Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nevada County GJ Report: Nevada City's Financial Oversight Committee - Asset or Annoyance

By: Nevada County Civil Grand Jury

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 - Please be advised that a new report from the 2008-2009 Nevada County Grand Jury will be released on the web page of the Civil Grand Jury June 17, 2009 at 11:00 a.m.

A summary of this report is attached; you may obtain a full copy of this report at this address:

Click on "GRAND JURY Reports" link.

Nevada City's Financial Oversight Committee - Asset or Annoyance?


The City Council of Nevada City abolished their Finance and Administration Committee in favor of taking on this role themselves. Although the Council was within its authority to take this action, the Nevada County Grand Jury (Jury) believes the citizens of Nevada City have lost a valuable resource. The Jury urges the Council to take a second look at the benefits this type of committee can provide. Other actions are also recommended


Nevada County Grand jury report: Homeless help stretched thin

Despite limited resources, Nevada County is doing a heroic job handling the area's homeless population, according to the Nevada County civil grand jury.

In a report issued this week, the grand jury said the growing demand for help was reflected at the Food Bank of Nevada County, where 770 families were assisted in January 2009, compared to 392 the previous January.

Demand for food, shelter and fuel from the Emergency Assistance Coalition has more than doubled, according to the report.

The grand jury is an arm of the superior court that tries to help improve government functions at the request of county residents and others, according to the county's Web site. The panel is composed of 19 people serving one-year terms.

A census of the homeless the grand jury observed in January in shelters, camps and transient areas found an estimated 50 to 60 homeless children in the county.

The grand jury's report did not quantify the increase in the number of homeless people, but the estimated the increase was not a result of more people moving here.

One member of the grand jury told The Union Wednesday it was difficult to determine the actual number of homeless, and the county's watchdog group was working with the best information available.

The grand jury also lauded a 40 percent increase in funding for the homeless from the county's Health and Human Services Agency. The report also suggested that homeless aid should be a year-round effort in Nevada County.

Although the grand jury applauded the efforts of the county and area nonprofits including the Food Bank, emergency coalition, Hospitality House, Salvation Army and Family Resource Center of Truckee, it suggested better coordination among those agencies was needed.

“It's actually happening right now,” said Hospitality House Executive Director Cindy Maple on Wednesday. Representatives of the nonprofits and the county's Health and Human Services Agency have been talking about how to avoid duplication in services and finding more housing, Maple said.

The county's Health and Human Services Agency will host a workshop this fall to further a cooperative effort, the report said.

“We're OK, but if we don't up our income, we may have to cut back a little here and there,” Maple said. “We're feeling the loss of some donations because of the economy.”

The doors are still open for showers, weekday lunches and information referrals at Hospitality House in downtown Grass Valley. The center takes about 30 people to area churches for overnight shelter from Oct. 15 to April 30 during the cold months.

The center recently applied for a $200,000 federal grant to increase the time of the shelter program from mid-September to the end of May. It now operates from mid-October to around mid-April.

“Eventually, we want to go year-round to keep people out of freezing and hot temperatures,” Maple said late last month.

The community has been generous, but the center needs to find a stable funding source, Maple said.

During the 2008-09 season, the shelter program had 5,700 overnight stays, up 26 percent from the year before when 4,500 needed a place to stay, Maple said.

To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail dmoller@theunion.com or call 477-4237.


Sacramento County Grand jury: Investigate Natomas school site purchase

By Diana Lambert
Published: Wednesday, May. 27, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

A Natomas Unified School District purchase of 41 acres of farmland for six times its value in 2007 should be investigated by the local, state and federal authorities, according to a Sacramento County grand jury report released Tuesday.

The report charges that Superintendent Steve Farrar failed to exercise proper oversight over the $13.3 million purchase of the school site, outside the city limits.

It also found that a lawyer representing the school district in the purchase did not reveal he had a conflict of interest until three months after escrow closed. The attorney, Martin Steiner, didn't return calls from The Bee.

The grand jury report followed a Bee investigation that found the district paid for the property based on an inflated appraisal.

The single appraisal of $24.6 million presented to the school board was based on property with houses that had sewer and water service and could be annexed to the city, said jury foreman Donald Prange Sr.

None of those conditions existed.

The appraisal purported to reflect fair market value of the property and failed to disclose it was based on a hypothetical situation of what the land might be worth if the city annexed it, according to the grand jury report.

In fact, the unimproved farmland sold by West Lakeside LLC, a partnership headed by developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, had environmental issues that prohibited building on much of it. City officials told The Bee last year that annexation of that property would be improbable.

"There's still a question whether they can get water out into that area," Prange said.

The district is planning to build a bio-science magnet school on the West Lakeside site that will focus on green technology, said Heidi Van Zant, district spokesman.

A senior property appraiser from the California Office of Real Estate Appraisers who testified before the grand jury said the property was actually worth $50,000 to $60,000 an acre in 2007, for a total value of about $2 million.

The property was originally appraised by Chris Ferguson, who was hired by Steiner, an attorney hired in turn by then- Assistant Superintendent Frank Harding, who handled the transaction for the district.

That arrangement meant the attorney was legally bound to keep his conversations with the appraiser confidential, making the district's actions protected instead of transparent, according to the report.

The Bee tried unsuccessfully to obtain a copy of the appraisal a month before the board approved the purchase in December 2006. Even then, the district refused to make public the appraisal for months afterward.

Ferguson's attorney, Greg Peterson, said Tuesday that the buyer and seller arrived at a price based on conditions that everyone knew. "Why they reached that deal or why they think it was a good deal is something they will have to answer to," Peterson said.

He said Ferguson appraised the land based on assumptions he was directed to use.

"What Chris did was reasonable," Peterson said. "He did not knowingly include anything false or misleading in his work."

Peterson said Ferguson was never questioned about his appraisal by the school district and wasn't asked to attend the meeting when it was presented.

In another matter, Harding, the Natomas official who was in charge of the land deal, was convicted last year of one felony count for directing contracts to a company in which he had a financial stake when he worked for the district. Before his conviction, Harding left Natomas for the same job in the Elk Grove Unified School District but was fired 13 weeks later.

Last year, district officials acknowledged they had spent too much for the land and hired a malpractice attorney to help bring the parties together to agree on a remedy.

"The district has been and is in sensitive ongoing negotiations with all the parties involved in the purchase of the site to hopefully resolve and remedy the problems associated with having relied on an erroneous appraisal for the West Lakeside site," the district said in a prepared statement.

On the advice of district officials, the superintendent and trustees declined to be interviewed for this story.

The district ultimately agreed to pay $325,000 an acre, or $13.3 million, for the property. The board hailed the purchase price as a bargain – based on the $24.6 million appraisal.

Because the selling price was below the appraised value or market value, Tsakopoulos could take a multimillion- dollar tax write-off. The developer has asked the school district for documents that would allow the tax break, said the grand jury's Prange. The district has yet to oblige.

The grand jury also questioned hundreds of thousands of dollars contributed to the Natomas School Foundation by a partner in West Lakeside LLC and Tsakopoulos' AKT Development firm during the property negotiations. The report said that Farrar, who established the foundation and sat on its board, actively solicited the donations.

The grand jury also expressed concern that Steiner waited until three months after the close of escrow to reveal that he had previously worked for West Lakeside LLC.

The board is expected to address the grand jury findings in the next 90 days.

City Councilman Ray Tretheway said he asked the board to investigate the purchase two years ago. He says some portions of the grand jury report "raise an eyebrow," but that he has faith in district officials.

"I have a lot of trust in the school board and their administration," Tretheway said. "I do have to believe the district will be able to achieve a resolution that will satisfy everybody."


Fresno County Grand Jury report criticizes Drinkhouse

A Fresno County grand jury report released today harshly criticizes former Sanger City Manager Jim Drinkhouse and other city officials.

The report said that Drinkhouse, who resigned abruptly in February after seven years as the city's top administrator, told the City Council after he was hired that he had been arrested for forgery and had a gambling habit. Nonetheless, the council decided to keep him on the job.

The report also said that the grand jury found "several instances of conflicts of interest in development projects" and that "some actions by city officials were a conflict of interest, inappropriate, and illegal."

Drinkhouse was not immediately available for comment.


Santa Clara County Grand jury releases scathing VTA report

By Michael Moore - Staff Writer

A scathing Civil Grand Jury report released Monday derides the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority as unresponsive and unaccountable to the public, disobedient to its own policies, and generally dishonest.

"The more one learns about how the VTA executes its mission, the lower the confidence level in the board's ability to manage the agency," reads a line in the summary of the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report entitled "Taking the public for a ride."

VTA spokeswoman Jennie Loft said the report contains nothing new, is full of factual errors, and its criticisms echo those heard during the November 2008 election season, when the agency sponsored three ballot measures that voters approved.

"The report is filled with restatements from anti-VTA and anti-BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) rhetoric, and that rhetoric was rejected by the voters in November," Loft said. "If you look through the report you see opinions about the VTA or opinions about BART that are not based on fact."

The three ballot measures provided for an eighth-cent sales tax to extend BART, and to approve the agency's long-range transportation plan.

The report released Monday also relies on previous reports that were critical of the VTA, including a 2003-2004 Civil Grand Jury report, a 2007 study by private consultant the Hay Group, and a July 2008 report by the California State Auditor. Loft said the VTA has worked on implementing some of the recommendations made in those reports, chief of which is that the VTA board's advisory committees should be more involved with staff and board members.

The latest report released Monday specifically questions the agency's use of the Citizens Advisory Committee, a 16-member panel of appointed citizens that is charged with reviewing the agency's expenditures and conducting independent audit reports. The report says Measure A, a half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements approved by voters in 2000, created a Citizens Watchdog Committee, and the board assigned this role to the existing CAC.

However, the report says, the CWC is not independent of the VTA board as a true "watchdog" should be. It says its members are approved by the board and not by a third-party as other citizen oversight bodies are in other transportation agencies in California. Plus, those members consist of former board and staff members.

"The very nature of an 'independent watchdog committee' is to 'oversee' actions of the board for the citizens of Santa Clara County," says the report.

More broadly, the report criticizes the relationship between the VTA board and its staff, complaining that staff has too much influence in policy decisions. It says in producing board meeting agendas, the staff often floods the directors with stacks of documents sometimes hundreds of pages thick, often leaving them little time to process all the information.

Actions recommended by "Taking the public for a ride" include changing VTA bylaws so that Measure A CWC members are appointed by an independent third party; prohibiting former elected officials from sitting on the CAC; and allowing the CWC to have its own staff that does not double as VTA staff. It also says the VTA board should encourage the CWC to establish its own priorities; and should prepare its own meeting agendas instead of directing staff to do so.

VTA board members and local representatives Don Gage and Greg Sellers did not immediately respond to phone calls requesting comment.

Civil Grand Jury foreman Don Kawashima also did not immediately respond to a phone call requesting comment.

Click here to read the entire Grand Jury Report.


Grand jury: San Joaquin law enforcement computer security lags

By The Record
June 02, 2009 1:53 PM

Three of San Joaquin County’s top law enforcement offices have the least secure computer systems of all local agencies, according to a Civil grand jury report published today.

All but two of the County’s seven cities failed to measure up, the 2008-09 grand jury reported. This is the first time a grand jury in San Joaquin County has investigated information technology systems.

The report says that offices of the San Joaquin County Sheriff, District Attorney and Public Defender failed to meet expectations for securing information technology systems. The County’s Agricultural Commissioner’s Office also didn’t meet expectations, the report found. Another nine agencies met expectations.

The grand jury launched its probe into the county’s 13 agencies and seven incorporated cities under the notion that each organization increasingly holds sensitive information collected from local businesses and citizens.

Lathrop and Escalon were the only two cities that passed the informal audit, while the county’s other five municipalities failed, the grand jury found.

Read Wednesday’s Record for more on this story by staff writer Scott Smith.


Butte County Grand Jury scolds Behavioral Health: Department lacks stability

By TONI SCOTT - Staff Writer
Posted: 06/26/2009 10:15:11 PM PDT

OROVILLE -- A lack of stability, transparency and leadership plagues Butte County's Department of Behavioral Health, according to the 2008-09 Butte County Grand Jury report released Friday.

The report by the 19-member Grand Jury, states the department suffers from "problems of malcontent" that it attributes in large part to former Director Brad Luz.

Grand jurors visited seven department clinics this past year, questioning 34 employees while researching the department's financial documents.

The Grand Jury found "medical, clinical and line staffs ... were suffering from low morale, mistrust and fear of losing their jobs," claiming the poor feelings stem from "mistrust and lack of leadership under the former administrator."

The report indicates budget decisions were made behind closed doors, without the input of assistant directors and program managers, ultimately leading to income-generating services being cut while administrators received higher salaries.

Because of this, the report states the department was left in "financial turmoil," with interim Director Ed Walker inheriting a need to cut $5 million from its budget when Luz suddenly stepped down from his post in March 2008.

The Grand Jury also scolded the Board of Supervisors for its lack of knowledge of the department's woes.

"The Grand Jury found the Butte County Board of Supervisors to be surprisingly un-informed and un-involved in overseeing and monitoring the Department of Behavioral Health's fiscal affairs, structure of management, and administrative decisions," the report reads.

District 1 Supervisor Bill Connelly disputed the Grand Jury's claims, adding the supervisors worked from information they thought Luz provided in good faith.

"The department heads only gave glowing reports," Connelly said.

Connelly said the supervisors only heard employee concerns after the department was struggling financially. If people do not voice their grievances, it is impossible for the Board of Supervisors to remedy a situation, he said.

"If they want to pass the blame on me, then fine, I'm to blame," Connelly said. "But you also have to blame the people that didn't come forward to complain when they knew there were problems. We can't do anything but rely on reports given to us."

The Grand Jury report also calls for the Board of Supervisors to become "more involved with the fiscal affairs and administrative structure of BCDBH," a suggestion Connelly disagrees with.

"We have a $400 million budget and 2,000 employees. We can't run day-to-day operations for every department. If we start running departments we're not doing our jobs correctly," Connelly said.

The report further asks the Board of Supervisors to hire a permanent director, though Connelly said in the current recession, the supervisors have been hit with other financial priorities, including the hiring of a county chief administrative officer.

Connelly did acknowledge the department was experiencing problems under Luz's leadership, but said "dramatic changes" have been made under Walker, who he said was "doing a great job."

The Grand Jury affirmed that claim, stating Walker is "well liked and respected by all levels of department personnel" but stipulated that some issues continue to persist under Walker's leadership.

"The consensus of witness testimony reveals a continuing lack of transparency, fear of retaliation for speaking out, and decision-making that continues to be made by a small group of people."

Walker declined to comment Friday, with department staff adding that he was out of the office and could not immediately address the report findings.

The report calls for increased leadership training, increased transparency, and the hiring of a permanent director and medical director to remedy these problems. It also calls for the creation of two residential treatment facilities, which could save out-of county costs for the department.


Grand jury report says Santa Clara County school officials are overpaid

By Diana Samuels

Daily News Staff Writer
Posted: 06/26/2009 11:00:00 PM PDT
Updated: 06/27/2009 12:00:14 AM PDT

Many school superintendents and board members in Santa Clara County are paid too much in health benefits and perks such as housing loans, car allowances and annuities, according to a county Civil Grand Jury report released this week.

"It is difficult to understand or support continuing these generous administrative expenses, while at the same time, teachers, staff and programs are being cut," states the report, which is titled "Who Really Benefits from Education Dollars? Hint: It's Not the Students."

The report goes on to state: "Although many superintendents' base salaries are already high, additional incremental benefits significantly inflate their base salaries. ... These extra benefits are usually not visible to the public."

In addition to pointing out that superintendents and school board trustees are overcompensated, the report recommends that districts focus locally when searching for new superintendents and consider consolidating to save money. It also suggests paying less for lawyers, noting that in the 2007-08 school year 21 of the county's 34 districts spent more than $7 million combined on outside legal services.

The grand jury spent six or seven months examining district financial records and interviewing district officials, grand jury foreman Don Kawashima said.

In Santa Clara County, superintendents in most districts make comparable pay regardless of the number of students in their charge and all are guaranteed an automatic raise each year, Kawashima said.

"Nobody's looked at how much they're paying the superintendents versus what their job is," Kawashima said.

Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Kevin Skelly is the sixth-highest paid superintendent in the county, with a $248,000 salary in 2008-09 plus $9,000 for a car allowance, according to the grand jury report. Palo Alto was noted as one of two districts where superintendents received housing loans of $1 million with low interest rates.

Skelly's salary — base and car allowance — works out to about $23.52 per student.

Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District Superintendent Barry Groves made $210,330 plus a $6,000 annual car allowance. His compensation works out to $59.81 per student.

Mountain View Whisman School District Superintendent Maurice Ghysels earned $183,854, plus a $6,000 car allowance, which equates to $44.17 per student.

School officials said salary pay is determined by market forces.

"You look at the market, you're going to look at comparables," said Palo Alto School Board Vice President Barbara Klausner. "The goal is to pay what you need to, to retain the quality that you have."

Klausner and Palo Alto School Board President Barb Mitchell both said their district fared well in the report.

Although some districts give their board members as much as $80,000 or $90,000 in medical benefits, for example, Palo Alto and Mountain View Whisman board members don't receive any health benefits. Mountain View-Los Altos trustees each get $38,528 in medical benefits.

Mitchell said the Palo Alto school board has no interest in picking up benefits.

"Our culture here has been to rotate every four to eight years, so it's viewed as a temporary community service role and not a career," she said.

The report also says districts spend too much on "costly search firms" to recruit new superintendents, and should focus locally.

"Why aren't they grooming their own good superintendents?" Kawashima asked.

Mitchell said a superintendent position is too important for a limited search.

"The goal is to get the best person for the job," Mitchell said, "not the best person in the county."

The report also suggests that the county consider consolidating some districts. The county's 34 districts mean 34 superintendents and school boards need to be paid, he said, while San Francisco only has one district.

Patty Murphy, communications director with the Santa Clara County Office of Education, said some consolidation has been occurring throughout the county. She said the county will consider the report's recommendations.

"We want to make sure that we are transparent," Murphy said. "It is taxpayer dollars, and we work to be responsive."

E-mail Diana Samuels at dsamuels@dailynewsgroup.com.

Butte County Cemetery districts reviewed by Grand Jury

By MARY WESTON-Staff Writer
Posted: 06/27/2009 12:00:00 AM PDT

OROVILLE — The Butte County Grand Jury found the largest cemetery districts in the county run smoothly and efficiently and follow state regulations, but recommended a few changes such as adding a youth education program that discourages vandalism.

The Grand Jury investigated the Gridley-Biggs Cemetery District, the Oroville Cemetery District and the Paradise Cemetery District, since it has been several years since they have been visited.

According to the report, all three districts are similar in operation and appear to comply with all state rules and regulations.

All send audit reports to the State of California Cemetery Board. The jury found each cemetery is well-maintained.

The jury found all three districts require payment in full before services. Families who plan in advance pay fees based on today's costs.

Prepaid moneys are deposited by the Gridley district in a county pooled investment account. The Oroville and Paradise districts deposit prepaid money into the county pooled investment account and private investments allowed by the state.

The districts had some differences in charges, according to the report for burials done the day of or days before and after a holiday.

The Gridley district encourages youth to visit the cemetery to learn respect for the sacred ground and the historical significance of the cemetery. These visitations have successfully curtailed vandalism, according to the report.

The Grand Jury recommended all cemetery districts use this approach.

Other recommendations include Oroville and Paradise eliminating charges for deaths outside the district when costs are prepaid.

The districts can submit responses to the report.


Butte County faulted again for fire evacuation routes

By TONI SCOTT - Staff Writer
Posted: 06/26/2009 10:15:14 PM PDT

OROVILLE -- For the second year in a row, the lack of fire evacuation routes in Paradise and the Upper Ridge have caused extreme concern for the Butte County Grand Jury, which investigated the matter in its 2008-09 report issued Friday.

With the summer 2008 wildfires occurring during its term of service, the 19-member Grand Jury looked into Butte County's fire safety measures as a whole, concluding that there are insufficient evacuation routes in the areas of Magalia and Paradise.

"All roads out of Paradise and the Upper Ridge, with the exception of the Skyway below Paradise, have significant constraints, limiting their use as evacuation routes during a major event," the report states.

The same conclusion was reached by the 2007-08 Grand Jury, with little action occurring since.

Though the 2007-08 report was speculation, for the 2008-09 report Grand Jury members could witness the problem first-hand, when the Humboldt Fire raged.

The report states only four southbound evacuation routes are available in Paradise, and no "adequate northbound evacuation routes" exist.

During the Humboldt Fire, the Skyway, Neal and Clark roads were all closed, with the only evacuation route -- Pentz Road -- clogged with 30,000 Paradise residents hoping to escape to safety.

"It took three hours to travel 11 miles from Paradise to Highway 70," the report reads.

Additionally, the report found problems with escape routes from Magalia, stating that the only northbound evacuation route requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and is "in a high-fire-danger area" with a speed limit of 25-30 mph.

To compound the issue of inadequate evacuation routes, the Grand Jury said the Butte County 2030 General Plan forecasts increased development in the area, increasing the number of residents who need to use the few evacuation routes by 15,000.

"Prior to increasing the number of residents at risk, measures should be taken to adequately plan for emergencies," the report states. "The current design will place most of these homes directly on the canyon rim. In case of fire, this will increase the danger for its residents."

Butte County Director of Development Services Tim Snellings said the General Plan does address these concerns, adding that increased evacuation routes have been suggested throughout the General Plan process.

"We are very cognizant of the need to address fire safety," Snellings said. "Its part of our guiding principles."

Snellings said most of the county's growth in the 2030 General Plan has been focused around existing populated areas, adding that the development the Grand Jury report highlights is just one of the few pockets of growth that occurs in the outlying areas of the county.

Recognizing that funding is a significant hindrance in the completion of additional evacuation routes and modernization of current ones, the Grand Jury suggested a "benefit assessment district" be established.

In essence, individuals living within Paradise, the Upper Ridge, Concow and Centerville, would be assessed with an additional property tax, that would be used to pay for the evacuation route improvements.

"There is currently a movement toward development of a Benefit Assessment District ... The Grand Jury endorses this proactive approach," the report states.

Aside from the evacuation routes, the Grand Jury also found fault with the County's Emergency Broadcast System during the 2008 wildfires, claiming the system was not regularly updated.

The taped messages did not match the current fire conditions, the report indicated, and could have created "panic among residents."

Butte County District 1 Supervisor Bill Connelly said the system has already been addressed in community and county meetings, adding that the Grand Jury's complaint "was a good corrective point."

"We're already trying to fix the bugs in the system," Connelly said.

Additionally, the report suggested that Cal Fire-Butte County and the fire safe councils take a different approach in circulating fire information.

The report suggests that instead of pamphlets, the fire agencies include information in phone books and property assessments.

Cal Fire spokeswoman Mary Ann Aldrich said Cal Fire-Butte County's administration had yet to address the report, but would consider the suggestion.


Grand jury calls Central Marin sewer board 'petty, unacceptable'

Rob Rogers
Posted: 06/27/2009 10:10:09 PM PDT
Updated: 06/27/2009 10:10:09 PM PDT

Marin's civil grand jury wants to know why the members of the Central Marin Sanitation Agency can't just get along.

A new report by the grand jury says the agency's commissioners - who represent the Corte Madera, Larkspur, Ross Valley and San Rafael sewer districts - engage in "petty, unacceptable and counter-productive behavior" that includes micro-managing agency staff, squabbling over resources and refusing to respond to questions from the public.

"The board is not behaving in a manner expected of public officials," the report says. "It is time to end the infighting and concentrate on serving the needs of the citizens. The public deserves it."

Board President Robert Sinnott said he disagrees with the report, arguing that the commission's disputes stem from a feud between Ross Valley Sanitary District representatives and the other members over the issue of merging the four agencies.

"Four of the six board members work collectively (and) thoroughly, strongly support the CMSA operation, and have in the past, supported a formal study to explore consolidation," Sinnott, who represents Larkspur, said via e-mail. "In my opinion, certain board members who represent one of the member agencies do not support regionalization and have created significant turbulence to knock any study process off its tracks. At the same time, these board members have caused turbulence in other areas of business that comes before the board and hardships for the general manager and his staff."

As the county's largest sanitation provider, with an annual operating budget of $9 million, the Central Marin Sanitation Agency treats an average of 11 million gallons a day, handling 10 times more wastewater than that during major storms.

"By most accounts, it runs smoothly and efficiently, to the point of winning numerous industry awards for its operations and financial practices," the grand jury report says.

Yet the agency board remains divided between the commissioners from the Ross Valley Sanitary District - who feel that because their district contributes more money, and wastewater, than any other member they should have a larger role in the board's decision-making - and the other members, particularly San Rafael, whose commissioners prefer to share power equally.

"We're giving them 54 percent of their funds, and we have a minority voice," said Marcia Johnson, a Ross Valley representative on the agency board. "That belies what this country was founded upon: one person, one vote. It's not apportioned representation, like what we have in the House of Representatives."

According to the grand jury report, the Ross Valley representatives have responded to perceived slights by attempting to re-write the minutes of the commission, badgering agency staff with questions and videotaping each meeting.

The district has even filed public records requests to receive agency documents its representatives wish to review, even though the Ross Valley and Central Marin offices are at the same location.

"I am astounded at (the grand jury) questioning the right of the commissioners to ask questions, to correct minutes and videotape meetings, all things that are clearly defined in state law as being part of the normal course of business at a public meeting," Johnson said. "Is asking questions not something we should be doing? Isn't that what public meetings are for?"

San Rafael Mayor Al Boro and other board members say Johnson and fellow Ross Valley Commissioner Sue Brown have attempted to micro-manage the district's operations. At the board's March 10 meeting, for example, Johnson challenged General Manager Jason Dow on multiple aspects of the district's capital bond program, and told him she believed the board, not its general manager, should set budget priorities.

"The commissioners are policymakers, not operations people," Boro said. "To have someone think they know more than professionals is a problem. It would be one thing if our financial records were messed up, but our staff is very professional, very good, winning award after award."

Johnson, however, believes she has a responsibility to maintain a careful watch over complex operations.

"It always sounds like things are going well, but when you have a $50 million to $60 million project going on, there are always problems, always crazy things that happen," Johnson said. "And we don't hear about any of that."

Johnson also counters that the Ross Valley commissioners have taken their share of harassment from the other board members.

"I have personally been the victim of numerous attacks," Johnson said. "At one point, one of the commissioners from the other side grabbed my arm when he was upset with me and hurt me."

Adding to the dysfunction, the grand jury notes, is the fact that the agency board has no official bylaws and only two policies. The commission has no standards on how to respond to public queries, spend excess funds, post its minutes or agendas or provide access to public documents. In fact, the report says, "the public has been told that the board will not reply to questions posed by the public even on agendized items."

To address these issues, the grand jury recommends that the board hire a professional facilitator to "assist in establishing procedures for orderly, efficient and productive public meetings." Both Boro and Johnson, however, believe the commissioners' antipathies may run too deep for any facilitator to fix.

"I dread going to (agency) meetings," Johnson said. "But I go because I'm serving the public, and my personal dread should not come into play."

Sinnott, for his part, believes the best solution is to consolidate the agency.

"I personally believe that there are too many independent governmental units that exist in Marin County," Sinnott said. "Particularly in this current economic crisis, the public should push to regionalize where it makes sense and where public benefit is obvious. In this case, those multiple agencies that transfer sewage, I believe, should merge with the agency that treats the sewage simply to ensure coordination and to remove organizational seams that can lead to operational errors."


Mixed bag from grand jury in Lode

By Dana M. Nichols
Record Staff Writer
June 28, 2009 6:00 AM

SAN ANDREAS - The 2008-09 Calaveras County grand jury Thursday issued a final report mixed with good and bad news. The grand jury:

» Scolded county officials for failing to follow the required format for responding to previous grand jury reports.

» Praised operation of the county landfill and transfer stations as "impressive."
More online

View the full 2008/09 Calaveras County grand jury report here.

» Urged county leaders to increase the book-buying budget for the county library system.

» Dinged leaders of a road maintenance district in Copperopolis for violating open meeting laws and failing to disclose the conflict of interest when the district board approved a pay raise for the wife of a board member.

In all, this year's grand jury conducted 16 different investigations, including visits to facilities such as the county's landfill, library, jail, animal shelter and fire departments in Arnold and Jenny Lind.

Among its suggestions: restore the county library's book-buying budget to at least $45,000 a year rather than the $17,960 spent in the fiscal year that ends Wednesday, or the even smaller budget likely to be adopted next month for the coming year.

Although this year's report does make a number of such suggestions for improving county operations, nothing in it is likely to be as explosive as the report issued a year ago that alleged mismanagement by the Community Development Agency, a now-defunct entity which formerly oversaw the Building and Planning departments.

That report was followed a few months later by the resignation of Community Development Agency Director Stephanie Moreno and then the decision to dissolve that agency and restore the Building and Planning departments to being independent entities as they were before 2006.

Some of the issues raised in this year's report, meanwhile, reflect unfinished business from that chain of events. The grand jury, for example, investigated the decision by county officials to pay Moreno $89,300 to settle a threat that she might file a sex discrimination lawsuit.

According to the grand jury report: "County Counsel determined through negotiations that it was in the best interest of the county to settle rather than to defend this matter in court."

The grand jury's conclusion: "County settlements to claimants should be based on specific charges against the county and not on threats."

The grand jury also expressed its displeasure with the way top county officials, including the Board of Supervisors and County Administrative Office Bob Lawton, responded to many of the previous year's complaints about Moreno and the Community Development Agency.

In particular, the current grand jury said the leaders failed to meet legal standards for responses when they simply said they "adopted" or "agreed" with more detailed responses given by subordinates such as department heads.

Assistant County Counsel David Sirias on Thursday said he had not yet reviewed the new report and so could not speak to any specifics.

But he said he was skeptical that the law would require officials to use extra ink to re-print a response with which they agreed.

"Without having the benefit of researching it, it wouldn't seem to make sense to require duplication of efforts," Sirias said.

Representatives of the various districts and county offices reviewed by the grand jury will, in coming months, submit formal responses to the report.

Contact reporter Dana M. Nichols at (209) 607-1361 or dnichols@recordnet.com.


Opinion: Imperial County Grand jury report: No substance


Saturday, June 27, 2009 10:22 PM PDT

Click here for First Imperial Credit Union's Website
We respect the job of the Imperial County Grand Jury and realize it can be a thankless one. Let us first say thank you for your service.

Having said that, we were very disappointed by the grand jury’s recent report on the Imperial Irrigation District. The five-page report contains plenty of vague assertions with no real supporting facts and makes at least one recommendation that defies logic.

Reading the report makes it clear that the grand jury doesn’t have an understanding of how public entities work. For example, it takes aim at the district for presenting a budget that has rate increases before the increases were approved. That is how public bodies work. If the increases are not approved, as they were not in this case, the budget is changed to reflect that. This is standard operating procedure for public entities, not some dark plan to deceive anyone. In fact, the district held public workshops and hearings on these proposed increases. This was not hidden from the public.

The report also tells the district where it should set its water rates. We are convinced that is not the job of the grand jury, and this is severe overreaching.

But it is probably no surprise in a document that basically calls the IID corrupt but has no evidence to back up the assertion. If the grand jury can find real evidence of corruption, this newspaper would run it on the front page daily. So far there is no evidence of that. We want facts, not conjecture.

The most stunning part of the report comes in the recommendations. The second recommendation reads as follows:

“The IID Board of Directors must commit its time and talents to running the entity themselves, rather than allow decisions to rest in and information to filter through hands of a single General Manager, who is unelected and unaccountable to stakeholders.”

This recommendation actually runs counter to reason. First, one of the biggest problems the IID had in the past was micromanaging directors. It is their job to set policy, not run the district. The board did the right thing in hiring a well-qualified general manager, and is now letting him do his job.

The grand jury must understand that the IID board has one direct report — the general manager. Elected board members set the policy and he puts it into action. To say he is unaccountable is ridiculous. As elected officials, the board directs him. If he is not doing his job, it is their job to fire him. It is very simple.

The last thing the IID needs is the board meddling in the daily business of the district. We have long argued that, and the board is finally on the right track.

The grand jury has promised annual investigations of the district, and we say that is good. But we hope that in the future the grand jury reports on the IID have actual substance.


Placer County Grand jury lists recycling program, juvenile hall concerns

Animal shelter facility is satisfactory, report says
By Jenifer Gee,Journal Staff Writer

A Placer County grand jury report released this week highlights the inadequacy of a recycling program, the lack of response from Placer’s juvenile hall and the future of the animal shelter’s new site.

The 2008-2009 report investigated various departments and programs. Here is a summary of the highlights:

Blue Bag Recycling Program

The grand jury wrote that the program, which is a voluntary program in Auburn, Lincoln, Loomis and unincorporated areas of the county, be eliminated.

The 2007-08 jury recommended the same outcome. The current jury wrote that after reinvestigating the matter, they “determined the residents’ time, effort and expense were of marginal value to any of the jurisdictions’ recycling programs while additional costs were incurred in processing the intact bags.”

Auburn City Mayor Mike Holmes, however, disagreed.

He said the grand jury’s report was forwarded to city staff to review, but he believes the city will continue with the program.

“In my personal opinion, I don’t think the grand jury has given us any persuasive argument to do away with the blue bag program,” Holmes said.

Holmes said the program helps the city keep track of how much it’s recycling. He said the city’s goal was to be recycling about 50 percent of its waste and currently is above that mark.

“The solid waste management board encourages us to recycle as much as possible,” Holmes said. “At least with the blue bag program, we have some data that helps us ascertain what percentage is being recycled.”

Placer County Auburn Animal Shelter

Jury members said the current facility, while older, is “satisfactory.”

The report noted that the replacement of the Auburn site is scheduled for 2013 but relies on the construction of a new facility in South Placer to serve Roseville, Rocklin and Lincoln.

The grand jury did not request a response to this report.

Placer County Juvenile Detention Facility

This year’s grand jury agreed with two prior grand juries that the facility should install more surveillance cameras to protect detainees and staff. The grand jury wrote that “little or no progress” has been made in installing the cameras.

In response to prior reports, facility officials indicated they are working to resolve the issue.

For more information about the Placer grand jury, visit placergrandjury.org or call (530) 886-5200.

The Journal’s Jenifer Gee can be reached at jeniferg@goldcountrymedia.com or post a comment at auburnjournal.com.


Yolo County New grand jury sworn in

Created: 06/28/2009 02:30:33 AM PDT

The selection of the next grand jury took place this past week in Department 15 of the Yolo Superior Court with Superior Court Judge Janet Gaard presiding.

The State of California Constitution requires that every county impanel a grand jury each year. The grand jury is an arm of the judicial system, but acts as an entirely independent body. The primary functions include reviewing the operations of local governmental agencies, investigating complaints from private citizens, and considering criminal indictments.

The term of the new grand jury will officially begin until July 1, 2009, when the panel takes the oath and is sworn in.

Those people to be sworn in as members are: Deborah Chase, John Littau, James Reed, Donna Slattery, Barbara Sommer, Kymberlee Stapleton, Richard Eric Worrell, Charlotte Beal, Rick Fenaroli, Laura Melissa Turben, Kathleen Jean Stock, Enas H. Wilson, Marie Louise Kearney, Linda Nelson, Jeanne Louise Binns, Loretta Rae Teuscher, Stanley Moorhead, Mike Maucieri and Maple Avery-Dull.

Those to be sworn in as alternates are Shirley Stefano, Erich W. Linse Jr., Earl M. Kynard, Omar Lee Dodds Jr., Nancy Ullrey, Iris Velazquez, Barbara Turpin, Gary Cook, Rebecca Marquez, Selby Lee Koster, Joan Quinlan, Marcella Harrison, Enid Williams and Cary Tommeraason.

Gaard described the incoming members and alternates "an extremely well-qualified group of individuals who have committed to donating a substantial amount of time in service to our community."

The recruitment process begins in February of each year. Edwina Harper, Jury Services Supervisor, encourages all interested citizens to consider applying for the grand jury, noting, "This is a great way to become more involved in the community."

For more information regarding grand jury service and how to apply go to www.yolo.courts.ca.gov or call Yolo Superior Court Jury Services at 406-6828.


Marin pension service needs improvement, grand jury report says

Richard Halstead
Posted: 06/28/2009 07:22:25 PM PDT

Marin County and other government employees are finding it difficult to get their retirement benefits calculated in a timely fashion, and the board that oversees the Marin County Employees Retirement Association needs to take action, according to a Marin County grand jury report.

The association, which administers the retirement benefits of employees of Marin County, the city of San Rafael and other governmental agencies, is overseen by a nine-member board. The board also reviews disability retirement claims and oversees investment of retirement funds.

But in its report released last week, the grand jury focused exclusively on the association's administration and complaints of "excessive delays in computing and delivering retirement benefits." Such calculations are crucial when employees are planning when to schedule their retirement.

The grand jury said that as recently as March, one of the county's employee unions complained that customer service was continuing "to plummet."

"There was a growing backlog in calculating benefits. There were also complaints about discourteous treatment by staff," the report said.

Robin Barber, a spokeswoman for the county's more than 1,200 Service Employees International Union members, said she's received lots of complaints from union members over the past couple of years.

"People have been complaining about not being able to get benefits calculated, not being able to get information, not being able to get timely appointments," Barber said. "It's been a problem."

The grand jury also reported that staff turnover at the association in the past 21Ú2 years "has been disturbingly high." During 2007 and 2008 there were 14 people who were hired and who then left after two to five months. The association currently employs 15 people.

The report made no mention that the pension board awarded the person in charge of the association, Administrator Charnel Benner, a $10,000 performance bonus in November 2008, after Benner's salary had been boosted 44 percent to $216,000 a year in 2007.

Jim Phillips, the pension board's chairman and president of JP Capital Management in San Francisco, said none of the problems cited in the grand jury report are Benner's fault.

"Her work has been very, very good," Phillips said. "There is no reason why her work should be the cause for any complaints."

Benner took issue with the report's contention that customer service was still a growing problem in March.

"In fact, customer service has improved significantly; turnaround time has shortened significantly," Benner said. "By no circumstances can anyone honestly say that customer service has continued to plummet."

Benner attributed high staff turnover to employees who joined the association when the mortgage brokerage business tanked and then decided to return to the private sector.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Napa County Grand jury finds fault with AmCan

By Sarah Rohrs/Times-Herald staff writer
Posted: 06/26/2009 01:00:37 AM PDT

American Canyon should strive to be more transparent in conducting the public's business and also consider hiring a city attorney, a Napa County grand jury recommends.

A recnt grand jury report scolded the city over its handling of incentive pay given to American Canyon firefighters after they secured degrees from a bogus online university.

After examining two investigators' reports on the issue, jurors also criticized the city for the costs of producing the documents, and for keeping one temporarily from public review.

The grand jury report unearths little new information over the incentive pay controversy, which arose in March when the City Council, acting as the fire protection board, rescinded the raises.

That action followed a Sacramento law firm concluding the pay boosts could be construed as improper gifts of public funds.

City Attorney Bill Ross, who is contracted to provide legal services, said the city will respond to the report within 60 days.

Without elaborating, he said the response will "clarify the inaccuracies that are set forth as well as whether there is evidence to support the findings and recommendations."

The grand jury decided to look into the issue after the city refused to make one investigator's report public.

According to jurors, the city spent about $130,000 on the two investigations, and in defending a lawsuit brought by the Napa Valley Register. They also said the city resisted their efforts to review the matter.

Jurors said the second investigator's report cost a hefty $43,623, but did not reveal any more information than the first report which cost $4,332.

Firefighters who got the raises have agreed to reimburse the district about $36,000.

Jurors said the city might be better served by a full-time staff city attorney whose services would cost less than contracting with outside counsel.

Contact staff writer Sarah Rohrs at srohrs@thnewsnet.com or (707) 553-6832.


Santa Cruz County Grand jury: Scotts Valley schools should step up alcohol response

Posted: 06/26/2009 01:30:39 AM PDT

SCOTTS VALLEY -- The Santa Cruz County grand jury has recommended the Scotts Valley Unified School District ramp up its response to student alcohol use by working more closely with community agencies and parents to reduce underage drinking.

In a press conference outside Scotts Valley High on Thursday, juror Lorna Horton said the district's superintendent and school board should "create policies that allow kids to get intervention rather than being expelled." She said there "isn't a unified approach" to dealing with teen alcohol abuse, which the jury described as "one of the highest in the county" among K-12 school districts.

However, a quick review of a student survey cited by the jury in its report actually shows Scotts Valley has the lowest overall incidence of reported alcohol use compared to Santa Cruz City Schools, Pajaro Valley Unified and San Lorenzo Unified.

According to results of the 2007 California Healthy Kids Survey, the percentage of Scotts Valley fifth-graders reported trying alcohol, tobacco or drugs at least once was 40 percent -- higher than all districts but one. But that's nearly the only area where the district surpasses others.

Horton did not immediately return a follow-up call seeking clarification about why the survey results did not appear to match the jury's characterization. Earlier Thursday, jurors had said they chose Scotts Valley because the survey indicated a high rate of alcohol use and that the district's smaller size compared to other districts made it easy to study.

The survey results, which are available online, show that Scotts Valley students in grades seven and nine reported the lowest percentage of alcohol use. Secondary students were asked whether they have used alcohol or other drugs at least once in their life and at least once in the past 30 days. Only Scotts Valley's 11th-graders reported rates higher than in other districts.

An official response by the district is required by Oct. 1, but board President Sue Roth expressed concern about why Scotts Valley was targeted. Still, she said there is certainly room for improvement in how the district handles alcohol use, even amid steep state funding cuts.

"We do have good outreach programs for our students, and the budget cutting that is going on is awful, but I do believe we need more counselors," she said.

Jurors said the district, by largely penalizing alcohol users, is not living up to its own policy to reduce drinking.

"By acknowledging the problem and joining forces with other agencies, the district could give students tools to curb life-threatening teen drinking," the report said.


Santa Cruz County Grand jury questions PVUSD retirement incentives

Grand jury questions PVUSD retirement incentives
Posted: 06/25/2009 01:30:46 AM PDT

WATSONVILLE -- A new grand jury report sharply questions a retirement incentive given to former Pajaro Valley Superintendent Mary Anne Mays who had already retired but was working as the district's interim superintendent.

The 2008-09 Santa Cruz County Grand Jury report is set to be released today at a press conference.

The report documents several investigations conducted during the last year, including an examination of alcohol use among Scotts Valley teens, special district operations and county government procedures.

In the case of the Pajaro Valley retirement incentive, jury foreman Clyde Vaughn said the inquiry concluded not that rules were broken but that no rules were in place to address what the jury called a "questionable allocation of public funds" by the Pajaro Valley Unified School District board of trustees in awarding the benefit to Mays, who is not mentioned by name in the report.

"Maybe the school board should have been more on top of the issues," Vaughn said, adding most telling to him was that the board approved the incentive plan for district managers three months before the consulting firm hired to analyze the deal's finances completed its report.

Mays received the incentive as part of an offering to a dozen managers designed to save the district money at a time of financial distress.

Under the Supplemental Employee Retirement Plan, or SERP, managers who were at least 55 years old, had worked in the district continuously for five years and were eligible to retire from the State Teacher Retirement System, STRS, would receive 95 percent of a year's pay over a period of years.

The board was told that 12 employees were eligible for the plan, but not given names.

Mays and Associate Superintendent Mary Hart put forth the proposal.

A consultant estimated the deal would net the district $159,000 in savings. But the jury's investigation concluded the district saved less than a third of that.

Mays had resigned as superintendent in 2006, and later retired from the teachers pension system. But she continued to work for the district on special assignment until March 2007, when she was named interim superintendent.

Mays said Wednesday the discussion shouldn't be about why she took the SERP but why she wouldn't have.

"I retired from the district. I retired from STRS, but I didn't retire from wanting to work and be an educator," Mays said.

"Basically, I met the SERP criteria. I was included and didn't see any reason why I shouldn't be included."

The jury, however, said offering a retirement incentive to an already retired administrator "is not common practice and verges on misuse."

Trustee Doug Keegan said in hindsight the board should be more vigilant in overseeing retirement plans. He said he's said he's grown increasingly skeptical about offering them. But of Mays, he said, "if she was eligible, I don't have a problem with that."


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ventura Grand Jury backs letter-grade ratings for eateries

'A' would be top cleanliness ranking, report says

By Lisa McKinnon (Contact)
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Critics have many ways to rate a restaurant: stars, forks and long rants on Internet review sites like yelp.com.

But in a report issued Tuesday, the Ventura County Grand Jury made clear its preference for letter-grade placards like the ones seen in the windows of minimarts, coffeehouses and white-tablecloth eateries in Los Angeles County.

Titled “Is Your Favorite Restaurant Clean?” the grand jury report touts letter grades, with “A” being the best and “C” being sketchy enough to warrant a reinspection within 30 days. The report says letter grades would be an improvement over the pass-fail certification process now used by the Ventura County Environmental Health Division.

“An individual faced with the choice of, ‘Jeez, do I want to go to an A or a B restaurant?’ is probably going to go with the A. It forces restaurant owners to do a better job,” Grand Jury Foreman Ron Zenone said.

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors has 60 days to respond to the Grand Jury’s recommendation, which includes suggesting that environmental health personnel start issuing “conditional” rather than “passed” certificates to restaurants that require reinspection.

A similar proposal failed to pass a Board of Supervisors vote in 1998 amid concerns that switching to a letter-grade system would require raising food-service permit fees by as much as 93 percent to cover the cost of hiring additional inspectors and purchasing new computers and software.

The environmental health division instead implemented a tiered system that increased from one to three the number of times restaurants in Ventura County are inspected each year.

In contrast, liquor stores, snack bars and other sites that serve prepackaged foods are inspected at least once a year, said Elizabeth Huff, manager of the division’s community services section.

“There are a number of approaches, including the ones we use, to get information out to the public,” said Huff. “San Diego has been using grades for its restaurants since the late 1940s. If that was the absolute answer to food safety, every county in California would be grading. But grades don’t include dates, for example.”

They are, however, immediately recognizable.

“I always look at the letter grade when I’m eating in L.A.,” said Mike Muirhead, executive chef and co-owner of Safire American Bistro in Camarillo. “If something were a C, you bet I would think twice about eating there.”

On the Net: The grand jury report is at http://grandjury.countyofventura.org/reports.html.

Inspection results are posted at http://www.ventura.org/rma/envhealth.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mendocino County Grand jury: Ukiah needs a new justice center

Ukiah Daily Journal Staff
Updated: 06/14/2009 11:59:50 PM PDT

Mendocino County grand jury has released its findings on the Mendocino County jail and encourages pursuit of long range plans for a new justice center in the Ukiah area.

A report named "Bulging at the seams," examines the county jail and courthouse holding cells based on a tour of jail cells and interviews with those who work there, the report states.

The grand jury says that it has found the County Jail which houses about 300 inmates to be overcrowded in some areas due to prisoner gender and classification.

The grand jury also finds that there is no longer a law library at the jail. When an inmate has a legal question, the grand jury states, a contracted firm supplies an answer from law students that have researched the inmate's query.

Grand jury review of jail records shows that over a two year period the jail was at or near full capacity therefore complicating the ways that inmates are housed based on their inmate classification, the report states.

Some inmates were found sleeping on stack-a-bunks', plastic frames with mattresses, the grand jury stated. In the delivery station doorway and in a nearby drain there were some tiles either broken or missing. The grand jury says that those tiles were then slated to be repaired by May 20, 2009.

Problems with aging plumbing and door locks needing repair are two other things the grand jury found in its evaluation of the jail.

In its findings the grand jury states that there is some actions taken to help inmates while they pass their days inside the confines of jail.

A chance to get a GED or general education diploma is available to inmates as well as computer and parenting skills, for example.

The grand jury makes the following recommendations to County Jail based on its findings: Tiles on the kitchen floor ought to be replaced, if a cost-effective way to improve plumbing can be found it should be followed.

The grand jury asks the following governments and people to respond to "Bulging at the seams" : Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, Mendocino County CEO, Mendocino County Sheriff and for a partial response, the General Services Agency.


Contra Costa Grand jury mulls obstacles fighting Bethel Island fires

By Rowena Coetsee
East County Times
Posted: 06/14/2009 02:48:11 PM PDT
Updated: 06/14/2009 05:19:29 PM PDT

Efforts to help firefighters respond more effectively to emergencies on Bethel Island have started paying off, despite the challenges described in a recent grand jury report.

In its examination of the irony — a Delta community that's surrounded by water, but where putting out fires can be tough — the Contra Costa County grand jury acknowledged the problems that East Contra Costa Fire District has grappled with for years.

The document described less-than-ideal response times, broken hydrants, firefighters unfamiliar with the island's quirky features and difficulty accessing backup water supplies.

But since September when one home on Taylor Slough burned to the ground and an adjoining house sustained major damage, the special district has made progress.

Spurred to action after witnessing the blaze, Bethel Island resident Mark Whitlock and a group of other concerned property owners began working with fire Chief Hugh Henderson to come up with ways of improving service.

The agency recently finished installing standard-issue padlocks on cables that are strung across access points around the levee, ensuring that all district firefighters can get an engine through the barriers.

In addition, the five fire hydrants on Bethel Island Road — the only public ones on the entire island — are expected to be operational again in about a month after being out of commission for a long time.

Late last year, the district also replaced the three heavy rubber hoses on each of its engines with ones made from a lighter material so that now a single firefighter can carry one of these water lines.

In addition, Henderson said that his agency eventually will install about four dozen so-called dry hydrants around the island. They are made of 6-inch pipes that will extend from the Delta to the top of the levee.

Firefighters quickly can hook their hoses to these pipes instead of having to clamber down levee slopes covered with riprap and navigate obstacles such as dilapidated docks and broken pilings.

Still, the fire district is saddled with one impediment that does not have a ready solution — money.

"They're on a very limited budget," Whitlock said. "Individuals are not given enough tools to do their job."

East Contra Costa Fire District receives nearly all its funding from property taxes, income that has dropped off as the area's home values have taken a nose dive.

In addition, the agency receives a smaller share of property tax revenue than some other fire protection districts.

The district had to dip into reserves to balance this year's budget, and it is set to pull out an additional $1.7 million to ensure that revenues match expenses in 2009-10.

Next year's $12.2 million budget must support Bethel Island's six-person crew as well as eight other fire stations from Oakley to Discovery Bay and the Marsh Creek area.

Translation: The agency only can afford to send two officers out on an engine instead of three that's the norm among fire protection agencies in the county.

The grand jury report also noted that response times on Bethel Island were more than eight minutes on average over a 13-month period from 2007 to 2008.

A consulting firm the year before had indicated that the agency's response times should be five minutes.

As for offering concrete solutions to these difficulties, however, jurors had less to say.

One of their recommendations is to form an oversight commission representing the seven communities that the fire district serves to help Henderson prioritize spending and improve response times.

Jury foreman Leslie Lea said she thinks the real purpose of the group, however, is to give residents more of a voice.

The grand jury also advised the district to give firefighters more training so that they are well acquainted with Bethel Island's particular set of challenges, which include finding the scene of an emergency.

A few streets have the same name, and some homeowners do not have their addresses displayed.

Although the grand jury cannot mandate compliance, East Contra Costa Fire District and the county Board of Supervisors are required to respond to its report by early August.


Ventura County Grand jury calls for creation of mental health court

By Adam Foxman
Monday, June 15, 2009

Creating a special court to order treatment and supervision for mentally ill offenders instead of jail time could help reduce recidivism and save money in Ventura County, the county grand jury said in a report released today.

In the report on the mentally ill population in county jails, the grand jury said a current interagency program would provide the framework for a mental health court, and it recommended agencies formalize it with funding and full-time personnel.

The report also notes a housing shortage for low-income people with serious mental illness in Ventura County and recommends the county ensure there is enough housing to complement a mental health court.

The report comes less than three weeks after another grand jury report on overcrowding at two of the county’s three jails. In October, the jails had about 1,680 inmates, and authorities estimated 10 to 14 percent had a mental illness. The daily cost per inmate averages $115 at the county’s Todd Road Jail and $153 at the main jail, according to the grand jury.

Of the 58 counties in California, 43 have mental health courts. The Grand Jury cited as an example a program in San Bernardino County, where repeat jail bookings for participants dropped 64 percent over seven years. The county supports participants with housing that ranges in cost from $18 to $32 a day, the grand jury said.

“There is definitely a cost savings,” said Grand Jury Foreman Ron Zenone.

Ventura County’s Multi-Agency Referral and Recovery Team, which encourages seriously mentally ill offenders to receive treatment, could be turned into a mental health court, the report states.

That program is currently staffed mostly with rotating personnel. It was initially funded by a federal grant in 2007, but that grant dried up 18 months later.

The grand jury did not say how much it would cost to create a mental health court and add housing, or how much money could be saved. Zenone said a mental health court would not be an option for all offenders with mental illness, and people could be excluded if judged to pose a danger to themselves or others.

Zenone said county law enforcement and healthcare officials who briefed the grand jury on mental illness supported the idea of a mental health court but were worried about the resources that would be required.

Ratan Bhavnani, executive director of the Ventura County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, praised the report’s recommendations.

“They’re right on track,” Bhavnani said. “This is exactly what we need for mentally ill offenders who come into contact with the court system.”

The complete report is available at http://grandjury.countyofventura.org.


Napa Grand jury says millions being lost in hotel taxes

Register Editor
While hotel tax is a critical source of revenue in Napa County, local cities and government agencies do a spotty job of tracking and collecting the money, according to the Napa County civil grand jury.

A recent grand jury report states that the cities of Napa and St. Helena do not audit local hoteliers and inn owners to make sure they submit their fair share, and that other cities do so only intermittently. The grand jury recommends the agencies take steps to improve their tracking of what is known as TOT, or transient occupancy tax.
The only city given an entirely clean bill of health for tracking hotel tax revenues was American Canyon, which has only three hotel operators.

The city of Napa came out with the longest to-do list from the grand jury, as the report said the city’s internal accounting is substandard and suggested the city could be losing significant tax revenue because it does not audit hotel operators.
Separately, the grand jury raised questions about whether the practices of online discount travel services cost the government revenue.

Tourist tax
Napa County and all five of its cities charge TOT, and the first hotel tax was instituted in the valley in 1954, according to the grand jury. All the agencies charge a tax of 12 percent per occupied room per night, with the exception of American Canyon, which charges 10 percent. The tax is passed on directly to hotel guests and added to their bills.

The grand jury found that only three of the taxing entities — Calistoga, Yountville and Napa County — audit TOT receipts.

The county audits annually, according to the report, Yountville every two years and Calistoga only occasionally. In reviews of the most recent audits by all three, the grand jury found that hoteliers had underreported or misreported income to the detriment of the agencies.

Yountville’s audit of the 2004-05 budget year showed the town missed out on about $20,000 in revenue because of reporting errors.

Napa County missed out on about $17,000 in 2007-08, according to the grand jury, and Calistoga missed out on some $64,000 in 2005-06.

The grand jury attributed the differences between what was reported and what should have been reported to poor record-keeping by innkeepers, “underreporting of gross receipts” and in some cases a mingling of the proprietors’ personal and business finances that made it difficult to identify the correct figures.

The grand jury found that only one in five operators was properly tracking and turning over information as required by local regulations. At the same time, the report criticized most agencies for providing only minimal information about the law to the affected businesses.

As for the city of Napa, the grand jury said financial staff did not have adequate information to track the number of hotel operators and rooms that contribute to the TOT revenue; that the city — while posting the relevant laws online — provides minimal TOT information directly to new operators; and that the city’s lack of an auditing process is probably causing it to lose revenue.

“Since the city of Napa does not conduct audits, it is impossible to know whether the operators are underreporting TOT as has been revealed in the audits of Calistoga, Yountville and the county of Napa,” the report states.

Napa City manage Mike Parness and Mayor Jill Techel acknowledged that the report made a valid point about the lack of audits.

“We identified that about six or eight months ago as something we have to do,” said Parness. “TOT is an important revenue source and is growing rapidly.”

He said the city is weeks away from getting a bid out to conduct the audits.

Parness said that in his view the internal communication concern noted by the grand jury “hasn’t been a major hindrance.”

He said city staffers meet with new hotel operators and explain their obligations in face-to-face to meetings before the businesses open. Nonetheless, Parness said that that the city is “increasing the communication and formalizing the process” of documenting the opening of new inns and hotels, especially in light of the city’s recent decision to allow several property owners to host short-term vacation rentals in residential areas.

Most of the grand jury recommendations covered all agencies, suggesting the cities and the county more strictly enforce rules on penalties and interest on late TOT payments, provide more information to inn owners and subject them to regular audits.

“Potential revenue from uncollected TOT, interest and penalties in the millions of dollars is being lost throughout the county,” stated the report.

The report commended St. Helena for ”having the foresight to employ up-to-date technology for tracking the collection of TOT.”

In a brief note, the report raised questions about whether cities collect adequate money from rooms rented through online travel services. According to the report, online travel companies negotiate lower rates with inn operators, pay the TOT according to that rate, then charge their customers a premium of 14 percent, which is not reflected in the revenue the government receives.


Marin County computer mistakes could have been averted, report says

Richard Halstead
Posted: 06/22/2009 07:52:11 PM PDT

Marin County's installation of a new computerized financial management system, which has cost more than $28.6 million over five years, was "botched" due in large part to insufficient attention to the county's system of internal controls, a new Marin County civil grant jury report states.

The grand jury concludes that the system known as MERIT, Marin Enterprise Resource Integrated Technology, "is not working smoothly almost three years after it went live, and the botched implementation has left a trail of troubles, many of which could have been avoided or minimized if oversight systems had been working effectively."

The grand jury reports that problems with the computer system have delayed the issuance of annual financial statements necessary for the county to claim about $2.5 million in reimbursements from the state. The jury warns that because audited financial statements have not been issued on time since fiscal 2006 the county could find it difficult to borrow money or might have to pay higher interest rates.

County Administrator Matthew Hymel said many of issues raised in the grand jury's report have already been acknowledged by the county.

"I think the good news is we're addressing the issues," Hymel said, "and the hiring of a financial director and the implementation of this citizen's advisory committee will basically address all the concerns that they've raised."

The county is in the process of hiring a director of finance who will assume the responsibilities formerly shouldered by two elected county officials: auditor-controller and treasurer-tax collector. Because the director of finance will be appointed by county supervisors and not elected, to ensure the director of finance's independence a new financial audit advisory committee - consisting of county supervisors, county staff and residents - is being created to review the annual audit.

As for the computer system's current state of operation, David Hill, the county's director of Information Services and Technology, said, "There are things that can be improved upon to make the system work more smoothly, but fundamentally we've corrected the system."

The oversight systems that the jury referred to are the Marin Audit Advisory Board and the Internal Audit Group.

Formed in 2004, the Audit Advisory Board has the responsibility of monitoring the county's financial and performance audits. The Internal Audit Group, which was chartered by county supervisors in the 1970s, is responsible for monitoring the design and proper functioning of internal financial controls and procedures.

The grand jury reported that "The Marin Audit Advisory Board has been moribund and the Internal Audit Group has been functioning at a low level." The Audit Advisory Board, which has met formally three times in its five-year existence, has functioned as "window dressing," according to the grand jury.

The jury found that the county implemented the MERIT system with too many features, too quickly, and with insufficient resources, testing and input from users. The report states, "It is possible that if better decision-making and planning processes had been in place, some of the setbacks could have been avoided."

Even though the county has scaled back its use of the MERIT system and is using only a few of its 20 modules, it continues to rely on consultants to make the system work properly; it spent more than $1 million on consultants in fiscal 2009, the grand jury report says.

Hill said the county has budgeted $400,000 to pay consultants for work on the system in the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

The grand jury recommended the county redouble its efforts to ensure that the computer system is working properly, reevaluate its use of consultants, determine which additional MERIT functions are cost-effective and when they should be activated; and make sure that employees are trained in how to use the new system. The jury also urged the county to reinvigorate the Audit Advisory Board and the Internal Audit Group.

Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at rhalstead@marinij.com

Sheriff Pat Hedges asked to explain why so many employees take cars home

He tells county Board of Supervisors that a civil grand jury report on public employees’ use of taxpayer-owned vehicles is misleading
Bob Cuddy - bcuddy@thetribunenews.com

Sheriff Pat Hedges faced a grilling this week on his department’s use of take-home cars, as supervisors told him and other department heads that taxpayers deserve better explanations about which public employees are taking these cars home at night, and why.

“I don’t know of any crime that would require 28 of your deputies … to respond at once” at night, said Supervisor Adam Hill, who led the supervisors’ quest for greater accountability.

Hill’s reference was to a civil grand jury report released two weeks ago that took the county to task for not adequately explaining why 132 county employees need to take home taxpayer-owned vehicles every night.
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Of those, 59 are in the Sheriff’s Department and 13 are in the District Attorney’s Office.

The public considers the numbers excessive, Hill told the sheriff.

Hedges replied that the grand jury report was vague and misleading and led to “false headlines in local newspapers.” In particular, he said, he did not know how the grand jury arrived at its $1 million annual estimated cost of take-home vehicles.

In its report, the grand jury did not explain where that number came from, and Chairman Brandt Kehoe did not respond to requests from The Tribune to explain his math.

The grand jury complained that when it asked for justification for take-home vehicles, department heads gave short answers such as “school resource officer” or “division commander” without explaining why these and other individuals could not do their jobs using personal cars.

The grand jury said the sheriff, undersheriff, seven school resource officers, several commanders, division commanders and a process server had take-home cars.

All 13 of the district attorney’s vehicles were under the general heading “on call 24 hours/undercover investigations.”

In a news release shortly after the grand jury report, District Attorney Gerald Shea said his office’s investigators use the take-home cars for after-hours follow-up “on many of the approximately 18,000 adult and juvenile criminal cases handled” each year.

Hedges sought to fill in some of the blanks for supervisors. He said some officers are undercover and need county cars. For others who live in remote areas, it is cheaper to have them take the car home than have them drive to San Luis Obispo, pick up a county car and then drive back to their outpost.

Others just need to represent the department in their respective communities at night, he said.

Hedges endured more of an interrogation than other department heads, but supervisors also asked some of his counterparts about their employees’ take-home vehicles.

Social Services Director Lee Collins and Health Agency Director Jeff Hamm were unable to provide a specific number of take-home cars in their departments, but both assured supervisors the practice is necessary.

“It’s very rare, very low cost,” Collins said, and involved “very few vehicles,” used by staff members dealing with children at risk of child abuse.

Hamm said his department used five cars for drug and alcohol abuse cases, “and some others.”

Despite the explanations, supervisors, who during budget hearings are cutting services as well as programs that help the poor and elderly, said they want a more thorough accounting.

Beyond the accountability, Hill said he would like to see a plan for reducing the number of cars that go home with county employees.

The district attorney, sheriff, county administrator and Board of Supervisors are required by law to respond to the grand jury report by Sept. 2. Hedges said he will have more details in that report.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Middling through: Four Mendocino County middle schools

Ukiah Daily Journal Staff
Updated: 06/22/2009 12:00:04 AM PDT

The 2008-09 Grand Jury conducted an oversight review of the four middle schools of the Ukiah, Willits and Fort Bragg Unified School Districts. Jurors explored perceptions about the county's sixth to eighth graders, the pressures they face, and the extent to which middle schools are addressing common concerns. According to the report, confirmed concerns include widespread poverty and the number of youth who lack parental support for regular school attendance, positive health habits, and respectful, responsible behavior. Family involvement is low despite outreach efforts, stated the report.

According to the report, "school and community relationships vary from strong in Fort Bragg to almost non-existent in Willits." While students report use of alcohol and illegal drugs that exceeds state averages, incidents of substance abuse on school campuses are rare. Reported use of alcohol and marijuana by Willits seventh graders is triple the statewide average, stated the report.

Substance use reported by students at all four schools increases dramatically between seventh and ninth grades, underscoring the importance of timely interventions, the grand jury found.

"Despite external pressures and increasingly severe budget constraints, Jurors observed focused, student-centered teaching and lively informal interactions among students and staff. Campuses are welcoming, attractive, supportive and safe for students with a wide range of needs and abilities," stated the report.

Positive findings include the professionalism of personnel at all four sites and the support they receive from their districts and Mendocino County Office of Education, explained the report.

The state-mandated focus on math and English language arts (ELA) is supported by a companion emphasis on behavior that is consistently safe, respectful and responsible, said the jury.

Dress codes prohibit clothing that is provocative or that signals gang affiliation or drug use, noted the report. Preventing physical or verbal harassment is a high priority. At-risk students receive healthy meals and snacks free or at reduced cost and attend after school tutoring and enrichment programs, said the report.

In addition, the jurors found that annual test scores place all four schools near the mid-point relative to other California middle schools; all are subject to interventions to boost math and ELA proficiency. "District and county initiatives help staff track individual student performance and focus academic support. Jurors repeatedly heard middle school described with some urgency as a time of transition' and as a last chance' to gain basic skills required for independent learning and responsible adulthood."


Sunday, June 21, 2009

SLO Jury finds lesson in Rec Project

Civil grand jury suggests ways to avoid repeat of Oceano center controversy
Nick Wilson - nwilson@thetribunenews.com

After reviewing the county government’s involvement in helping to fund the controversial Oceano Community Center, the civil grand jury recommends better coordination of cost estimates and a more secure funding structure for similar future projects.

The center aimed to fill a recreational need in the community, and was proposed in the mid-1990s.

Construction was completed in June 2006. The final cost for the project was about $5.8 million, nearly double the $3 million initial estimate.

No illegal action was suspected or suggested for investigation in the report, but a series of newspaper articles and related discussion prompted the grand jury’s 21-page report.

The review was based on 2,200 pages of documents and interviews of 11 people involved with the project.

The volunteer panel of grand jurors investigates local government issues and other matters based on complaints submitted or self-initiated inquiries. The jury’s recommendations are not binding, but some require agencies that have been reviewed to file responses with the Superior Court.

The report states the grand jury’s concern regarding the large amount of money allocated to the community center project from federal Community Development Block Grant funds.

The initial agreement was for the county Board of Supervisors to award $667,433 in 2003. But the total amount of locally distributed federal funds by 2006 was almost $2 million.

“The amount of (federal grant) funds provided to the Oceano Community Center project represented the equivalent of more than two-and-a-half years of normal (federal grant) funds allocation for the entire unincorporated areas of San Luis Obispo County,” the report noted.

The grand jury report stated that the nonprofit organization that oversaw the project, the Oceano Community Center Inc., planned on raising more than $1 million through private donations, which evidently never came through.

“The grand jury recommends that the Planning and Building Department should be required to keep the county apprised of total estimated costs and associated risks involved in an entire project,” the report stated.

And while crediting the nonprofit group for completing a difficult project with a workforce of volunteers and a single paid employee, it said the organization could have communicated its progress much better.

The Lucia Mar Unified School District bought the center in 2008 because Oceano Community Center Inc. couldn’t generate enough revenue to pay $13,000 monthly toward a $1.7 million construction loan from San Luis Obispo-based Coast National Bank.

The grand jury concluded its report by recommending that the county take a “security interest” — in effect a contractual mortgage-style interest — in any future projects such as this one that it helps to fund.

The panel expressed its support for Lucia Mar’s current oversight of the center, stating now it is in “good hands.”


Grand jury report fuels effort to recall three on Sanger council

A grand jury report alleging financial mismanagement and other issues has sparked some in Sanger to seek the recall of three City Council members.

The notice of intent to recall Michael Montelongo, Rosa Pena and Martin Castellano was issued this past week and comes after the city was subject to a scathing Fresno County grand jury report in May.

The city is in the process of responding to the grand jury's concerns, which include spending money from a lawsuit settlement that should have been used for water projects and the performance of a former city manager's dealings with a developer.

Recall supporters were required got 20 signatures for each petition. They now have 90 days to get an additional 2,000 signatures of registered voters to trigger a recall election.

Sanger Mayor Jose Villareal, who was one of two council members not targeted for recall, said a recall could be disruptive to the city. He said recruitment of a new city manager could be more challenging for council members with a recall looming.

"I always felt recalls are not good for communities, but we may have to go through it and see what happens," he said. "I understand the reasons for the recall, and everyone has a right to take action on things they feel they should."

The grand jury report detailed a series of incidents and said city officials acted improperly and, in some cases, illegally.

One of the grand jury report's most striking accusations is that former city manager Jim Drinkhouse bought a house from a developer for tens of thousands of dollars below market value.

The grand jury said Drinkhouse gave the developer special treatment by allowing him to build homes before they were approved and by letting him "cut corners" on building permits.

In May, Drinkhouse denied giving preferential treatment. He said his wife, who worked for the developer, bought the house and that she was able to get a good deal on the house because she bought it before real estate values had risen, he said.

The report also criticized the City Council for not fully vetting Drinkhouse before hiring him seven years ago.

It said that after he was hired, Drinkhouse told the City Council in closed session that he had been convicted of forgery. The council decided to let him keep his job.

In late February this year, Drinkhouse resigned without explanation and the council agreed to let Drinkhouse collect his salary and benefits for the remainder of his contract through January 2010 -- $233,000.

Both Montelongo and City Attorney David Weiland said Friday that they gave information about Drinkhouse to the U.S. Attorney's Office more than two years ago seeking an investigation. The council placed Drinkhouse on administrative leave for 16 days in July 2007, but could not do much more, they said.

"City attorneys don't have the subpoena power or investigative power the district attorney or U.S. Attorney would have," Weiland said. "We reached a point where we couldn't take it any further."

Neither the district attorney nor U.S. Attorney's offices have cases open involving Drinkhouse, officials said Friday.

The grand jury also made it clear that the city would not be facing the possibility of such drastic budget cuts in the next fiscal year that begins July 1 if it had managed its finances better.

The city is laying off employees and facing a budget deficit of $1.6 million.

Montelongo said Friday that most cities are facing deficits, and making layoffs and seeking employee concessions in salaries and benefits.

"We are in the same category as every other city," he said. "There was no mismanagement of money."

He said the council may have waited too long to make cuts in the hope that revenues would improve.

"I didn't want to lay anyone off," he said.

The city is laying off eight people and cutting a total of 17 positions, Montelongo said.

Bryant Jolley, a certified public accountant who has audited the city's budget, said the city spent more money than it should have in previous years.

But he also said their financial situation is similar to other cities.

"They probably should have seen it coming a little quicker," Jolley said Friday. "Maybe they should have been a little more prudent."

The grand jury report said the city also made loans or spent almost all of the $15 million it received from a legal settlement with chemical and oil companies in the early 1990s.

The money was intended for use on water-related projects, but much of it was lent out for unrelated projects, the grand jury report said.

Weiland and Montelongo said some of the recall supporters were former council members. Weiland said criticism on the use of the water settlement money is "misplaced."

"Some of the people who have stood up at council were previously on councils," he said, "and voted the exact same way."
The reporter can be reached at mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6166.