Wednesday, January 28, 2009
By Tami Abdollah
10:58 PM PST, January 27, 2009
While an Orange County facility that cares for abused and neglected children provides spacious cottage-like facilities and roughly four staffers per child, conditions at county juvenile hall are far more bleak, with a shortage of beds and waiting lists for basic programs, according to a grand jury report released Tuesday.
"It's almost like you are comparing an area of barracks to Beverly Hills," said grand jury foreman Jim Perez.
The grand jury report recommends that the county's Social Services Agency give up at least half of its property at Orangewood Children's Home in Orange in order to improve conditions at the Probation Department's facilities next door.
It also suggests the county consider reducing staff at the children's home because its numbers have steadily decreased. Orangewood served up to 300 children in the 1990s but now serves roughly 75 children because of declining need.
County officials said they would review the grand jury report and respond to the Board of Supervisors within 90 days.
"I will say we've worked very hard to reduce the number of children at the Orangewood facility," said Ingrid Harita, director of the county's Social Services Agency. "The abused and neglected children of Orange County really need and deserve a safe and nurturing environment, and we provide that at Orangewood."
More than 300 employees and 250 volunteers serve the 75 children at Orangewood at a cost of $739 per child each day; that compares with 479 staffers for 559 children in the Probation Department at a cost of $228 per child each day, according to the report.
The report concluded that half of Orangewood could be used by the Probation Department without affecting the quality of care for children at Orangewood.
Grand jurors estimated that the savings to taxpayers could be in the millions. The Orangewood facility costs about $23 million a year to run, according to the report.
"We hope that some common sense will prevail and the Orange County citizens will look at the needs of all children, not just some children," Perez said.
This is the third grand jury report that has addressed the Orangewood facility. The first, in 1999-2000, also found that the Orangewood facility was overstaffed. The second, in 2006-07, again challenged the "overstaffing and underutilization" of the facility. County authorities said high staffing levels were necessary because children at Orangewood are "more emotionally and developmentally damaged" and require an "increased level of care."
Orange County grand jurors contend that many children at juvenile hall, though classified as lawbreakers, fit the same profiles and require the same high level of care as those sent to the Orangewood facility.
Recently 210 positions at the Social Services Agency were eliminated; the Probation Department was also hit with the loss of more than 90 beds at one of its juvenile facilities, and it will also be closing one of its youth and family resource centers at the end of this week.
"The purpose for the revision to the current ordinance is to set forth and strengthen guidelines related to overnight stay and reimbursement for business meetings relative to reimbursements for meals," stated a portion of the attached agenda summary.
The compensation each grand juror receives was adjusted from $25 for each full day attendance and $10 for each half day to $25 for each full panel meeting and $10 for each committee or investigative meeting, not to exceed $25.
"Grand Jurors will be entitled to reimbursement for lunch at rates set for county employees only after a Grand Juror has attended a minimum of two hours of full panel or committee meetings, investigative sessions or other legitimate activities such as orientation sessions and training sessions," stated a portion of the revised ordinance.
"Grand Jurors conducting official business in the county seat and who reside more than 30 miles from the county seat may elect to stay overnight rather than drive back and forth to their residences and will be reimbursed for lodging and dinner costs incurred for no more than two nights per week exclusive of the State Grand Jury Training."
CEO Tom Mitchell said his office had been in contact with the grand jury in reference to their reimbursements.
"The grand jury, despite the best efforts,is projected to go over budget for this year," he said. "I think there is a philosophical difference between our office and the grand jury about how much should be available for their resources. We're limited in how much money we can provide to the grand jury. We gave the grand jury what we felt was the same treatment as other county departments."
Finley Williams, the grand jury's foreman, said travel budget overruns were inevitable.
"It is virtually impossible to calculate travel costs until we have jury selection in June," he said. "In my conversations with the CEO and staff I noted that the grand jury had overrun its travel budget for two years in a row. Some of our cost saving strategies have worked well. Others have not. Additional travel funds are needed to complete this year's work. This year we have five jurors who come from the coast. This was doomed to failure before it started."
Board Chairman and 3rd District Supervisor John Pinches said he was upset that he was previously criticized for his travel expenses by the grand jury.
"I refunded the county about $3,500," he said. "That whole process was frustrating to me."
Fourth District Supervisor Kendall Smith said she "applauded" the grand jury for seeking jurors from all parts of the county, but that budget constraints should result in more frugal spending.
"The bottom line financial issue is another matter," she said. "There's a disconnect between conveying your concerns about the funds and having funds materialize in the manner you're requesting. We've been asking department heads to do more with less for years. In respecting that we have a large county with costs of getting those jurors to the county, that's a huge challenge. Unfortunately, what needs to be looked at is the frequency of meetings or the topics. You have to balance your workload to meet the constraints of the budget...It's discretionary to have meals."
Williams said the comparison with county department heads was unfair.
"We're not employees," he said. "We're volunteers. They address these issues using their life's experiences. Most of what we investigate comes from the citizens of this county. To limit the grand jury's operations by use of the budget is something the Legislature has said will not happen. What I'm here to do today is to tell you we're going to exceed our budget."
Smith said other committees and boards around the county worked with absolutely no compensation.
"It's a difficult volunteer job so there needs to be some coverage for expense," she said. "I think we all agree with that. There are many committees who don't receive any compensation. There's a lot of that and that's what keeps Mendocino County going is that volunteer spirit."
Williams said the amount of time and work required of the grand jury members was substantial.
"It's also a state-mandated watchdog and that's a difference from some of the others," he said. "This is not a monthly meeting or bimonthly meeting. This is something where people are giving up a substantial portion of their lives."
Second District Supervisor John McCowen said more could be done to tighten the grand jury's belt.
"I disagree with your statement that you've done everything to cut costs," he said. "Rather than having to meet 50 weeks out of the year you could adjust that and have some meetings where you don't meet as frequently. I speak as a former grand juror, about 20 years ago. I think that you could have effective savings, and I do appreciate the efforts that were made to cut costs, but I think you could go further."
Williams said that pulling of the grand jury's purse strings would result in a control of what it could investigate.
"The end result of putting fiscal restraints on the grand jury translates into control of topics the grand jury covers," he said. "I want the grand jury to be able to investigate anything it deems appropriate."
Fifth District Supervisor David Colfax said the restrictions grand jurors faced dissuaded many otherwise competent candidates from applying.
"I am concerned at the directive given by the judge and given by those who come onto the grand jury saying you give up two years of your life," he said. "There aren't very many people in Mendocino County who have that luxury. There are people who would be willing to give 10 hours a week or maybe five hours per week, but when you have people taking on 20 hours a week work, you are talking about a very constricted population. My feeling here is that one of the things that's important to be doing in terms of management is what issues should be brought forward."
During public comment, Wendy Roberts, a grand juror, said it was imperative for the grand jury to continue its work.
"It is the single best job I've ever had," she said. "It's research. It's really getting to know the county, not getting bogged down in insular, little micro issues. It's very valuable stuff. I do want you to understand that you're making a long-term investment."
Mitchell said he took offense to Williams' comments and worried that this action might set a negative precedent for others.
"Watchdog is one of those buzzwords that implies we're doing something wrong," he said. "To qualify the term as watchdog is a negative termŠIf they're granted additional funds that means that one more county worker might be laid off. You cannot ignore the fact that there is not enough funds. I feel for our employeesŠWe appreciate the support of the grand jury, but perhaps we need to have a different model for how we do business."
After discussion had finished, the reimbursement amendment passed 3-2, with Pinches and Colfax dissenting.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
The Kern County grand jury released a report Tuesday saying it’s impressed with the Sheriff’s Department’s property room but has recommendations for improvement.
The recommendations included that officials provide protective face masks and latex gloves to everyone who enters certain evidence rooms; purchase drying equipment for blood-soaked evidence; implement an effective pest control program in the homicide evidence room; and look into buying a cutting machine to destroy weapons.
The full report and others released by the grand jury are available at www.co.kern.ca.us/grandjury.
Monday, January 26, 2009
The Coalinga City Council wastes money, circumvents open-meeting laws and has conflicts of interests, the Fresno County grand jury concludes in a stinging report issued Friday.
The seven-page report says that in one instance, council members promised city police officers added benefits if they agreed to turn against their police chief. In another case, a council member who also is a sheriff's sergeant insisted on hiring deputies with the Sheriff's Office as security guards -- even though extra security was unnecessary, the report said.
"The investigation revealed that these issues have been an ongoing problem for many years," the report said. "... Testimony and documentation indicated that some of the City Council members were unaware of their municipal code, personnel rules, and the limits of their authority."
The report doesn't accuse the council members of committing any crimes.
Two of the council members referred to in the report -- Mike Oxborrow and Tony Garcia -- denied any wrongdoing Friday. Former Mayor Trish Hill, who is accused of helping a developer who had a business relationship with her boss, declined to comment.
"The report is full of some falsehoods," Oxborrow said. "To give the impression we're all messed up and dysfunctional right now is just flat wrong."
The report notes that the city has had a troubled history, with 17 city managers and nine police chiefs in the past 18 years.
Many of the issues seem to revolve around a long-running dispute involving three council members -- Oxborrow, Garcia and Hill -- the former city manager, Stephen Julian, and the former police chief, Jerry Galvin.
Sometime around July 2007, for reasons that aren't clear, the council asked Julian to fire Galvin. Julian refused, and the council placed him on administrative leave. They also passed an ordinance giving themselves the power to fire Galvin directly.
But a group of Coalinga residents intervened. They persuaded two-thirds of the city's voters to pass a measure that returned hiring and firing power to the city manager. Nevertheless, Galvin announced in April that he would retire.
Later that month, the council fired Julian, even though he had a contract to work to the end of 2009. He later sued and settled for $225,000.
The grand jury report said that in March 2007, Oxborrow, Hill and Garcia met with the Coalinga Police Officers Association. The council members rotated in and out of the meeting in "a deliberate attempt to avoid the quorum requirements of the Brown Act," the report said, referring to the state open-meetings law that prohibits a majority of council members from meeting together outside of a council meeting.
The report said the council members in that meeting tried to get the officers to agree that Galvin should be fired and offered them additional job benefits "in exchange for their support." Nevertheless, the officers held a vote expressing confidence in Galvin.
Oxborrow and Garcia denied Friday discussing any plans to fire Galvin at the meeting or offering anything in exchange for the officers' support of such a plan.
A separate incident occurred in May 2007 during an annual city festival, the grand jury report said. Galvin wanted to use Coalinga police officers and reserve deputies from the Sheriff's Office to provide security at a minimal cost. But Garcia, who also is a sheriff's sergeant, "insisted" that the city contract with the Sheriff's Office to hire full-time sheriff's deputies -- at $50 an hour -- the report said. In the end, the city spent an extra $4,000 to $5,000.
Garcia said he was only concerned with making sure there were enough trained officers at the event. He said he recused himself when the council voted 4-0 to hire the deputies.
There was another incident with the appearance of a conflict of interest, the grand jury reported. At some point in 2007, Hill and the city's planner met with developers who wanted to build on a large swath of land that potentially would more than double Coalinga's size. Part of the land was owned by a ranch owner who employs Hill as a secretary, city officials said.
Julian, the former city manager, said the developer had been told for years that a large part of the property was outside the area designated for the city's expansion. Nevertheless, the Planning Commission and City Council approved the development in late 2007.
Hill joined the City Council in voting to change the city's general plan so the development could move forward, which prompted the need for a new environmental study, the grand jury report said.
Normally the developer would pay for such a study, but the city footed the $100,000 bill, the report said.
Oxborrow said the city handled the costs because the council was afraid the developer would sue if it had to pay for a study that it didn't initially know would be needed.
Bill Skinner, the city's current city manager, said the city plans to make a formal response to the grand jury report.
In addition, the city will soon adopt a code of ethics and will begin a series of workshops to train City Council members on open-meeting laws, the city's code, how to handle personnel issues and how to avoid conflicts of interest. he said.
"Things have been moving in the positive direction," Skinner said.
Friday, January 23, 2009
The Fresno County grand jury reported today that the Coalinga City Council intimidated city employees, showed disrespectful and unprofessional behavior during meetings, and cost the city more than $220,000 when it fired its city manager.
The panel also criticizes council members for spending more than $300,000 for legal fees and overstepping its authority.
In one incident, City Council member Tony Garcia, a sergeant employed by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department, ordered the police chief to hire sheriff’s deputies for the 2007 Horn Toad Derby, an annual city event. In the past, the police chief had used his staff at no extra cost to the city.
Garcia’s demand cost the city $4,000 to $5,000 in extra security, the report said.
The report is available on the Fresno County Superior Court website at fresnosuperiorcourt.org. First click on "Jury" and then "Grand Jury;" the report will be indexed by the number and the year.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Two of the eight subjects in the Placer County Grand Jury’s 2007/2008 Final Report Responses released Friday pertain to Lincoln.
The two Lincoln subjects are on the financing, facilities and management by the Western Placer Unified School District and on the annual inspection of the Lincoln Police Department.
This week, the News Messenger looks at the school district’s responses. Next week, the News Messenger will look at the police department’s responses.
To view the complete report and responses, visit online at www.PlacerGrandJury.org.
A Grand Jury report examining the financial woes of Lincoln’s schools brought few complaints from school officials, whose responses, released Friday, largely agreed with the June report.
In a list of 11 responses, Western Placer Unified School District officials agreed or partially agreed with all of the Grand Jury’s findings they were asked to respond to.
“This has been a ‘teachable moment’ for the leaders in Western Placer Unified School District,” Superintendent Scott Leaman and Board of Education President Paul Carras wrote on Aug. 25.
The Grand Jury report criticized the community and the district for setting unrealistic goals and using risky, uncertain funding to get there.
The district’s responses were submitted to the 2007-2008 Grand Jury in August and were made public Friday only after the 2008-2009 Grand Jury had time to review them and organize a packet with responses from law enforcement officials and other departments investigated by the Grand Jury.
Grand Jury Foreman Rick Morgan said in a letter to Superior Court Judge Charles Wachob that some of the responses to the report were “lacking in substance.” He declined to specify which, as the current Grand Jury may be investigating them.
“I think if you read them, you can figure out (which responses didn’t satisfy the Grand Jury),” he said in a phone interview.
In the report, the Grand Jury made 15 specific recommendations to the school district, including suggestions to more clearly define and carefully monitor construction funding, bar partnerships between architects and primary contractors, create a department dedicated to overseeing new construction and ensure that the district is receiving the best value for its money in joint ventures with the city and outside contracts.
Three of the recommendations received only partial agreement from the district. One, a suggestion to create a separate district department for construction, would be a waste of money in times when nothing is being built, Leaman said Monday.
He called the recommendation “definitely something we’re going to look at,” and said it might make sense if the district undertook more large-scale construction projects.
The district also only partially agreed with a suggestion to ensure the nonprofits that work with the district – the Lincoln High School Farm Foundation and the Western Placer Education Foundation – maintain levels of transparency and adhere to laws pertaining to public foundations.
Because the foundations are separate entities from the school district and because many district leaders sit on the boards of the foundations, Leaman said, it would be “an inappropriate intrusion” for the school district to enforce any direct action on the foundations. Leaman said the district will continue to act as a “liaison” to the foundations, offering legal assistance and answers to specific questions.
A suggestion to expand use of the Lincoln High School Farm was also met with conditional support.
Leaman said the farm lacks infrastructure for expansion. A dirt road currently leads to the farm but Leaman said the district has plans to upgrade it before the eventual construction of the district’s third high school: a full campus on the 280-acre farm.
But that high school and the one that would presumably precede it, Twelve Bridges High School, may be a long way off.
In 2006, the planned Twelve Bridges High School – originally scheduled to open in Fall 2009 – was placed on hiatus due to increasing debt.
Cathy Allen, assistant superintendent of Facilities and Maintenance Services, said she isn’t sure when construction on the school will resume because the district would need more funding from state or local bonds. This funding could come in 2009 or 2010, depending on when the school board decides to put bonds before voters.
Allen hopes five new classrooms at Lincoln High School will be added in time for the fall 2009 semester and said completing Twelve Bridges High School could take two and a half to four years, depending on how many grades were accepted at a time.
Currently, Lincoln High School enrollment increases by about 100 students each year, Leaman said, which means it will be filled to capacity by 2013.
Stacey Brown, principal of Twelve Bridges Middle School, said because there is still room for growth at Lincoln High School, concerns about delays in the construction of Twelve Bridges High School have faded.
“In my first year, three years ago, there was more disappointment (among parents),” Brown said. “I hear much less now than I did then.”
He added that parents still ask periodically about plans for Twelve Bridges High School.
Tina Sims, 50, is one of those parents. Her daughter, 12-year-old Loreena, is a Twelve Bridges seventh-grader. Although they haven’t decided which high school she’ll attend, Sims said Twelve Bridges High School was at the top of their list.
“We’re really rooting for Twelve Bridges to be built,” Tina Sims said.
Loreena tugged on her mother’s elbow, interjecting.
“I want to go to Whitney!” she said. “All my friends are going there!”
Currently, there are 80 students at Whitney High School who transferred out of the Western Placer Unified School District to attend the Rocklin school, Leaman said.
Steve Berger, who has a son at Lincoln High School, also had his sights set on Twelve Bridges High School.
“I had hoped Twelve Bridges High School would be built,” he said. His son is a swimmer and wanted to use the planned aquatic center at Twelve Bridges.
In recent years, the district’s plan for expansion has been hindered by the region’s slowing growth. Because the district’s main sources of funding stem from bonds, developer fees and new homebuyers, revenue streams dry up when expansion slows.
As part of its June recommendations, the Grand Jury report urged the district to “guarantee all building projects are tied to defined and specific funding sources.”
In its response, the district pledged to avoid riskier funding, like the popular Certificate of Participation bonds, which don’t require voter approval and are secured by the operating budget and reserves.
The district has also been plagued by concerns about its relationship with its former architect and contractor, NTD-Stichler and Edge Development. In September 2007, district staff members complained about allegedly substandard build quality and inflated bills. A lawsuit related to the school district’s firing of one of the workers, Mike Thornbrough, is currently ongoing in Auburn, according to Thornbrough’s attorney, David Henderson.
In late 2007, the district chose five new architects for future work. In November, LPA completed a plan for expansion at Lincoln High School and Rainforth Grau will work on planning the district’s next elementary school.
Posted: 01/22/2009 01:30:08 AM PST
Responses to the Santa Cruz County grand jury report were made public this week, and jury foreman Clyde Vaughn said the government agencies critiqued in the report offered a variety of comment.
The agencies adopted many of the reforms advocated by the grand jury, Vaughn said, while other recommendations were put off because of funding or legal issues, while others were rejected completely.
At the grand jury's urging, the county of Santa Cruz added a whistle blower link to its Web site so employees can more easily report personnel problems.
The Sheriff's Office responded to grand jury concerns about overcrowding at County Jail by saying a committee has been established to reduce overcrowding. However, the Sheriff's Office said it did not have the money to expand and update kitchen facilities, as recommended by the grand jury.
The county Planning Department has implemented a new data system to better track and record code enforcement data, which the grand jury had said contained inaccuracies.
The Watsonville Library committed to trying to expand staffing, but could not implement all of the suggestions of the grand jury, like maintaining better security, because of finances.
The grand jury is an all-volunteer group that investigates a handful of government issues each year and makes recommendations for improvement. The agencies cited in the report must address the recommendations, but are not obliged to implement them.
The complete responses to the latest report, released last summer, will be posted online Monday. They will be available at www.co.santa-cruz.ca.us/grandjury
Deputy involved in beating death probe leaves agency
A fifth Orange County Sheriff's Department employee named in a grand jury investigation into the 2006 beating death of an inmate at the county's largest jail left the department Tuesday, a sheriff's official said.
Deputy Jason Chapluk, who was on duty at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange when inmate John Derek Chamberlain was beaten to death, was placed on administrative leave April 7, the day the grand jury transcript was released.
Chapluk's last day at the department was Tuesday, said sheriff's spokesman John McDonald. Chapluk had been with the department since February 2005. Because of a state law that restricts the release of peace officer disciplinary records, McDonald declined to say whether Chapluk had resigned or was fired.
The grand jury found that on Oct. 5, 2006, while one of the jail's ranking guards exchanged personal text messages and watched the television show "Cops," Chamberlain, a 41-year-old computer technician from Mission Viejo, was stomped and beaten to death nearby.
Chapluk told the grand jury it was not uncommon to hear stories about guards playing video games during work hours and sleeping during late-night shifts, and that they had a radio code of "10-12" to warn each other when supervisors were coming. Testimony showed Chapluk brought movies to work.
-- Tami Abdollah CONTRA COSTA COUNTY
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Quality of fire systems in local schools vary at each site, however each meet or exceed state standards, according to a county Grand Jury report released yesterday.
The group began looking into the fire systems after an alarm was sounded during lunchtime in 2008. There was little emergency action since there was no connection between the school’s alarm and local agencies. In the 21-page report, the jury details the three kind of alarms on campuses (manual, addressable and automated), determines all schools meet current state requirements and recommends upgrades to the latest system on campuses not already at those levels.
School construction approved prior to January 2008 is under old rules. New schools or modernization projects over $200,000 require the installation of fire systems that link directly to a supervising station; these alarms are called automated. Manual alarms consist of a pull station or smoke detectors which trigger an alarm. Addressable systems trigger a campus-wide trigger when one is activated as well as send a signal to the school office noting the exact location of the problem.
Although systems are within the law, the jury recommended upgrades to ensure public safety.
• Belmont-Redwood Shores Elementary and Cabrillo Unified school districts should perform a feasibility study within 90 days to upgrade manual pull station fire systems, according to the report.
• Leaders in the Pacifica, Las Lomitas Elementary, Belmont-Redwood Shores Elementary, Portola Valley Elementary, San Carlos Elementary, San Bruno Elementary, Hillsborough City and San Mateo-Foster City school districts have schools with automated alarms without direct connection to alarm companies or public safety agencies. Policies and procedures should be reviewed at these schools. Additionally, districts should budget for upgrades.
• Leaders in the Ravenswood City Elementary, Millbrae Elementary, Bayshore Elementary and San Mateo-Foster City school districts, which have schools in the process of upgrading fire systems or are planning upgrades, should ensure compliance with 2007 California Fire Code.
• Leaders in the Cabrillo Unified and La Honda-Pescadero Unified school districts, which have schools under modernization, should ensure compliance with 2007 California Fire Code.
To view the full report visit www.sanmateocourt.org/grandjury/.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Overcrowding and maintenance issues in the Santa Cruz County Jail, unfair hiring practices by the county, uneven code enforcement, confusing boundaries for fire protection service and improvements needed at the Watsonville Public Library were all topics in the 2007-08 Santa Cruz Civil Grand Jury Report released Friday with responses from the various agencies involved.
The Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury serves as a watchdog over local government and has three primary functions: to audit local government agencies and officials; to investigate citizens’ complaints; and to publish its investigative findings and recommendations. The report is published at the end of the jury’s yearlong term.
Most everyone agreed on the jury’s conclusion that overcrowding at the county’s Main Jail is serious, and because several of the county’s jail facilities are aging, they need extensive maintenance.
*For the complete story, see today's paper or visit the e-Edition*
(Published in 1/17/09 edition)
Fresno County's grand jury, the constitutionally mandated watchdog of local government, long has been dominated by white residents, older people and those who live in north Fresno -- and judges want to change that.
As Fresno County Superior Court officials gear up to assemble the next panel -- whose term begins July 1 -- they're looking for new ways to recruit minorities, younger people and non-Fresno residents.
"We want the broadest list of interested people," said Judge Robert Oliver. "If they show interest, we talk with them."
In Fresno County and elsewhere, former grand jurors talk to service clubs, ads are placed in newspapers, and judges always are asking for volunteers. This year, Oliver -- who heads the committee that interviews prospective grand jurors -- wants to expand those ads to smaller newspapers across the county.
The past two years of applications show the challenge ahead: 86% of those who filled out grand jury questionnaires were 55 or older, and 76% were white.
Each year, the grand jury has 19 volunteer members. This year, eight members are from Fresno's Old Fig Garden neighborhood or wealthier ZIP codes north of Shaw Avenue. Only one is from outside the Fresno-Clovis metropolitan area or its outskirts.
The current panel has one person who is Asian, three who are black and three who are Hispanic. It has 12 members who are white.
The grand jury is a civil jury that, under the state Constitution, investigates issues and makes recommendations on how government can better serve the people. That is why Selma resident and former grand juror Robert Gutierrez says diversity is so important.
"If the grand jury is the citizens' watchdog, we would like to be the watchdog for all the citizens," he said.
The county's civil Grand Jury does not hear criminal cases. Unlike some larger counties in the state, Fresno County does not have a permanent criminal grand jury.
Finding the time may be the biggest challenge of a civil grand juror. Service is voluntary, and state law is very broad about who can serve.
The basic qualifications include "sufficient knowledge of the English language" and being "in possession of natural faculties, ordinary intelligence, sound judgment [and] fair character."
Still, Fresno County received just 77 applications for the 2007-08 term and 76 for the 2008-09 term.
The challenges Fresno County faces are similar to those in county courts all across the state -- even in tony Marin County.
Catherine McKown, a Marin County resident who is vice president of the California Grand Jurors' Association, said the group's local affiliate there has formed an outreach committee to attract a more diverse pool of candidates.
"We've struggled with it, too," said Terry McNally, executive officer of the Kern County Superior Court. "There's a wide variety of things we are trying."
One innovative strategy in Kern is a video that was produced by former grand jurors that is shown to civil and criminal court jurors while they are waiting to be assigned to courtrooms.
Marin County produces a 30-minute television show that airs on the public-access cable network.
One challenge is the time commitment, which is the primary reason the demographic all across the state skews to retirees. If it attracts younger people, it is often spouses who don't have to work -- which often come from wealthier families, said John Kirihara, presiding judge in Merced County Superior Court.
McKown said the time commitment starts off at around five hours a week, but can grow to between 20 and 30 hours a week.
"We're making inroads, but you gotta keep plugging," said McNally, the Kern County Superior Court's executive officer. "We go back year in and year out and ask people to apply."
Part of the challenge is the state's penal code, which outlines all aspects of grand juries in each of the state's counties.
No matter how many people apply, the state's penal code sees to it that some luck will be involved, because it requires that no fewer than 25 and no more than 30 names go into a random drawing for 19 spots.
It means that judges must winnow the number of applicants down. And it also can play into the final racial, gender, age and hometown breakdown.
Still, the odds get better with more and varied applicants, advocates and court officials, said Sherry Spears, the juror services manager for the Fresno County Superior Court.
"I think the secret is all in getting the word out," she said.
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6320.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
By Tami Abdollah
January 14, 2009
A fourth Orange County Sheriff's Department employee named in a grand jury investigation into the 2006 beating death of an inmate at the county's largest jail has left the department, a sheriff's official said Tuesday.
Sheriff's Special Officer Phillip Le, who was on duty at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange when inmate John Derek Chamberlain was beaten to death, was placed on administrative leave April 7, the day the grand jury transcript was released.
Le's last day at the department was Dec. 5, said sheriff's spokesman John McDonald. Le had been with the department since August 2005. McDonald declined to say whether Le had resigned or was fired because of a state law that restricts the release of peace officer disciplinary records.
The grand jury found that on Oct. 5, 2006, while one of the jail's ranking guards, Kevin Taylor, exchanged personal text messages and watched the television show "Cops," Chamberlain, a 41-year-old computer technician from Mission Viejo, was stomped and beaten to death nearby.
Chamberlain was in custody on suspicion of possessing child pornography when he was attacked by a group of inmates. Inmates mistakenly believed that he had been charged with child molestation. Le was alerted to Chamberlain's injuries when an inmate waved outside the glass-walled guard station.
Le refused to testify before the grand jury until he was granted immunity. According to the transcript, Le told the grand jury that deputies would work with inmate "shot-callers" who would help keep other inmates in line with beatings -- called "taxations" -- and would receive special privileges such as sack lunches and new clothes in return. He said it was common for deputies to watch movies, use their personal laptops and read newspapers and books while on duty.
Le also told the grand jury that he did not keep an accurate log on the day Chamberlain was killed and that he had made a "command decision" to record over the first seven to 10 minutes of videotape he used to document the scene after guards discovered Chamberlain had been beaten.
Deputy Sonja Moreno, Sheriff's Investigator Jose Armas and Deputy Monica Bagalayos were the first three to leave the department in the wake of the investigation. Taylor and Jason Chapluk, another deputy assigned to Chamberlain's module, remain on paid administrative leave.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
BY JACK FOLEY • The Salinas Californian • January 13, 2009
From Hartnell College to county-funded ambulance service, the 2008 Monterey County Civil Grand Jury's final report is a mix of kudos, criticism and counsel.
The report was issued Monday by Grand Jury Foreman Bruce J. Obbink. Here are some of the grand jury's findings relative to local public institutions:
--The oversight committee for Measure H, the Hartnell College bond issue passed in 2002, has not functioned in the best interest of the voters.
--The Monterey County Board of Supervisors inappropriately interfered in the management of its (ambulance) contractor, WestMed.
--The Monterey County Youth Center is not certain if its treatment program has been effective and needs to develop an evaluative criteria and tracking system.
--The jury issued a commendation for the Pacific Grove Middle School "Dot" program and encourages other county school districts to look into adopting it.
--Recommends that Monterey County take an aggressive approach to acquire funds from the Local Youthful Offender Rehabilitative Facility Construction Funding Program to replace juvenile hall.
--Commends the Carmel and Monterey emergency management leaders for activating their Emergency Operations Centers during the Jan. 4, 2008, storm and its aftermath.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Contra Costa Times
Updated: 01/07/2009 11:21:35 PM PST
Contra Costa negotiators are so ill-equipped to negotiate with unions that an economic catastrophe could occur, the county's grand jury warned as it released its first report of the new term Wednesday.
"At a time when its unions have signaled that they intend to pursue economic business as usual, including higher wages and benefits, the county lacks a coherent negotiating strategy and trained, experienced negotiators for limiting fiscally unsustainable proposals," the six-page report said.
Fifteen union agreements expired in September, covering about 7,200 of the county's 13,000 employees. Salaries and benefits account for 56 percent of this year's general fund budget. The county and labor representatives have been meeting regularly to negotiate.
The county administrator, who has led labor negotiations since coming to Contra Costa in September, criticized the report, saying the negotiating team has already accomplished most of the eight recommendations. He also announced that the county expects to switch to a two-year budget next fiscal cycle; received a long-awaited total compensation study draft; and hired a new human resource director.
The grand jury has criticized the county's financial practices in previous reports. This report cited a lack of a clear-cut strategy and negotiation training, supervisor intervention and vacant negotiating positions as factors that could lead to financial ruin.
One senior negotiator told the grand jury the county position is "to react once we receive proposals from the unions."
County administrator David Twa called that portrayal inaccurate.
"We have a very clear and defined strategy and part of the issue was the grand jury was looking for that to be shared with them and we can't do that in good-faith bargaining," Twa said.
The report, "Economic Catastrophe Looms: Contra Costa County Continues to be Ill-Prepared for Labor Negotiations," says the county needs more consistency in its negotiating team. Twa, the interim human resources director and a hired labor negotiator have led union discussions, with assistance from the finance director, treasurer and auditor's office.
Twa has hired Human Resources Director Ted Swiek, currently heading El Dorado County's human resources department, to start Feb. 2. The county has kept the labor relations manager position unfilled to allow Swiek to name his own replacement, Twa said.
The grand jury recommends the county adopt a two-year budget, but Twa said he was already heading in that direction.
"When I was hired, one of the things they made very clear was they wanted to move toward a two-year budget and that's been my history wherever I worked," Twa said. "I hope to have it implemented by the next budget cycle."
The two-year plan, Twa says, gives the county a "longer planning horizon."
A rough draft of the much anticipated total compensation study, which compares salary and benefits of Contra Costa workers with other Bay Area employees, will be shared in closed session with supervisors in the next week or two, Twa said.
"It's one tool in our labor negotiations. It certainly won't be the be-all, end-all in the process," the county chief said.
As in previous grand jury reports, it accuses supervisors of meddling in negotiations.
"Individual supervisors have had conversations about what is being negotiated," Twa said, but insisted no discussions have undermined negotiations.
Twa updates supervisors weekly on labor negotiations in closed session.
"This is a difficult, painful year for all of us," Twa said. "Negotiations have been slow primarily because of that. Every time we think we get some place, we realize we don't know the state's budget plans yet."
Saturday, January 3, 2009
Posted: 01/02/2009 07:24:08 PM PST
Updated: 01/02/2009 09:49:38 PM PST
TRACY — A Tracy man spent stolen money on stays at five-star hotels in San Francisco, Hawaii, Arizona and South Carolina, while dining at the best restaurants with a paid escort earning $300-an-hour, according to grand jury testimony.
Louis Anthony Contreras, 45, was indicted by a San Joaquin County grand jury on Dec. 11 and was accused of grand theft and falsifying corporate books after embezzling $645,000 from Tracy Material Recovery over the past 12 years. Authorities originally said Contreras estimated he may have taken more than $1.8 million, but after a month of forensic computer research, the amount missing was revised downward.
Contreras worked the scales at the Tracy Material Recovery Facility and Transfer Station on MacArthur Drive, where he would accept cash payments at the scale and provide customers with receipts. He would reportedly then destroy the company's copy of the receipt and pocket the cash. With the receipts voided or destroyed, his till would balance at the end of the day, according to testimony.
The alleged scam was uncovered by Mike Repetto, the chief executive officer of Tracy Material Recovery Inc., and Contreras' brother-in-law, on Oct. 17. Repetto installed surveillance cameras in the scale house where he captured video of Contreras ripping up receipts, grabbing cash and stuffing it into a backpack, according to documents made public last month.
"It's been rough at home for me, my family, and I just feel a lot of anger," Repetto told the grand jury. "He was very trusted. And I know it's a long time to go on with things. ... And it's just a bad, I mean, I'm really — it hurts. It really hurts. And it bugs me to no end that this went on and to have a really trusted person and family member do this to me, so that's all I pretty much have to say on it."
In testimony from the closed hearing released last month, two letters written by Contreras were presented to the grand jury — one an apology to his brother-in-law, and the other a confession letter. Both were read aloud into the record, according to court transcripts.
Contreras wrote he took an average of $100,000 to $150,000 a year while working the scales at the waste recovery facility. He wrote he would spend the ill-gained cash on "five-star hotels," "girls" and "fancy dinners."
He said the more money that come in, the more he would spend.
"It was out of control," Contreras wrote. "It was getting too easy to take it, and nobody would ask any questions. ... I started to spend more and more because I knew I could get it."
He also apologized to Repetto, a man he called "the most important friend in my life."
"The pain I put you though is the worst pain in the world," Contreras wrote. "I disgraced you and the company, your family, my nieces and my family as well. I will do whatever it takes to pay you and the company back. I don't expect you to forgive me, and I deserve it. All I can say is that I'm very sorry for what I have done to you, Mike."
Contreras is due back in San Joaquin County Superior at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday in Department 26.
By Lola Sherman, staff writer
2:00 a.m. January 3, 2009
OCEANSIDE — Prompted by a resident's complaint, a San Diego County grand jury has requested an official audit of MainStreet Oceanside, which has received $820,000 in city funds since 2000.
In a letter addressed to Mayor Jim Wood and dated Dec. 3, jury foreman Leonard D. Martin said it “has requested and authorized the San Diego County Office of Audits and Advisory Services to conduct an audit of the contracts and agreements between the city of Oceanside and MainStreet Oceanside.”
Martin said the auditor would concentrate on the period starting with the 2005-06 fiscal year. In that period, MainStreet has gotten about $400,000 in city funds.
The private, nonprofit organization oversees or sponsors events such as a weekly morning and evening farmers market, an annual Fourth of July parade and an annual Day of the Dead celebration. It also contracts with the city to manage concessions along the beach.
MainStreet Oceanside was certified in 2000 by California Main Street, part of a national network under the umbrella of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help revitalize historic downtowns.
The jury foreman's letter said that Kenneth Mory, chief of audits, would be getting in touch with city officials. Mory could not be reached for comment.
City Attorney John Mullen said he has not heard from the auditors.
Kim Kimball, executive director of MainStreet Oceanside, said she also has heard nothing more about the audit.
Local activist Donna McGinty filed a nine-page complaint with the grand jury Sept. 17, initiating the probe.
McGinty's major complaint is that MainStreet has mingled all the funds it receives – from the city and other sources – so that it is impossible to determine exactly how taxpayers' dollars are spent. She also said city officials have done a poor job of demanding better accounting.
McGinty also questioned the role played by former MainStreet executive director Kim Heim, a licensed contractor, in some of the organization's activities, such as construction work in conjunction with its beach-vending services.
In her letter, McGinty suggested that Heim could have created a conflict of interest when he used his contractor's license in the course of planning concrete and electrical improvements for vendors in the beach area.
Heim announced in July that he would step down as executive director, but continue on a contract basis as director of special programs for MainStreet Oceanside.
“I have never used my general contractor's license for anything for MainStreet – nor have we needed to,” Heim said yesterday.
Jane McVey, the city's director of economic and community development, said yesterday that the organization can improve its accounting.
“We continue to work with them on their reporting,” McVey said.
She welcomed the audit, as did Wood, who said, “Right, wrong or indifferent, if they do an audit, we will know.”
Year-to-year figures vary, but the average annual city contribution to the organization has been $100,000. The last time the City Council considered the funding, enough questions arose for it to schedule a special workshop on MainStreet for Feb. 4 before granting it funds for fiscal 2009-10.
In a letter to McGinty, jury foreman Martin said the grand jury never discloses publicly that it is studying a matter, nor does it reveal the complainant's name. But McGinty has questioned MainStreet's use of taxpayer money at various public meetings, and provided a copy of the letter she sent to the grand jury
Her complaint covered other Oceanside issues besides MainStreet.
She also questioned the use of city funds by the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce, the California Welcome Center and the California Surf Museum.
McGinty also wrote that the council hasn't done right by a 59-acre, city-owned parcel known as Goat Hill. It contains the Center City Golf Course but was promised as a community park with a swimming pool, amphitheater and other amenities, she said.
Martin's response to McGinty mentioned only the MainStreet audit.