shop at Bikeway Village doesn't do rentals, Dush said.
Councilmember Robert Patton said some San Diego beach towns want to be rid of Florida-based DecoBike because it hurts local businesses. "We're just the opposite." LimeBike is coming to a town without bike shops or rentals. "They're here first. I would want to make sure that if a bike shop does come in, they can't say, ‘Let's get rid of LimeBike because they're hurting our business.'"
September 11, 2017
San Diego Reader
By Sheila Pell

[San Bernardino County] By March, Supervisors vow study on High Desert county hospital with trauma center

San Bernardino County officials will analyze within the next six months the feasibility of constructing a county hospital with a trauma center in the High Desert.
It was only one of six recommendations made by the civil Grand Jury in late June in response to a shortage of emergency room beds and hospital overcrowding in this region, but it was the most striking due to the enormity of such an undertaking, likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
In a proposed response to the jury’s report expected to be approved by county Supervisors on Tuesday, the officials, acting in their capacity as the governing board of the Inland Counties Emergency Management Agency, say research is required.
“This recommendation requires further analysis, specifically a discussion involving the various stakeholders on the costs, feasibility and various possible approaches to addressing the concerns upon which the recommendation is based,” the Supervisors’ response said.
The analysis, it continued, will take place within six months of Tuesday, meaning by no later than mid-March.
In a conversation following the Grand Jury report’s release, Supervisors Chairman Robert Lovingood, who represents the Victor Valley, described a county hospital as recommended by the jury, similar to that of Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, as “a priority.”
“I think it’s absolutely on,” he told the Daily Press at the time. “The critical issue is going to be funding. If you look into the future, the desert’s going to continue to grow and (a hospital is) going to be just one of the things to put on the board.”
The need was underscored by jurors, who concluded that the shortage of emergency department beds leads to hospital and ER overcrowding and hospital bed delays — the time between arrival of an ambulance at an ER and the ER receiving the patient. Momentum for such a hospital, however, has been historically slow-moving because of funding considerations.
The Grand Jury’s investigation came on the heels of a series of Daily Press stories in 2015 and earlier this year about chronic issues with bed delays and ambulance response times.
This newspaper’s pieces ultimately highlighted the discord between the San Bernardino County Fire Department’s union and ambulance company American Medical Response in whittling the issue to its core.
Supervisors vowed to further analyze all Jury recommendations and agreed with every finding, suggesting issues that have been raised are being taken seriously.
Supervisors concurred, among other things, that demands on the 911 system were influencing the need for a re-evaluation of the EMS system; bed delays were directly affecting the safety of patients; there is a shortage of ER beds here; and coordination is lacking among the three High Desert hospitals, AMR and County Fire with respect to overcrowding.
Officials also acknowledged that the 911 system was being misused on a regular basis, overloading dispatch and decreasing the availability of ambulances.
“Public education on the proper use of the 911, including alternatives for those who believe they need emergency assistance, is necessary,” Supervisors said in their response, adding that enhanced 911 call screening “is worthy of consideration.”
September 11, 2017
Daily Press
By Shea Johnson

[Santa Cruz County] Union Leaders Question Santa Cruz Metro CEO’s Salary Increase

Transit district responds to questions about compensation and a grand jury report

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report on Metro.
A swarm of community members, most of them bus drivers, crowded into the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District room for a heated bus transit board meeting on Aug. 25. They filled every seat, wrapped around the room, and spilled out into the lobby, about half of them wearing shirts that read “Purple is the New Black,” a reference to the colors of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
The union workers had shown up to protest a salary increase for Metro CEO Alex Clifford of 10 percent, to $213,000 annually.
“The CEO, in negotiating this agreement, has put himself first, before all other members of this agency,” said Olivia Martinez, internal organizer for SEIU, Local 521, during the public comment period.
She noted that Metro workers and the SEIU had campaigned hard with agency leaders to help pass Measure D, Santa Cruz County’s 30-year transportation sales tax initiative that will provide $3 million per year to Metro. The measure’s victory in November of 2016 was the difference between a proposed 30 percent cut in service and the 12 percent cut in service that the board ended up approving—still not a strong enough financial situation for them to be putting cash toward the top of the Metro totem pole, Martinez argued.
One board member after another deflected the criticisms, noting that this was not, in fact, a raise, but rather what’s called a “step increase,” built into Clifford’s contract, to get approved when an employee has done a “satisfactory” job. Board Chair Jimmy Dutra said the board had step increases for union employees before it at that same meeting, and it wouldn’t think about denying those. Board member Mike Rotkin said that the board has never denied anyone at Metro a step increase since he first began serving on it in 1979.
The explanations may have quieted the grumblings in the room, but it didn’t eliminate them.
“I wish my step increase was an extra 17 grand,” said Metro driver Brandon Freeman, as he stood outside the crowded meeting room, turned toward his friends packed in behind him.
For him, each step increase was only in the 2 or 3 percent range. And unlike Clifford, he won’t be getting any more, because drivers top out after they reach their sixth increase.
Later, as members gathered around outside the meeting room doors, Martinez clarified that they weren’t criticizing the step increase itself, but rather the way it was handled.
The problem, she tells GT, is that the board unanimously awarded Clifford two simultaneous step increases in one motion, and also put the CEO on a brand new schedule that starts him over at step one—so that he’s at the first stage of six salary increases over the next five years. She feels the increases were all done under the table, in an attempt to avoid public scrutiny.
Clifford’s salary, she says, is out of step with what CEOs of other transportation districts make and also with that of Clifford’s predecessor, Les White, who retired in 2014.
Dutra and Rotkin say that the board granted Clifford two step increases at one time partly because the CEO had foregone last year’s step increase, given the financial tension Metro was in ahead of November’s tightly contested Measure D vote. Rotkin, a five-time former Santa Cruz mayor, says the board would have had no justification for denying an increase to Clifford because “he did a good job” navigating financially uncertain times—closer to “extraordinary,” really, Rotkin says—hence the extra step.
The board had Clifford’s performance evaluation at its June meeting, when it awarded him the increases in closed session, as noted on the agenda, although the agenda did not specifically mention anything about compensation. Dutra notes that a member of the public did show up to speak about Clifford’s evaluation at that June meeting—Metro driver Eduardo Montesino, who was the only person to do so.
Montesino, a former Watsonville mayor, spoke again at the August meeting to say that he wished Clifford’s salary increase, although not necessarily unwarranted, could have been handled with more transparency.
The transit district has faced other recent criticisms as well, most notably from a grand jury report titled “The Bus Stops Here,” which criticized Metro for its fiscal management, service cuts and failures to explore future opportunities and partnerships. The board and Clifford both rejected much of the report in separate responses, showing that it incorrectly claimed Metro was headed for a fiscal cliff, when it in fact has balanced its budget. And some of the grand jury’s suggestions, they argue, are too expensive to be worth the investment.
When it comes to compensation, Rotkin acknowledges that Clifford is making much more money than White did, but says that White made more than his predecessor did, too. Rotkin—a union organizer himself for the American Federation of Teachers—says that talented, experienced CEOs are difficult to come by, and hiring a new one can be expensive. At the same time, Rotkin explains that Metro leaders also keep adding on additional step increases—as they did earlier this summer, when extending Clifford’s contract—to avoid a situation where their CEO is asking himself, “Where else can I go?”
At the end of the day, Clifford is employed “at will” by the board, unlike other Metro workers.
“You want to keep him around for a few years,” Rotkin says. “But at the same time, if he did anything seriously wrong, the board could fire him at the next meeting.”
September 6, 2017
Good Times
By Jacob Pierce

[Yolo County] Trustees to review plan to upgrade school facilities

The Davis school board will hear an update on the school district’s developing 21st-Century Learning Facilities Plan, and review the district’s response to recent school-safety recommendations by the Yolo County Grand Jury, when the trustees meet at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Community Chambers at Davis City Hall, 23 Russell Blvd.
The majority of the district’s classrooms date from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s — before personal computers, smartphones, the internet and other technologies that are now common in everyday life. In May, the school board approved preparation of a 21st-Century Learning Facilities Plan, with an eye toward developing strategies to “optimize interior instructional spaces to increase learning and innovation.”
The developing plan also looks to “enhance exterior spaces for instructional purposes, including (school) gardens and athletics, to optimize learning and school connectedness.” And the plan seeks to “create exceptional interior and exterior communal spaces” where students can gather.
As of late Tuesday afternoon, the backup material for the facilities update presentation had not been posted on the school district’s website, so further details cannot be described.
But the presentation comes at a time when the school district is gearing up to put a facilities bond measure before local voters in November 2018. The last such bond measure election was in May 2000, when voters approved funding for construction of Montgomery Elementary, Korematsu Elementary, Harper Junior High and the Instructional Performing Arts Building at Davis High School, as well as modernization of many classrooms, school bathrooms and other facilities at older schools.
The measure was approved by 85.5 percent of voters, with only 14.4 percent voting no.
 On the consent agenda Thursday, the school board also will review a response by Davis Superintendent John Bowes to the recommendations made by the Yolo County Grand Jury in July regarding school-safety measures in the county.
In a letter, Bowes notes that the Davis school district is already in compliance with, or working on, several of the grand jury’s recommendations.
However, he says the Davis school district disagrees with some grand jury recommendations.
The grand jury report noted that access to some Yolo County schools is “not restricted by fencing” — with locked gates — entirely enclosing the campus. “Public walkways/bike paths run directly through some campuses. Gates at some campuses are not secured during school hours,” the grand jury noted.
Bowed responded that “although the (Davis) district acknowledges its campuses’ proximity to public bike trails and city parks, it has implemented adequate policies and continues to work closely with local law enforcement agencies to maintain security during school hours. …
“The lack of (100 percent) perimeter fencing around some district campuses is consistent with the purposes provided in the Civic Center Act, which requires the district to make school facilities and grounds available to citizens and community groups after hours. While the district prioritizes school safety … it must also balance such concerns with valid community interests. The (district’s) safety policies … reflect that assessment.”
Thursday’s school board meeting will be carried live on Davis cable Channel 17 and as streaming video by Davis Media Access.
September 6, 2017
The Davis Enterprise
By Jeff Hudson

[Napa County] Grand Jury report pointed the way

Recently, the Alliance for Responsible Governance and the Napa County Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director have each published letters regarding the regulation and approval of wineries in Napa County. Both letters have selectively chosen bits and pieces from the 2014-2015 Napa County Grand Jury Final Report titled “Are Napa County wineries following the rules?”
That report, dated May 12, 2015, focused attention on winery growth and regulation, a subject that has attracted increasing interest and discussion ever since. For clarity, here are two relevant paragraphs from the Summary of the Report verbatim.
“The investigation revealed that only 20 wineries are audited each year out of the approximately 467 wineries in the Napa County winery database. In the audits of 2011-2013 from 30% to 40% of the wineries audited were not in compliance for one or more requirements of their permits. The audits are limited in scope and all conditions specified by the use permits are not reviewed. This coupled with the relatively small number of wineries audited may not give a full picture of compliance.”
“The Grand Jury urges that the number and scope of the audits be increased to give a broader indication of compliance with the WDO even though this may require more code enforcement staff than currently employed. The identifications of the wineries that are audited are not released. The Grand Jury also urges that the names of non-compliant wineries be released to give greater transparency to the process and to raise public awareness.”
The reports of the Grand Jury speak for themselves. Those of us who served on the Grand Jury, and are responsible for the report, hope it has been of service in fostering the ongoing public discussion regarding winery growth, regulation and its effects on Napa County quality of life.
September 6, 2017
Napa Valley Register
By Ross Workman, Foreperson, 2014-15 Napa County Grand Jury

Thursday, September 7, 2017

[San Diego County] San Diego defends city policies on surplus land and affordable housing

Blog note: this article references two grand jury reports: one in 2017, the other in 2015.
Faced with growing calls to free up city-owned land for much-needed affordable housing, San Diego officials last week reported they had taken a closer look at how they comply with a state law meant to encourage low-income projects on city property. They didn’t find anything required changing.
A draft document released Friday says the city already follows the California Surplus Land Act, which requires cities and counties to tell other local agencies and interested developers when it plans to sell a property.
That statute also says that future low-income housing construction should be prioritized in making decisions on who to sell to.
The San Diego Union-Tribune in February reported that low-income housing developers had not been clued in on such land sales for at least the past decade. Property records show only one of the dozens of surplus city parcels put up for sale or lease since 2007 has been turned into affordable homes.
Four months later, members of a civil grand jury asked the city to examine how it tells developers about unused properties in an effort to ensure that those trying to build affordable housing have state-mandated access to the parcels.
The city’s 14-page response reassures grand jurors that officials provide notice of city-owned land sales to all “housing sponsors” who put in a written request to be told about the listings. It says they also post property listings online and inform commercial real estate brokers, as well as community planning groups, about the parcels.
It’s not clear what new steps, if any, were considered to make sure affordable housing developers are kept in the loop. Andrea Tevlin — the city’s Independent Budget Analyst and the official responsible for approving last week’s grand jury response — said an upcoming internal review could result in revisions to existing land sale notification practices. She said she could not yet provide further details on the scope of that review.
Friday’s report says San Diego has also adopted other recommendations made by grand jurors in June, including those meant to increase transparency and ensure compliance with city affordable housing development rules.
The city in 2015 said it needed more time to analyze a grand jury proposal to address a shortage of public restrooms downtown. The lack of such facilities has since been linked to an ongoing hepatitis A outbreak that has killed 15 people and sickened 350 others.
San Diego’s latest grand jury response is scheduled for a Sept. 13 hearing in front of the city’s select committee on homelessness.
September 6, 2017
The San Diego Union-Tribune
By James DeHaven

Tuolumne County Supes Concede To Pay Raises

Sonora, CA – In a move that two Tuolumne County supervisors described as resisting the urge to keep kicking the can down the road the board voted 4-1 today to set raises for themselves in motion.
The topic was back on the agenda following County Administrator Craig Pedro’s review at the Aug. 23 meeting of a evaluative response from the County Grand Jury – solicited through a supervisors’ query last year – of the best method for adjusting board salaries in the future. A salary survey median study run in 2015 determined that the board pay came in at nearly 32 percent below the market.
The Grand Jury recommended that that the supervisors receive a pay raise equal to those negotiated with all county bargaining groups, which would establish a consistent and stable process. So, the board moved 3-1 at that point to take action towards implementing such an ordinance before the end of the year.
Pedro presented two ordinance options that would comply with the methodology and allow for the supervisors to be paid approximately 15 percent below the survey median determined back in December 2015. The first one provided for an immediate implementation of a pay increase with two more respectively occurring in July 2018 and 2019. In it, the board salaries would adjust from $39,814.14 per year to $47,973.12, tentatively effective Nov. 26; in July 2018 the salaries would increase to $50,426.48 per year and a year later edge up to $51,958.40.
The alternative, presented as Option B, was ultimately preferred and chosen by the board because it would create less of a fiscal impact to the county. It delays implementation of the raises until July 2018, when each supervisor’s salary would rise to $50,426.48 per year; followed by another raise in July 2019 to $51,958.30.
While all of the supervisors indicated an aversion and sense of vulnerability and bad public optics over voting themselves a salary raise, District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce was the sole holdout in the final vote. Among the comments he made, he called himself a risk-taker and knucklehead for not even realizing when he first ran for the office that the position was a paid one. However, he quickly added, “I like it being a sacrifice — that I am underpaid and sacrificing something to be here. If it was just a job I would have quit a long time ago.”
The rest of the board opined that their vote for the pay increase was to ensure that those running for and potentially holding the office in the years ahead would be able to afford to be there without having to be well-off retirees with pensions who were also collecting Social Security.
District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer maintained, “We were elected to make those hard votes and I know it will not resonate with some of the constituents but it is the responsible thing to do for the future of this county.” He further shared that he was probably using up to a quarter of his salary to fund his related traveling and business expenses. District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt stated it was not about the “old guys” but the next generation.
District 4 Supervisor John Gray echoed in kind, commenting, “We do this job because our hearts are in it…a lot of people out there have the hearts and that is not enough for them.”
Board Chair and District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan noted that without her family financially behind her there was no way she could serve, adding that after extended conversations with her constituents she realized that they overwhelmingly supported the raise and realized the extended hours and energy put in by the board members to effectively do their jobs right.
September 5, 2017
By Toni James

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

[Santa Cruz County] Santa Cruz Metro pushes back against critical grand jury report

SANTA CRUZ >> Santa Cruz Metro’s board and CEO fired back against a grand jury report critical of the transportation body’s business practices and plans for growth.
The report, released in late June from the Santa Cruz Grand Jury, outlined a long list of items that metro needs to improve upon. Among the chief complaints were Metro’s decision to dip into reserve funding to maintain services, the unfulfilled marketing manager position and the need to find other sources of funding.
Following procedures, Metro’s CEO and board filed separate responses to the report, which were released on Aug. 31..
When it was released, Metro CEO Alex Clifford contended the report did not capture the scope of the governing body’s efforts to get back on its feet following years of digging into its reserves.
“I am pleased that their review found no waste, fraud or fiscal abuse,” Clifford wrote in an email to the Sentinel. “Unfortunately, none of the Grand Jury members were ‘transit experts’, and although they clearly tried to learn as much as possible about transit, transit is a complicated business and the Grand Jury members made mistakes in their report.” While there were some spots where Metro and the grand jury agreed, the responses largely contended the grand jury was wrong in its assessment.
One of those chief disagreements were in Metro’s management of funding. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the transportation body regularly dug into its $25 million of reserves to maintain services. The grand jury wrote the practice is not sustainable and the report directed Metro to look into more grant writing efforts for funding.
“Metro grant writing has been insufficient and ineffective,” the grand jury wrote.
The board responded by saying measures were already in place, pointing to funding from Measure D andSenate Bill 1, both of which are expected to contribute funds.
“Metro has been and plans to continue to seek additional funding sources,” the board wrote in its response.
Clifford, in his separate response, justified the board’s decision to dig into its financial reserves in the aftermath of the recession.
“The Board can choose to use its reserve for a rainy day or for capital expenditures. The Board chose to use its reserves to cover the rainy day impacts of the recession on bus operations. Unfortunately, the rainy day was longer than a day,” Clifford wrote.
Another critical point from the grand jury report was over metro’s lack of a marketing manager. It was recommended Metro fill the position to identify partnerships and revenue opportunities. The board and Clifford agreed with the finding and gave a broad timeline for when the position would be filled.
The board wrote that Clifford would revisit hiring for the position within the next two years.
With Metro’s response, the matter is considered closed, Clifford said.
As far as the future, the board is focused on funding, replacing its aging fleet of vehicles and staying reliable as the transportation landscape changes, according to board chairperson Jimmy Dutra said
“We’re just really trying to make Metro move forward with the times,” he said. “We want to stay relevant. Because of the lack of funding we’ve had for so many years, we’ve really been struggling.”
September 3, 2017
Santa Cruz Sentinel
By Calvin Men

[Fresno County] Police say teen ran over the boy. Trial will probe whether school district is to blame

Blog note: this article references a 2014-15 grand jury report and indicates that its findings will be discussed in the trial.
On a foggy January morning two years ago, 9-year-old Diego Estrada was killed on his way to school in Parlier Unified School District when he was run over by a pickup driven by an unlicensed teen driver.
At the time of the accident, Parlier Unified Superintendent Gerardo Alvarez called it “a freak accident.”
Parlier police said a 17-year-old driver lost control of a pickup, jumped onto the sidewalk and then struck Diego, his 16-year-old sister and a friend. Diego died at the scene of the Jan. 29, 2015, collision.
But in a civil trial that begins Tuesday in Fresno County Superior Court, Parlier Unified will be blamed for Diego’s death. The reason: district administrators wanted students to go to school, even on densely foggy days, to maximize funding that’s based on attendance, said Fresno attorneys Nicholas “Butch” Wagner and Angela Martinez, who represent Diego’s family.
The district’s bus and attendance policies, Wagner and Martinez contend, forced Diego and other students to walk to school on foggy days even when school buses were grounded. They said the school district’s bus and attendance policies placed Diego and other children in an unsafe situation that led to him being struck by a pickup and killed.
Fresno attorney Daniel Wainwright, who is defending Parlier Unified, however, said the teen driver, identified in court documents as Jesus Maciel, is 100 percent liable. “Liability is adamantly disputed by PUSD,” Wainwright said in court papers. “The District in no way caused the subject accident and is furthermore immuned from liability.”
In the past few years, Parlier Unified has been in news for the wrong reasons. In January, Superintendent Edward Lucero was placed on administrative leave. Lucero stepped in for Alvarez, who was put on leave in 2015 after a Fresno County grand jury report found the district had misused millions of dollars. (Michael Berg is currently the interim superintendent.)
A state audit of Parlier Unified in May 2016 found that district officials had poor financial bookkeeping and record-keeping practices, and may have engaged in fraud and misappropriation of funds. In addition, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office issued a search warrant for financial and business records at Parlier Unified headquarters in last November, citing a potential criminal investigation.
A key witness in the trial will be Juan Sandoval, who was Parlier Unified’s assistant superintendent before Alvarez fired him in December 2014.
In a court declaration, Sandoval, who is now the superintendent of Raisin City Unified School District, says he was fired because he refused to engage in illegal conduct at Parlier Unified. In January, Parlier Unified agreed to pay Sandoval $350,000 to settle his lawsuit in connection with his employment and termination, court records say.
The District in no way caused the subject accident and is furthermore immuned from liability.
Parlier Unified’s attorney Daniel Wainwright
Sandoval says in his declaration that Alvarez wanted children to attend school on foggy days because district funding is based on average daily attendance, known as ADA. Sandoval said he saw Alvarez telling an administrator: “Do whatever you have to do to have over 98 percent attendance.”
“I believe that the parents of PUSD were pressured and urged to send their children and young adults to class regardless of the foggy day schedule,” his declaration says.
Diego, a fourth-grader, attended Brletic Elementary School, which is on the grounds of Parlier High. He was killed about a mile from school. His family said he loved school and sports and wanted to be a teacher.
His family is seeking damages for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress. They are also seeking damages for Diego’s sister, Zujey Ramirez, who was also injured by the pickup.
Though Maciel is named as a defendant, Wagner said, Parlier is primary responsible for Diego’s death because its foggy day rules also forced Maciel to take his family’s pickup to Parlier High School. According to Wagner, Maciel went to the bus stop, but the school bus never showed up because of the fog.
The collision happened around 9:30 a.m. at Tuolumne Street and Madsen Avenue near Ben Benavidez Elementary School.
Diego Estrada, 9, was killed around 9:30 a.m. Jan. 29, 2015, at Tuolumne Street and Madsen Avenue in Parlier.
Parlier police Sgt. Thomas Rodriguez said the driver was headed east on Tuolumne when he stopped for a traffic sign at Madsen. He then turned left, but lost control of the truck, hitting a wall and then Diego and his sister and another student, Rodriguez said. Police did not release the driver's name, citing his age, but police have said he was charged in juvenile court with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.
Rodriguez said fog was a factor, but “it was primarily the wet roadway” that contributed to the crash. There was no signs of drugs or alcohol being involved, he said.
Students who live more than a mile from school are provided bus transportation by Parlier Unified. On the day of the accident, Wagner said, Diego and his sister were supposed to take the bus but had to walk to school because the buses weren’t running due to the fog. Sandoval said in his declaration that students who miss school on foggy days are subject to being marked “unexcused.”
Wagner said a key piece of evidence is a letter Alvarez sent to parents a day after Diego was killed, telling them that their students would not be penalized for being tardy or absent because of the fog. He said the letter was the first time the superintendent had put in writing that parents could keep their children at home on foggy days. “He wrote it to cover his tracks,” Wagner said.
Wagner has taken depositions from the last three Parlier Unified superintendents, including Alvarez. “All three superintendents acknowledge that until Jan. 30, 2015, the day after Diego was killed, Parlier Unified failed to advise students and their parents that students did not have to attend school during a foggy day schedule and would not be penalized for failing to attend school on a foggy day schedule,” Wagner said in court documents.
But Wainwright said: “It was the PUSD’s policy at the time of the incident that no penalties would be imposed for being late (or absent) when foggy days has been declared.” Though the policy was not memorialized in writing, Wainwright said, “there was never any confusion” from parents or students because the policy “was common knowledge.”
A key witness will be Juan Sandoval, a former assistant superintendent who received a $350,000 settlement this year from Parlier Unified after he was fired in December 2014.
To settle the dispute, Wagner said, parents and students will be testifying in the trial about their understanding of the district policy on foggy days.
Wainwright said Parlier Unified can’t be liable because Diego and his sister were not on school property when he was killed and she was injured. For Diego’s family to prevail, Wainwright said, the family has to prove Diego and his sister were under the direct supervision of the school officials when the accident happened. The family won’t prevail, Wainwright said, because the district had canceled buses that day.
But Wagner said, “The students were led to believe by Parlier Unified officials that they had to go to school on foggy days even if buses were not running.” Wagner said Parlier Unified knew or should have known that “if dense fog is too dangerous for buses, then it’s too dangerous for kids to walk to school.”
Instead of calling off school due to the fog, or telling students they didn’t have to go to school when the buses aren’t running, Wagner said, Parlier Unified coerced its students to go to school in order to get ADA money. The school district’s bus and attendance policies placed Diego and other children in an unsafe situation that led to him being struck by a pickup and killed, he said.
At the time of Diego’s death, Wagner said, the Fresno County grand jury was investigating Alvarez and the Parlier Unified school board for misappropriation of funds. The 2014-2015 grand jury report specifically criticizes Alvarez and the school board for having “done little to help improve student success and much to benefit administrators and trustees financially.”
Since June 2013, Parlier Unified administrators and trustees have traveled throughout the United States, charging thousands of dollars for lavish restaurant meals, and giving themselves raises and running up big legal bills, the report says.
Wagner said the grand jury reports findings will be discussed in the trial. “It’s the reason Alvarez was pushing for high students attendance, even on foggy days, to maximize ADA money,” Wagner said.
September 3, 2017
The Fresno Bee
By Pablo Lopez