Monday, December 9, 2019

[San Diego County] Big changes may be coming to how San Diego gathers neighborhood input

More than 30 policy changes recommended for community planning groups

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
San Diego’s four dozen community planning groups, which provide crucial input to the City Council before key votes, would be governed by more than 30 new rules and policies if recent recommendations by city officials are approved.
Supporters say that input from neighborhood leaders on housing projects and new city policies would become more robust, organized and demographically diverse under the series of recommendations.
The proposed changes were sparked by complaints from the city auditor and the county grand jury that the planning groups are unprofessional, unpredictable and not adequately transparent.
The groups also have been criticized for seeking to block housing projects too aggressively and for having stagnant membership that doesn’t accurately reflect the neighborhoods they represent.
The rule changes aim to include more women, minorities and renters on the groups. The city would begin conducting demographic studies.
The city also would require each board to have at least one renter under the changes, and there would be stronger term limits for the groups.
“The diverse makeup of the city should be reflected at all levels of our government,” said Maya Rosas of nonprofit Circulate San Diego, which proposed many of the changes.
The changes also aim to accelerate approval of housing projects by making the practices of the groups more standardized and more professional.
For example, groups would be required to make all environmental comments about a proposed housing project by the same deadline as the public, and land-use proposals would be handled early in meetings instead of forcing developers and opponents to wait several hours.
Those proposed changes are prompted by developers lobbying for a more transparent process, said Rammy Cortez, a local developer who served on a task force that helped craft the recommendations for the neighborhood planning groups.
“None of them are consistent across the board in how they treat projects, when those projects are heard, or how they’re reported,” Cortez said.
Lori Pfeiler, leader of a housing advocacy group called Housing You Matters, said slow approvals from planning groups can increase housing costs and discourage construction.
“The cost of housing relates directly to how long it takes to get through the process,” she said.
The City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee last week endorsed 31 changes to planning group policies recommended by the task force but voted against a proposal to require that the groups’ meetings be recorded on audio or video.
Councilman Scott Sherman, who helped spearhead the proposals, said he thought recordings would help clear up any confusion about a group’s sentiments.
But other members of the committee said that requirement would be too aggressive.
“I do think it’s onerous,” Councilwoman Dr. Jennifer Campbell said. “Reading the minutes generally gives you the idea of what was going on at the meeting.”
The recommendations would also create penalties for groups that violate the state’s open meetings law, require a city audit of the groups every five years and require groups to publicize their elections and have stronger term-limit policies.
Vicki Granowitz, a member of the San Diego Planning Commission who led the North Park Community Planning Group for many years, said it’s crucial to have penalties for violating the open meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.
“Right now, nothing happens,” she said. “We have to make sure everybody follows the rules so it doesn’t taint the entire community planning group system.”
The Community Planners Committee, an umbrella panel for the city’s planning groups, endorsed many of the proposed changes. But the group’s chairman, Wally Wulfeck, warned city leaders to be careful.
“Every group has different concerns about their local community,” he said. “A one-size-fits-all approach to regulating all of these is just not going to work.”
The recommendations will be forwarded to the full City Council, which could direct City Attorney Mara Elliott to craft them into a new policy proposal.
December 8, 2019
The San Diego Union-Tribune
By David Garrick

[Alameda County] Pay your own legal fees: More fallout from East Bay city manager dispute

Alameda will not reimburse elected officials who knowingly violate city charter

ALAMEDA — As part of the fallout from a scandal that got two City Council members in hot water for allegedly trying to influence the hiring of a fire chief, Alameda will prohibit council members or city employees from being reimbursed for legal costs if they violate the city charter.
The new policy stems from an Alameda County Civil Grand Jury report that found Councilman Jim Oddie and Councilwoman Malia Vella violated the city charter by putting political pressure on then-city manager Jill Keimach as she was hiring a fire chief in 2017.
Keimach secretly recorded a phone call between herself and Oddie and Vella as evidence that they were trying to pressure her to hire a union-backed candidate for fire chief. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office cleared Keimach of any wrongdoing in making the recording.
Alameda’s charter says the city manager makes hiring decisions, not the council.
Both Oddie and Vella continue to deny wrongdoing and last year filed claims with the city to recoup roughly $90,000 each in legal bills incurred defending themselves against Keimach’s allegations.
Keimach said she was subjected to “unseemly” and “intense and unrelenting” pressure from Oddie and Vella in an October 2017 letter to the council, which prompted the city to commission an independent investigator and Oddie and Vella to secure legal help.
Oddie has since withdrawn his claim, and last month the City Council denied Vella’s claim, which also alleged she suffered from defamation and invasion of privacy over what the former city manager alleged.
“The city of Alameda is making an attempt to rectify past situations and to follow the grand jury’s recommendations,” Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said Tuesday, when the council voted 3-0 to adopt the policy. Both Oddie and Vella recused themselves from the council’s discussion and vote on Tuesday.
In addition to violations of the city charter, the new policy says a council member or city worker who knowingly commits a crime or violates a code of conduct connected with their city employment cannot receive legal fee reimbursements.
ella and Oddie reportedly wanted Keimach to pick Domenick Weaver — the candidate favored by the firefighters union — as head of the $33 million fire department. Instead, Keimach selected Edmond Rodriguez, then chief of the Salinas Fire Department, saying he was more qualified.
The interference by the two elected officials cost the city more than $1 million in investigation and legal fees, eroded morale among city employees and “damaged public trust in government at a time when such trust is so important,” the grand jury wrote in its final 2018-19 report.
As is its common practice, the grand jury did not name Oddie and Vella, though it was clearly referencing them based on previous reports by this news organization and others.
The grand jury stopped short of calling for their resignations and did not file an “accusation,” a legal charge that would start the process to remove an elected official from office for malfeasance.
The new reimbursement policy follows some of the recommendations in the grand jury’s report, which also included annual training for elected officials and senior city staff on ethics and governance, and creating a handbook on a code of conduct for council members.
City staff will bring draft policies based on those recommendations for the council to consider at its next meeting.
Keimach quit her position amid the controversy in May 2018 through a $945,000 separation agreement with the city.
December 6, 2019
The Mercury News and Milpitas Post
By Peter Hegarty, Bay Area News Group

[Santa Cruz County] Santa Cruz jail gets new body scanner, hopes to reduce drug smuggling

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report that recommended body scanning equipment to detect drugs being smuggled into the jail.
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office has a new tool that they believe will cut down on the amount of contraband being smuggled into the main jail on Front Street.
Body scanner machines are now being used, they are similar to what airport security are currently using, but this is being used on inmates who may be smuggling drugs or weapons into the main jail on their person.
More than 300 inmates housed at the Santa Cruz County jail are greeted with a pat down search and pass through a metal detector, all monitored by security cameras and correctional officers.
"And then on top of all that we now have the body scanner. It's a tool that's being used in conjunction of everything else that correctional officers are already doing," said Ashley Keehen, Pubic Information Officer with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office.
The Santa Cruz County Grand Jury report earlier this year recommended the Sheriff's Office "Research & Evaluate" body scanning equipment to detect drugs being smuggled into the jail.
They already were doing their research when the Board of Supervisors approved it.
"We got a report from the Grand Jury there have been a couple of incidents we needed to respond and I appreciate the Sheriff taking the leadership to getting the equipment he needs to keep the jail safe," said Santa Cruz County Supervisor, Ryan Coonerty.
The body scanner has only been in operation for the last two days and correctional officers have already recovered contraband.
One hundred correctional officers are going through the training process to learn how to use the body scan machine. Currently, the Sheriff's Office is leasing it with the intention of purchase, that cost is almost $175,000.
"It's just another layer to ensure the safety of everyone inside the jail not only our correctional officers but also inmates as well," said Keehen.
For security purposes we couldn't show you exactly how it scans but I can tell you it does provide an image of where a suspicious item may be located on the person without having them remove clothing.
The Sheriff's Office is also planning another tool to deter contraband: a detection dog that will be joining the correctional staff next year and will be trained to sniff out drugs.
December 5, 2019
KSBW 8 The Central Coast
By Phil Gomez

[Monterey County] Pacific Grove seeking public comment on proposed resort at American Tin Cannery site

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
From tin can factory to outlet mall, the American Tin Cannery in Pacific Grove has been morphing from one identity to another for over a century as economics and the Monterey Bay have changed. The latest proposed transformation into a resort hotel is finally underway and open to public comment after a false start a few years ago.
About a dozen residents turned up at an environmental impact report scoping meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 3, at the Pacific Grove Community Center for a chance to comment on plans to build 225 hotel rooms, 20,000 square feet of street-level retail, restaurants, meeting rooms and 304 valet parking spaces over 5.9 acres less than a block from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The proposal by CCS Pacific Grove Manager, LLC, part of the Southern California developer Comstock Homes, has been in the initial planning stages for over a year. The company delivered a set of plans to the city in June. An updated set of plans was presented in September, and a notice of preparation of an environmental impact report was announced on Nov. 6.
The city is accepting written public comments through Dec. 13, on what potential impacts should be addressed in the report, including: aesthetics; air quality and greenhouse gases; biological resources; cultural, tribal and historic resources; geology and soils; water; noise; transportation and others.
Residents expressed several concerns at Tuesday’s meeting, including what one called the "massive" size of the resort. As proposed, it would include two wings, one along Ocean View Boulevard and one just up the hill over what is now Sloat Avenue, significantly changing the look of the shoreline. (The city and CCS are in negotiations over Sloat Avenue between Dewey and Eardley, which would be removed if the plans are approved.) The resort would also impact the view from Central Avenue, and along side streets Eardley Avenue and Dewey Street.
“It doesn’t feel like P.G. to me, it doesn’t look like what P.G.’s character is and what is so attractive about P.G.,” said Lisa Ciani.
Ciani also expressed concern that noise from construction would negatively impact the harbor seals that use a nearby beach next to the Hopkins Marine Station to birth pups in early spring. Noise impacts on nearby neighbors, both during construction and once the resort is in operation, was also a concern of residents, as was traffic circulation.
The project will most likely be controversial among residents as it moves forward through the EIR process and later as the developer seeks approvals and permits. 
The last proposal to build the hotel known as Project Bella was mired in controversy from the beginning when it was announced in 2015 until the project fell apart a couple of years later. The city was left with around $100,000 in non-reimbursed expenses and complaints from residents about how city officials handled the project, a situation that became the focus of a Monterey County Civil Grand Jury investigation.
Written comments on the new proposal are being accepted by the lead agency contact, Rob Mullane, contract project planner for the city, either by mail or through email,
A draft EIR could be ready for public review as early as May, with a final EIR possibly ready around September or October and subsequent public hearings through the end of 2020.
December 5, 2019
Monterey County NOW
By Pam Marino

[Tulare County] Grand jury investigates Tulare Public Cemetery

Blog note: so much for secrecy.
The Tulare County Grand Jury sent two requests for financial information to the Tulare Public Cemetery District. The first request dated October 10 asked for information about delinquent accounts. The second letter dated October 25 requested detailed financial information from January 2017 to October 2019.
All information was due November 12, but because of the large amount requested an extension was granted. According to cemetery manager Leonor Castaneda, the request took over 100 hours of gathering and scanning.
All information was handed over to the grand jury on November 26.
A special board meeting was called on November 26 by board members Alberto Aguilar, Vicki Gilson and Carlene Ringius to get an update on the inquiry and attempt to resolve other unfinished cemetery business.
During the special meeting everyone claimed they had no idea who filed the complaint against the district or if the grand jury was just doing a random audit.
Gilson said she “was just as surprised as anybody” when the cemetery district received the inquiry and made a point of saying that it was looking into the previous cemetery board also.
Aguilar believed the inquiry sprang from the cemetery’s irregular financial reports. Aguilar and Gilson felt that there were many irregularities concerning the cemetery’s revolving fund, how employees were paid, and in the manner in which their pay was calculated. Aguilar stated that Castaneda repeatedly violated cemetery policy by calculating employee pay by taking an average over 12 months. The district policy states that pay be based on time cards, not averages.
Board Chair Xavier Avila disregarded Aguilar’s financial concerns, stating that Aguilar had a history of constantly seeing things that are not there. “He always comes up with goose eggs,” said Avila.
Aguilar strongly disagreed.
Avila said of the inquiry, “I believe the cemetery board is being falsely accused of violating rules for political reasons .”
He continued, “I believe this is a political smear and Alberto Aguilar and Vicky Gilson likely had a hand in the grand jury’s request .”
Unable to stay out of the fray, Tulare City Council member Carlton Jones chimed in on Facebook, “whats up X? I hear you’re under investigated by the Grand Jury. Is that true?”
Aguilar has filed complaints about the Tulare Public Cemetery District in the past, with the Tulare County District Attorney and the grand jury, but said he did not file the current complaint.
Aguilar said that all the information he has cited during meetings are public documents and that the “grand jury is just doing their job.”
Incomplete Records
The grand jury has requested such information as bank statements, employee pay rate, time cards, income statements from cemetery assets, tax returns, W-2s from January 2017 to October 2019.
Castaneda said that she compiled what she could but that the time cards from January through September 2017 were missing except for Jerry Ramos. Ramos was a former groundskeeper who threatened to sue the district for overtime pay earlier this year but settled for an undisclosed amount.
Castaneda blamed Gilson for taking all the personnel records to her house and losing the time cards. Gilson countered by saying that in the ensuing chaos of September 2017, when the old management secretly quit the district, she did take the records home for safe keeping. Gilson said she returned all the records to the cemetery vault soon after.
Former cemetery board member Phillip Deal confirmed that “chaos” was an understatement the month of September of 2017. He confirmed that he, and the then assistant manager, Christine Silva, saw the time cards in the vault after October 2017.
Gilson insinuated that Castaneda must have been the one to lose the time cards. But Avila believes that Gilson is trying to “cover up some things she did when she took over the office in 2017.” He said that Aguilar and Gilson have been verbally abusive to the office manager and other staff.
“I have told them many times to stop,” he said.
Since the special board meeting, grand jury member John Hobbs has demanded that Avila show up for an interview on December 16 at 9:30am.
Calling from a blocked number during work hours and not leaving a call back number, Hobbs’ message to Avila said, “I’m a bit perplexed as to why you did not answer the phone…..If I do not hear from you by Friday of this week I will proceed with a subpoena.”
On hearing the voice message, Avila hunted down Hobbs’ phone number, found it, and responded that he would be happy to sit for an interview. “I am very easy to get a hold of and will talk to anyone,” Avila said, clearly miffed by Hobbs’ tone.
A Bad Marriage
The mudslinging didn’t stop with the discussion of the grand jury inquiry. Gilson, Ringius and Aguilar voiced their displeasure that the November 28 (Thanksgiving) meeting had been canceled and not rescheduled, this despite the fact that there was so much unresolved business and that the district was being investigated by the grand jury.
Avila didn’t object to a special meeting but expressed his suspicions that the three board members called the meeting for the 26th to sabotage Castaneda’s efforts to get the information to the grand jury. He did not believe that there was anything pressing to discuss that couldn’t wait one week.
Frustration was evident with how glacially the cemetery’s business gets done, or not at all. Gilson and Aguilar recited a list of unresolved issues that have lingered for months, and even years, that need resolution now or by the end of the year.
Besides several other grievances, including no typed-up minutes since July, Gilson and Aguilar said the Tulare Cemetery’s vase policy to help reduce the mosquito population had not been posted, even though the board had declared at its August 29 meeting that this was “a matter of urgency” and had directed Castaneda to post the policy immediately.
Other issues were the fact that the cemetery’s website was not up and running and that the new software, Pontem, was not yet functional. Both of these items have been discussed for years and a cemetery website will be required by the state in 2020.
Aguilar announced at the meeting that he had received a subpoena from Bruce Greene, formerly the lawyer of Health Care Conglomerates Association. The former Tulare Hospital Board members and Greene are being sued by the Tulare Public Hospital District for not fulfilling their fiduciary duty. Aguilar said the same could happen to the cemetery board if it does not get its act together.
While several board members have complained that Castaneda is not competent to get the work done, Avila chalked up each concern as an opportunity for the board to attack and harass Castaneda. He also chastised Gilson for making disparaging remarks about Castaneda during an open meeting, saying any comments concerning personnel should be done in closed session.
Avila said that only a small fraction of Castaneda’s job is the work generated by the board of directors. The majority of her work is dealing with the public and grieving family members who many times are inconsolable or angry.
“Leonor is very good with the public and not many people could do what she does. She would be difficult to replace,” he said.
Still Managing to Go Forward
Despite the constant fighting, progress has been made at the cemetery. The vase policy to discourage mosquito breeding has been implemented for a few months and is posted in the editorial section of this issue of the Valley Voice. Signs regarding this policy will be posted on the cemetery grounds by time of publication.
The website will also be up and running by publication of this edition and the new software will be installed by January. In addition, it is agreed by all that the grounds look much better than before the new board and management took over.
The meeting, wherein was discussed many other issues such as security measures, the annual audit, and a vault policy, can be viewed on Caring Cause’s Facebook.
The next Tulare Public Cemetery Board meeting will be held at 1pm December 18 at the district office on Kern Street. This will be Ringius’ last meeting, as she has announced her retirement from the board. Anyone wanting to apply for Ringius’ seat can notify Tulare County Supervisor Pete Vander Poel.
December 4, 2019
Valley Voice
By Catherine Doe

[Monterey County] Pacific Grove hotel project reviews public comments

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
PACIFIC GROVE –The first step in a long process to breathe new life into the American Tin Cannery in Pacific Grove got off the ground Tuesday night when planners heard public comments about what should be contained in a key report needed before any shovel ever hits the ground for a new hotel.
The study, called an environmental impact report, is a state-mandated requirement for new construction of this size. The developer, El-Segundo-based Comstock Properties, is proposing a 225-room, two wing hotel on the 5.59 acres that will include 20,000 square feet of retail, a restaurant, lounge and meeting spaces, said Rob Mullane, the contract project planner during Tuesday’s meeting to begin soliciting comments on what elements should planners include in the impact report.
The project will be bordered by Ocean View Boulevard, Eardley Avenue and Central Avenue. The remaining side is bordered by homes.
The meeting, held at the Pacific Grove Community Center, saw roughly 20 people asking questions and suggesting elements to include in the scoping of the impact report. A report of this size could take up to a year to complete.
Concerns addressed in any impact report include aesthetics, biological resources such as plants and animals, air quality, geologic concerns such as fault lines, hazardous material, cultural or tribal protection, transportation and hydrology — mostly water availability and quality.
Mullane stressed that the scoping session was about receiving input on elements that should be contained in the environmental report and not a debate on the merits of the project itself.
Among the points raised by attendees was the use of story poles, those poles erected on construction sites often with orange netting to provide a sense of what effect the height of the project will have on surrounding views. But while story poles are required for residential construction they are not called for on commercial projects.
Another audience member asked whether there would be a water demand analysis to ensure the project would be in compliance with a court cease-and-desist order on pumping from the Carmel River basin. The consultants said such an analysis is being prepped by the developer.
Another person asked that construction noise be studied for the effects it would have on seals who pup on the narrow beach at Hopkins Marine Laboratories across the street from the project, noting that too much sound will flush seals away. The biological effect on seals will be a part of the environmental study.
Traffic and parking is another element that should be studied, another participant suggested. The consultants said that while traffic circulation will be an important part of the study, parking would be mitigated by a design calling for more than 300 parking spaces on-site, including 260 spaces that will be part of an underground garage.
The application for the project was submitted to the city in June after a lease agreement was hammered out between Comstock and the Cannery Row Co., owners of the property, said Debra Geiler, the head of entitlements for Comstock. She said Comstock determined that the site was underutilized and ideal for investment.
The Tin Cannery is currently home to roughly 20 small retail shops, far from its capacity.
Mike Zimmerman, chief operations officer for Cannery Row Co., told the Herald in June that there is no better place in Pacific Grove to put in a hotel.
“This is going to be great for Pacific Grove,” Zimmerman said. “It will give PG one of the finest hotels in Northern California and provide great financial benefits for the city of Pacific Grove for years to come.”
An earlier 160-room hotel project dubbed “Project Bella” came apart at the seams after launching in 2015 by developers Domaine Hospitality Partners. In February 2017 the permit for that project expired leaving the city of Pacific Grove in the lurch for more than $100,000 worth of expenses only partially recovered from the developers, according to a civil grand jury report issued in July of last year.
Up to the point of failure, the project had cost nearly $250,000 plus the cost of a $31,000 investigation. Domaine Hospitality reimbursed the city roughly $180,000 of that.
Pacific Grove was the subject of severe criticism in the report, accusing it of moving ahead “without proper due diligence,” the report read.
After the public scoping closes on Dec. 13 the consultants will begin assembling a draft environmental study, which will be circulated for 45 days requesting further comments.
December 4, 2019
Monterey County Herald
By Dennis L. Taylor

Sunday, December 8, 2019

[San Mateo County] State warns Florida’s elections websites could be target for hackers

Blog note: this Florida article references a San Mateo County Grand Jury report. Other media previously referenced this report. We posted them.
Florida’s top election official on Tuesday warned that attackers could attempt to disrupt elections without even breaking into the voting systems — by simply changing the results on election websites.
Secretary of State Laurel Lee told the governor’s Cybersecurity Task Force that Florida’s elections tabulation system is secure, but state and county elections websites “are far more vulnerable to being attacked or defaced and pose a very real threat, not of changing election results, but of undermining voter confidence.”
“If our website is defaced such that it reflects that the losing candidate won, and I have to go out the next morning and explain to the press and the public that the actual winner was the other candidate, we’ve lost critical public trust,’’ Lee told the group meeting at Florida International University in Miami.
To address that possibility, Lee said the department is “working very hard to secure those sites and stay on top of evolving threats and tactics to keep them secure.”
She offered few details but said the Department of State has established the Joint Election Security Initiative, also referred to as JESI, to work with and train the 67 county elections offices to identify any vulnerabilities in the election infrastructure.
But the threat of hackers hijacking social media, email accounts and websites is a looming concern that has been raised across the country as elections security comes under intense focus since Special Counsel Robert Mueller released the “Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election.”
On the same day the Mueller report was released, a civil grand jury in San Mateo County California, released a report outlining what it perceived were significant vulnerabilities in that county’s election security. The county had strong safeguards against voter fraud and manipulation of election results, the report concluded, but officials shared passwords and rarely used two-factor verification and other safeguards. Hackers could easily infiltrate the website, emails, or Facebook and Twitter pages to disrupt voter confidence in the election.
Lee is issuing a similar warning in Florida.
“If one of our adversaries can compromise a supporting system associated with the voting system, they can do significant damage,’’ she said. “This could include hijacking the elections website or social media page and creating misleading information about where and when to vote.”
After the Mueller report, the FBI said hackers sent spear-phishing emails to more than 120 email addresses at local elections offices around Florida. One phishing email, for example, was sent to Volusia County officials disguised as an email from VR Systems, a Tallahassee-based vendor that handled registration software for 52 counties. Volusia County officials said they did not open the attachments or click links that would have allowed the hackers access to their computers.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said hackers were in a position to manipulate voter registration data, although Gov. Ron DeSantis has since said the FBI told him that voting data had not been altered in 2016.
Lee said her office is attempting to deal with these potential threats through rigorous security training of local officials, conditioning them to recognize phishing emails, denial of service, or Trojan horses and instill good “cyber hygiene” into the culture.
“Many, if not most, of these vulnerabilities come from exploiting human behavior instead of an actual technical shortcoming,’’ Lee said.
“We refer to this part of our resiliency efforts as the human firewall,’’ she said. “As many an IT professional has said to me, sometimes to my dismay, you can invest millions in the latest software, assets, and firewalls, but a single employee who clicks the wrong link can undermine and expose your network.”
The task force asked Lee to outline what her agency is doing to be prepared for a potential cyberattack on Florida’s elections system.
Lee responded with a prepared speech, which she had previously given last month in Orlando to the annual meeting of one of the top lobbying groups in the state, the Associated Industries of Florida.
She described the five-person cyber team that is conducting a “thorough elections-specific assessment in every Florida county.”
When weaknesses and vulnerabilities are found, she said, state and county elections officials have “agreed to share critical incident information.’’
To guard against voting systems being hacked, Lee said the state relies on a paper ballot system because “you can’t hack paper.” The state also conducts logic and accuracy tests on all its hardware and software and the source code is “sent through an independent, federally certified test lab.”
When votes are scanned by the machines that tabulate the vote totals, they are “not connected to the Internet while they are tabulating ballots” and “at no point in the process is there any connectivity,” she said.
And once each polling site completes its tabulation, “the encrypted results are modemed up to the Division of Elections.”
It is there where things could go wrong if the website is hacked, Lee conceded.
Lee noted that while some counties “have an ample budget and large IT staff, others have significantly less” and so the state will provide a baseline level of support for those who need it.
“I’ve said many times, we will succeed or fail together and no county will be left alone to face a foreign adversary,’’ she said.
To that end, she said DeSantis is asking the Legislature to expand the five-member cybersecurity bureau at the Department of State by adding 10 full-time positions.
“We don’t pay much, but we can promise a very, very interesting opportunity,’’ she said.
Lieutenant Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, who chairs the task force, asked Lee what was the worst-case scenario used for their hypothetical “tabletop” exercise. Lee said they imagined a county’s election system being hacked and what might be needed to get the county’s system back in operation as quickly as possible.
One lesson learned from local governments faced with ransomware attacks, she said, is that communication early and quickly is key.
“If the threat is disclosed it equips nearby agencies to protect themselves from the threat spreading,’’ she said. If the local government notifies both state and federal authorities effectively, “we have the full complement of resources deployed.”
December 4, 2019
Miami Herald
By Mary Ellen Klas

[Contra Costa County] Opinion: Borenstein: The rotting of Contra Costa’s political moral fabric

After the cases of the district attorney, elections chief, assessor and two judges, it’s time to raise the bar

Blog note: this article references a grand jury accusation.
The integrity of Contra Costa’s elected officials has fallen to a new low.
In the past 2 1/2 years, the district attorney and the elections chief have left office after they were caught lining their pockets with campaign funds.
The county assessor faces trial after a Grand Jury accusation that he should be removed from office after creating a hostile environment for his workers.
And two Contra Costa judges have been kicked off the bench for inappropriate behavior.
It’s time for residents to speak up, at the ballot box and in public forums, to demand better. It’s time for those seeking or holding office to change, with official actions and personal behavior, the culture that has enabled such rotting of the political moral fabric.
Unfortunately, that’s not the reaction we’re seeing. A county supervisor looks to capitalize on the situation to spike her pension. The assessor facing trial seeks to run for yet another office. And the county judiciary, when presented with a case to help clean up the system, drags its feet.
This ethical decline began with District Attorney Mark Peterson, who in 2017 pleaded no contest to felony perjury stemming from his use of $66,372 of campaign funds for personal items such as meals at restaurants, gasoline, clothing, movie tickets, hotel rooms and cell phone bills.
As part of the plea deal, he was sentenced to three years’ probation, forced to resign his office and required to perform 250 hours of community service. Subsequently, as a convicted felon, he lost his license to practice law.
The case of Joe Canciamilla, the clerk-recorder who oversaw county elections, was similar, but worse. He abruptly resigned Oct. 31 after state investigators found he illegally spent $130,529 of campaign funds on a vacation in Asia, remodeling his Hawaii home and other personal expenses.
Canciamilla tried to cover it up by presenting false information, including altered bank records, to state auditors. Like Peterson, Canciamilla, also an attorney, should face criminal charges and disbarment.
The county Board of Supervisors in February will appoint someone to serve the remaining three years of Canciamilla’s term. One hopeful is Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, who is minimally qualified and temperamentally ill-suited for the job.
Her pitch: She plans to retire in 2023, so she would be a caretaker without political ambitions. By the way, the higher-paying clerk-recorder job would fatten her lifetime county pension by at least 56%.
Then there’s County Assessor Gus Kramer. It’s been nearly eight months since the county civil Grand Jury filed an accusation, a seldom-used process that triggers a trial on whether to remove a public official from office, alleging Kramer created a hostile work environment.
He told stories about conquests with women; made unwanted advances on a subordinate; talked about giving a sex toy to his niece; made crude comments about his sexual desires; and disparaged people of Mexican descent, according to the accusation.
County supervisors at first ignored employees’ concerns. Kramer says the allegations are part of some employees’ agenda against him.
Given the unusual case involving an elected official, the judiciary should move with alacrity. Instead, Judge Theresa Canepa and Judge Charles Burch have treated the accusation like any other case, allowing pre-trial motions to drag on for months. Burch finally set a tentative trial date of Jan. 27, which he seems prepared to delay if Kramer’s attorney files more motions.
Meanwhile, Kramer, facing a trial to remove him from one elected county office, is preparing to run for another. He has taken out papers for county supervisor in the March 3 election.
Then there are the Contra Costa judges removed from the bench.
The state Commission on Judicial Performance in November found that Judge John Laettner denied a criminal defendant due process by increasing her bail without a hearing or her presence in court, had conversations about cases without all attorneys present, and interacted with women in an “unwelcome, undignified, discourteous, and offensive” manner — including telling a deputy public defender she wasn’t spanked enough as a kid.
A year earlier, the commission permanently banned Judge Bruce Mills from the bench, the sixth discipline he had faced since 2001. Among the findings: Mills revoked a jailed man’s good behavior credits outside of a court hearing; had an improper conversation with the prosecutor in a drunken driving trial; and improperly interfered with a driving under the influence case involving his son.
Surely, Contra Costa can do better than this. It’s time to raise the ethical bar.
December 2, 2019
The Mercury News, The Milpitas Post
By Daniel Borenstein

[San Mateo County] Government officials face pension costs

Growing budget item looms large

More than a year after the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury first underscored the threat rising pension costs present to the county’s 20 cities, the issue remains front and center for Peninsula finance officials aiming to address this growing budget item and maintain basic services for residents.
Establishing and maintaining pension trust funds to prefund pension obligations, making additional payments beyond their annual required contributions to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, and exploring and implementing strategies for boosting city revenue are among the steps Redwood City, San Mateo and South San Francisco officials have weighed or made progress on in recent years.
Despite a statewide economic expansion over the last decade and the state Legislature’s efforts to reform state and local pension benefits for employees hired after Jan. 1, 2013, San Mateo County’s 20 cities have been feeling the weight of the rising cost of their pension plans. Lower-than-expected investment returns on retirement funds and longer life expectancies are among the factors that have contributed to growing unfunded pension liabilities for cities across the state.
According to the grand jury’s 2017-2018 report “Soaring City Pension Costs — Time for Hard Choices,” the county’s 20 cities spent a total of $102 million on their pension plans in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, representing on average 13.6% of their general fund expenditures. Acknowledging CalPERS’s projections that the $3.1 billion in pension costs paid by its member cities in the 2017-2018 fiscal year will nearly double by the 2024-2025 fiscal year, the report aimed to foster discussion about the possible effects of rising pension costs, including challenges with maintaining public services, reduced compensation or layoffs for employees and the potential for residents to be asked to pay more in taxes.
According to the report, CalPERS’ 2016 decision to lower its discount rate from 7.5% to 7% is also expected to increase the unfunded liabilities cities are responsible for as well as the contributions they must pay. Expected to reduce cities’ pension costs in the long run, the agency’s 2018 decision to decrease its amortization period from 30 years to 20 years will increase their contribution payments in the short term, according to the report.
Redwood City
The grand jury’s urgent recommendations to city officials to prioritize the issue was not lost on Kimbra McCarthy, an assistant city manager for Redwood City who has in recent years been focused on creating a 10-year forecast for the city’s General Fund and scoping several measures aimed at stemming the effects of the city’s rising pension costs. McCarthy said the city’s pension obligations are in large part what is driving projections that the city could experience a deficit, which the city’s 10-year forecast showed could reach $1 million in the 2021-2022 fiscal year and nearly $18 million in the 2028-2029 fiscal year.
McCarthy said the city currently dedicates some 16% of its General Fund toward paying down its pension benefits. According a budget message drafted for the city’s June 10 budget discussions, Redwood City’s General Fund revenue is expected to reach $158.8 million in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, and its General Fund expenditures are estimated to be $136.6 million the same year.
Though the portion of the city’s General Fund dedicated to pension benefits has hovered around 15% for the past few years, it is expected to grow to nearly 24% in the next 10 years, said McCarthy. According to the budget message, the city’s required annual CalPERS contributions are set to rise from $27.8 million estimated for the 2019-2020 fiscal year to more than $47 million in the 2030-2031 fiscal year.
Acknowledging the problem is one that cities across the state are facing, McCarthy said city officials have been studying future projections and taking the steps they can to curb the effects of rising pension costs.
“We’re really taking a strategic, hybrid approach to tackling the pension obligations,” she said.
McCarthy acknowledged the 2018 passage of Measure RR, a half-cent sales tax hike expected to generate some $8.7 million in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, will bring relief to the city’s finances in the coming years. But she said officials are continuing to look at containing costs and boosting revenue, noting the City Council opted earlier this year to dedicate some 80% of the city’s $5.6 million operating balance in the 2018-2019 fiscal year to its pension obligations, including a $3.6 million transfer to the city’s Section 115 pension and retiree health trust accounts and a $600,000 payment directly to CalPERS, according to the budget message.
McCarthy said the City Council’s decision in 2017 to establish the Section 115 pension trust has allowed the city to invest funds set aside for its pension obligations and use the trust’s investment earnings to pay for future pension costs. Included in the city’s 10-year forecast are General Fund contributions toward the city’s pension liability beyond the annual required payment, including direct payments to CalPERS of $500,000 and annual contributions of $1.1 million to the Section 115 pension trust.
San Mateo
Rich Lee, San Mateo’s finance director, joined McCarthy in emphasizing the importance of projecting future costs and taking steps that can pay off for the city later. He said San Mateo’s required annual contribution reached more than $16 million in the 2019-2020 fiscal year and is expected to exceed $27 million in the next 10 years. According to the city’s adopted 2019-2020 budget, the projected increase in pension expenditures means pension costs will constitute a greater share of the city’s General Fund to the point where San Mateo’s annual pension expenditure will exceed its projected local 1% sales tax, the city’s second-largest General Fund revenue source.
At some $16 million, the city’s General Fund pension expenditure is 81% of the $19.5 million in projected local 1% sales tax revenue in the 2019-2020 fiscal year. The city’s General Fund in the 2019-2020 fiscal year is estimated at $128.7 million. Estimated at $27 million in the 2029-2030 fiscal year, San Mateo’s General Fund pension expenditure is projected to be 118% of the projected local 1% sales tax revenue that year, which is estimated to be $22.8 million, according to the budget.
According to the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury’s follow-up report on city pensions in 2018-2019, San Mateo’s pension contribution costs, at $19,699,000, were nearly 18% of the city’s General Fund spending in the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
Lee said the city has taken on a number of strategies in recent years to address the city’s escalating pension costs, such as pre-paying a portion of the city’s statutory contribution, negotiating cost-sharing with its labor unions and continuing to pay on average $2 million more to CalPERS than the city’s required statutory contribution annually for the next 10 years.
Acknowledging the city’s rising pension costs will outstrip the resources currently available to the city, Lee noted the City Council has directed staff to explore several revenue enhancements, including increases to the city’s transient occupancy tax, business tax and real property transfer tax. He said polling would be conducted in the coming months to gauge community support for the tax hikes, which would require measures to be placed on the ballot and approved by a vote.
Lee said an increase in the city’s transient occupancy tax from 12% to 14% could result in an additional $1.4 million in revenue annually and the property transfer tax revenue could double if proposed measures are approved by voters. According to the city’s budget, San Mateo’s 2019-2020 fiscal year transient occupancy tax revenue is estimated at more than $6.5 million and its property transfer tax revenue for the same year is estimated at $8.5 million.
South San Francisco
According to the grand jury’s 2018-2019 report, South San Francisco’s pension contribution costs, at nearly $15.5 million in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, were 16% of the city’s General Fund spending that year, which Janet Salisbury, the city’s finance director, said was largely on par with other cities. According to the 2018-2019 report, the city’s pension contribution costs are expected to rise to $24.91 million by the 2023-2024 fiscal year.
Salisbury said the general trend among local governments in addressing these costs has included working with employees on cost-sharing and monitoring CalPERS’ discount rate, which she noted has a dramatic effect on city’s required pension contributions. Though she declined to comment specifically on the steps South San Francisco might take in the future, Salisbury noted setting aside funds in a Section 115 pension trust, making contributions in addition to the city’s statutory contribution and negotiating with unions to achieve higher employee cost sharing are among the strategies finance officials weigh in scoping ways to address future pension costs.
“It is not one of those things that you can … lose in your rear-view mirror if things go south,” she said, noting growing unfunded pension liabilities are always part of cities’ financial discussions. “It’s just part of our projections and normal conversations that we know that that is something that is going to be addressed in the future.”
According to the grand jury’s 2018-2019 report, South San Francisco is not currently making additional payments to CalPERS beyond its annual required contribution, but the city allocated $4.5 million to an internal pension stabilization reserve in the 2017-2018 fiscal year and officials have scoped plans to transfer another $1 million to the reserve in the 2019 fiscal year.
According to the report, the South San Francisco City Council discussed a staff recommendation to move the $5.5 million in the reserve to a Section 115 pension trust to earn higher returns on the funds in November of 2018, and expressed concerns about loss of control over the funds if they are put into a Section 115 pension trust. In April, officials also weighed expanding the city’s revenue and tax base, transferring General Fund surpluses to the pension reserve, expanding cost-sharing with employees and continuing to consider establishing a Section 115 pension trust, according to the report.
In November of 2018, South San Francisco residents approved a ballot measure increasing the city’s transient occupancy tax, a measure expected to boost city revenue by approximately $5.9 million annually, according to the report.
San Mateo County strategies
San Mateo County Budget Director Roberto Manchia also acknowledged the role pension costs play in county officials’ financial decisions, noting even small changes to the discount rate the San Mateo County Employees’ Retirement Association, or SamCERA, sets for the retirement fund it administers for the county can result in tens of millions of dollars in increased pension costs. SamCERA also administers the retirement fund for the San Mateo County Superior Court and the San Mateo County Mosquito and Vector Control District.
Manchia said the specter of rising pension costs drove the Board of Supervisors’ approval in 2013 of a policy mandating the county to set aside funds in excess of the county’s statutory requirement to significantly reduce its unfunded pension liabilities by the 2022-2023 fiscal year. In recent years, the county has been able to contribute on average $20 million to $30 million in addition to its statutory contribution, which is estimated at more than $215 million for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, according to the mid-year budget report for the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
According to the mid-year budget report, the county’s unfunded actuarial accrued liability dropped from its valuation for the 2012-2013 fiscal year of more than $841 million to some $619 million, the valuation estimated in June of 2018 for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. The funded ratio of the county’s unfunded actuarial accrued liability rose from 84.3% in 2017 to 87.5% in 2018, an increase largely attributed to employer contributions and strong market performance, according to the report.
In June, the Board of Supervisors approved a $3.2 billion recommended budget proposing a $50 million investment in affordable housing, dedicating more than $15 million to early childhood education and plans to monitor health care expenses and unfunded pension liabilities.
Acknowledging other counties and cities in the state have had to pursue bonds or tax measures to address rising pension costs, Manchia said the county has been able to manage these costs within its budget so far. He credited supervisors and county leadership over the years for maintaining their commitment to policies aimed at addressing them, noting budgeting for increasing pension costs can be challenging when facing several other projects and priorities with their own merits.
“The county has really put together some great financial plans to make sure that we can do as much as we possibly can with the funds that we have and managing them appropriately,” he said. “I think that’s something that has been done in this county for a very long time and I think it’s something that the county and the residents should be very proud of.”
Cities are not alone
McCarthy acknowledged the benefits of having more residents and agencies turn their attention on an issue that will continue to be a priority for cities and engage in conversations about how they can continue to manage pension costs in the future. She said Redwood City is committed to looking long term and scoping fiscally-sustainable strategies, but noted it is an issue affecting every city in the state and tackling it will require the support of state officials and agencies as well.
“I do think that for all of the cities in the area this is one of the key policy challenges that we have to tackle,” she said. “This is not an issue that cities can solve by ourselves. It’s going to take everyone wrapping their head around this and coming to the table … cities are definitely not in this alone.”
December 2, 2019
The Daily Journal
By Anna Schuessler

Friday, December 6, 2019

Kern County Board of Trade bypassed by tech

Kern County Report, Bill Deaver

Blog note: I love this reminiscing opinion piece. A major player with the Board of Trade for many years accepts the inevitable.
A venerable Kern County institution that dates to 1888 is being recommended for extinction in a report from the Kern County Grand Jury.
The Kern County Board of Trade was created two years after the county was formed in 1886 to attract residents and businesses in the eastern U.S. to the county, something being done all over the West in those pioneering days.
Over the decades the Board performed its mission admirably, and was a big deal when I began to get involved in community activities in the 1950s.
Under the leadership of one of the finest men I ever met, James “Jimmy” Radoumis, the agency played a key role in promoting tourism, economic development, and filming in Kern.
Although based in Bakersfield, Jim was a familiar figure throughout the county, more than any county official then or now.
The Board has always had 10 members, two from each supervisorial district.
Active entity
Board members were active people who attended Chamber of Commerce and other local meetings to keep their fingers on the pulse of business, tourism and the county’s important filming business.
Jim and his staff kept the county in the news and were a familiar presence all over this big county.
The best example I ever saw of the Board’s influence involved the late Richard “Dick” Ledwidge of Mojave, who during his busy career performed admirably as a Sheriff’s Sergeant, judge of the Mojave Court, supervisor’s field representative, and Mojave Public Utility District general manager.
Dick also served two years as Board of Trade president. When his term ended Jim gave him a couple of big, thick, newspaper-size books containing copies of all the news releases and publicity about the county that had been published during Dick’s term.
They were stunning documents and I’ve never seen anything like them since.
Board renamed
In 1961 county supervisors renamed the Board of Trade as the Kern County Chamber of Commerce, which lasted until Jan. 25, 2000, when it returned to its historic name.
When Jim retired, his position was filled by a couple of successors and then by Rick Davis of Bakersfield.
Davis, father of Korn lead singer Jonathan Davis, did an outstanding job of promoting the county.
During the record-setting 2004 Space­Ship­One flights from what would become the Mojave Air & Spaceport, Davis and his staff worked closely with the airport district and international news media to electronically connect the event and Mojave to the world.
Rick also developed electronic kiosks that were located in county communities that provided  about the county and local community to visitors.
The kiosks were a valuable resource that soon became redundant with the unexpectedly rapid advent of cell phones.
One of the first of the kiosks was located in Heritage Park at what is now the Mojave Air & Spaceport.
Rick also created an annual James Radoumis Award presented to individuals for their efforts to promote the county.
Ed Waldheim of California City and I received the awards, Ed for his promotion of off-highway recreation which has become a profitable regional industry, and me for my efforts to promote Mojave and the region.
Grand Jury Report
Entitled “Is it Time to Move on?,” the grand jury report argues that the Board of Trade essentially no longer exists, with its economic development efforts now handled by the Kern County Economic Development Corporation, which works closely and effectively with EKEA and local communities on economic development efforts.
Tourism and filming activities are now functions of an “Office of County Wide Communications” in the County Administrative Office, which absorbed Board of Trade responsibilities in 2012.
The only evidence of the new activity is a bimonthly report delivered by CAO employee at East Kern Economic Alliance meetings, and the ten member Board.
A member of that group told me, off the record, that not much is happening with an institution that once was a positive force in Kern County.
Times change
Placing blame for this state of affairs can be blamed on the advances of technology rather than on individuals or  “the county.”
Like the kiosks being made redundant by the Internet, advertising has changed promotion and advertising by orders of magnitude.
Colorful brochures have been replaced by web pages. I answer the Mojave Chamber of Commerce phone and about four or five times a year I get a call from someone wanting a “Mojave brochure.”
These calls all come from folks who, for whatever reasons, have not adapted to the internet. By the way, not all of these callers are elderly.
I mail them copies of our current brochure but it is pretty much out of date.
When our supplies run out, I doubt they will be replaced. Printing is expensive and keeping print media current is impossible.
As an example of changes in technology I recently changed my Antelope Valley Press subscription to digital from print. I no longer have to trek out to the edge of the street with my bad back to pick up the print paper, the digital version doesn’t get wet when it rains, and it doesn’t add to my trash. I read several papers the same way.
I also read about a book a week on my iPad.
The grand jury report notes that changes to the former Board of Trade paradigm have resulted in a steady increase in visitors and filming in the county rather than any reduction, which means that the changes are working.
As Bob Dylan sang, “The times they are a’changin’,” and the Kern County Board of Trade is he latest example.
Just about every time we get a new prescription these days it has a new “adult proof” cap design which is rarely an improvement.
December 1, 2019
Antelope Valley Press