Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Grand jury says Tehama County needs computer policy

RED BLUFF - A countywide policy on employee use of computers and e-mail is on the Tehama County grand jury's wish list, but it's unlikely to materialize anytime soon.

"That's something we're working on," Chief Administrator Bill Goodwin said Friday. "It's slow."

In its final report for 2008-2009, the grand jury said an employee had used county time, computer and e-mail to lodge complaints against the county's Division of Animal Services and the Department of Agriculture, its parent agency. But jurors concluded in a complimentary report that Scott Alsteen, who oversees the animal division, "is an innovative, creative and cost-conscious manager."

In its recommendations, the jury asks for enforcement of "a countywide policy and procedure which prohibits the use of county computers, county e-mail addresses and county working time to manage personal business."

No such policy exists, Agricultural Commissioner Rick Gurrola said Friday, but he welcomes one.

"Coincidentally, I requested a policy for using computers" several months ago and unrelated to the grand jury, he said. "I would like to have this as soon as possible."

Goodwin said such a document falls under the county's strategic plan and a committee that's looking at all policies and ways to streamline adoption of new ones. Currently, departments have individual rules regarding computer use.

"Some are written, some aren't," he said. In general, the larger the department and the more sensitive the work - health services, for example - the more stringent and comprehensive the policy.

Meanwhile, in discussing the Public Works and Road departments, the grand jury cited the continuing deterioration of roads, poor quality of repairs and lack of formal training for equipment operators.

It recommends the Road Department develop a manual of standard operating procedures and plan for scheduling permanent repairs and improvements; that Public Works Director Gary Antone be more personally involved in inspections; that equipment operators get formal training; and that Public Works have more "shovel-ready" projects planned in the event that more stimulus money becomes available.

Antone was out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment.

In other recommendations, the jury asked that the Probation Department develop a standard operating procedures manual that would include "definitions of inappropriate relationships and behavior" and train employees accordingly. It alluded to an "incident" in which an employee "was alleged to have been involved in inappropriate behavior," which was investigated by another department.

Acting Chief Probation Officer Renny Noll, who took the post July 1, did not return a phone call to his office Friday. He succeeded Daniel Emry, who retired June 30.

Probation is among the departments from which the grand jury is requiring a response, due in late August. For more information on the grand jury, go to www.tehamacourt.ca.gov/grand_jury.html.

Reporter Janet O'Neill can be reached at 225-8216 or at joneill@redding.com


Monday, July 27, 2009

San Bernadino County Ethics panel? Priceless

Posted: 07/26/2009 05:57:03 PM PDT

For San Bernardino County government, an ethics commission - if it's done right - definitely would be worth the cost.

That's the feeling of Supervisor Neil Derry, the newest member of the board who has decried the county's record of high-level corruption and fraud against taxpayers.

We agree.

Derry has proposed that the board establish an ethics commission and pass a "Sunshine Ordinance" to eliminate county counsel's overworked "deliberative process" excuse for hiding what should be public documents.

The sunshine ordinance is a no-brainer. Any supervisor in this scandal-ridden county who doesn't support public access to records of the public's government should be voted out of office at the first opportunity.

The ethics commission, which Derry campaigned on last year and the grand jury recommended this month, is a slightly stickier question, but for one reason only: the cost. Derry estimates it would cost about $500,000 a year to pay for three county staff positions to serve the volunteer commissioners. He's looking for $50,000 in discretionary funds from each supervisor and $250,000 redirected from elsewhere in the county budget.

That's the rub, considering that supervisors already have had to make cuts to county spending and are about to get hit by state money grabs contained in the state budget deal. The three ethics commission staff positions would presumably cost three positions somewhere else in the county bureaucracy.

We say the county can't afford not to establish an ethics commission.

Consider that Jack Brown, CEO of Stater Bros. and one of our most esteemed businessmen, has complained that the county's reputation for corruption dogs even him when he meets with business people and officials outside the county. "Who got indicted in your county today?" is a smirking question he gets asked. It can't do much for the county's attractiveness to legitimate businesses to be known as a den of corruption. It's not good to be the butt of jokes.

And consider all the upstanding, hard-working people employed by the county. It's no fun to be a laughingstock or to work for one. If the county's problems don't get cleaned up, good employees are going to drift away to places where they can be proud to say they work.

(If you object that San Bernardino County government polices itself, as some supervisors have claimed, and has no need of an ethics commission, please read the special section "Scandal on the Fifth Floor" included with Sunday's newspaper, and then get back to us.)

The sad fact is that there's a culture of permissiveness and carelessness with taxpayer money in this county, and it starts at the top. If supervisors buy themselves multiple sets of binoculars, stay at the best hotels, and sup at places like Ruth Chris Steakhouse in Hong Kong - refusing to make public whom they're wining and dining there - on the taxpayers' dime, they're setting the tone for loose handling of the taxpayers' money. How can that tone not filter down a few levels and give public servants the idea that they're fools if they don't help themselves to the occasional "perk"?

Derry envisions an ethics commission with three to five volunteer members serving staggered terms for continuity, a significant advantage over the annual grand jury that forms in July and disbands the next June. He wants the commission to have the power to investigate and to refer matters directly to the district attorney, the state attorney general or the Fair Political Practices Commission, depending on the suspected ethical lapse. He wants the commission to have the power to fine offenders, which it must have in order to be effective.

The members would have to be chosen independent of political and supervisorial influence, obviously, by lottery or the like. Derry has suggested having members vetted by an independent group such as the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. The center's director, Bob Stern, has endorsed the grand jury's recommendation, saying the first thing San Bernardino County needs is an ethics commission.

After the patchwork start-up money, the commission would need guaranteed funding to shield it from budgetary interference by unhappy elected and appointed leaders.

The need is clear. Supervisors should start ironing out the details in their August workshops and get an ethics commission going as quickly as possible.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Merced county Civil grand jury criticizes MCOE's past business practices


Merced County Office of Education has strengthened its oversight of construction projects after the cost of building an automotive training center dramatically went over budget.

"(The office) agrees that there were areas where better oversight could have been provided," Superintendent of Schools Lee Andersen wrote to the Merced County civil grand jury last week.

The civil grand jury's annual report was released last week and included two investigations surrounding the relationship between the Merced County Housing Authority, MCOE and Firm Build, the nonprofit that went bankrupt three years ago.

One report focused on the automotive training center, a project that went over budget and failed to pass building inspection. It was built by Firm Build.

The other report criticized three of the Merced County Board of Supervisors' appointments to the Housing Authority.

It urges the supervisors remove the people from the board and take care to make sure no one is appointed who has previous problems with the authority or who has a conflict of interest.

Close relationship blamed

In 2005, MCOE decided to build an auto training center (ATC) after hearing that Merced County needed such a vocational school for students.

The office chose to renovate part of Castle Commerce Center, which it believed would cost $559,000 and funded through a federal bond to refurbish buildings.

MCOE and Firm Build had already been working together, as the office would send students to the nonprofit to learn construction skills.

The office never put the project out to bid and instead named Firm Build as the general contractor. No contract between the office and the nonprofit was ever written up.

The ATC coordinator was Patrick Bowman, an MCOE employee who also served as Firm Build's board president.

The project's cost grew to $1.25 million during construction, which lasted from summer 2005 to October 2006.

Firm Build declared that the project was done and students began using it.

The next summer, county inspectors found construction defects, forcing MCOE to spend another $10,000 to bring it up to code.

In its response to the report, the office agreed the project should have gone out to bid. Under new guidelines, all projects must go through the office's facilities department.

The office faulted its close relationship with Firm Build as causing the problem with the center. It agreed that more oversight of its dealings with the nonprofit were needed.

The office adopted a resolution to prevent further conflicts of interest between its workers and its projects.

Board overhaul suggested

The civil grand jury also called on the Board of Supervisors to remove three Housing Authority commissioners.

The authority's board should be free from anyone who was associated with Firm Build or previously worked for the authority, it recommends. Though it doesn't name anyone, its suggestions target Patrick Bowman, who served as Firm Build's president, Mary Stillahn, who worked as a secretary, and Charles Reyburn, who worked as the human resources director. The board already has two positions open.

Stillahn said she wasn't interviewed by the civil grand jury or contacted for an interview. She declined to comment.

Katie Albertson, county spokeswoman, said the board takes great care with its appointments, adding that there are 150 boards or commissions under it. The interview and appointment process is open to the public and broadcast on television.

She couldn't say whether the supervisors would follow any of the recommendations. A formal response will be approved next month.

The jury asks that the board pass resolutions to prevent it from "stacking" boards, though there's no evidence presented by the jury of that happening.

"The democratic process is the safeguard against any sort of stacking," she said.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Colusa County Grand jury: County lacks Web portal

Friday, Jul 17 2009, 10:17 pm
By Susan Meeker/Staff Writer

Google Colusa County and what do you get?

According to the Colusa County grand jury, a simple Internet search should lead to an integrated Web site that provides access to departmental information, staff contacts, job listings and more.

Colusa County is "most likely" the only county in California without a single Web portal providing easy access to services and information, the grand jury said in its annual report released June 30.

"Without a county web portal or main web site, all of the departmental individual sites are listed under differing domains and names, some of which would be very difficult to find by the public," the report states.

The previous grand jury had a similar complaint in 2008 and urged the county to make an integrated Web site its priority — not only for outreach to the public, but for interdepartmental communication. County officials responded then that a useful Web site would be in place by the end of the fiscal year.

The 2008-2009 grand jury reported "insufficient progress" toward completing the project.

"The lack of a comprehensive integrated governmental Web site is a disservice to the citizens of Colusa County, to present employees and recruitment of future employees," the grand jury concluded. "A county that has insufficient Web services is a county that cannot attract investment and industry."

Changing priorities

Colusa County Supervisor Tom Indrieri said Wednesday that some of last year's priorities, including the completion of a fully integrated Web site, fell to the wayside during one of the worst financial crisis to hit the county in more than 20 years.

"Our priorities have changed, I'm not ashamed to say," Indrieri said. "Right now we're trying to save jobs and stay solvent."

The grand jury would like it to stay a priority, however. "Supervisor Indrieri should be relieved of this responsibility," its report says, and delegated to a consultant or information technology specialist.

The county's rudimentary Web site, which was developed by DataMindXP, a Colusa consultant, can be found at www.countyofcolusa.com. It has links to departments with previously established Web sites, but little other information available. The grand jury criticized the county's use of promotional literature that features the non-functional Web address.

The grand jury also found fault with the .com domain name. The county should have used a governmental domain name instead, the report states.

A simple Google search for "Colusa County" does not list the county's Web site until the sixth page of results. On the first page are links to Web sites for the county clerk, court system, Chamber of Commerce, education office, fair — and the Sun-Herald.

Indrieri said the county is presently working with the consultant to construct a functional site that will provide better information to the public. There is no estimated date for completion.


Colusa County: www.colusacounty.com
(under construction)
Public Works: www.ccdpw.com
Sheriff’s Office: www.colusasheriff.com.
District Attorney: www.colusada.net
Library: www.colusanet.com/ccl
Clerk-Recorder: www.colusacountyclerk.com
Office of Education: www.ccoe.net
Health Services: colusadhhs.org

Contact Susan Meeker at 458-2121 or smeeker@tcnpress.com.


Solano County Grand jury looks at Child Protective Services

By Danny Bernardini
Posted: 07/18/2009 01:01:00 AM PDT

Child Protective Services in Solano County was hit with a slew of complaints by the county grand jury Friday regarding how investigations are conducted by the agency.

In its report, the Solano County grand jury points out several problems, including how potential offenders are notified, suspects being prematurely labeled as offenders, how appeals are handled and paperwork issues.

Those discoveries were made during the investigation of the policies and procedures regarding citizens whose names are placed on the Child Abuse Central Index (CACI).

When Child Protective Services receives a complaint of alleged child abuse, a social worker investigates. The worker then must classify the category of abuse and determine whether or not to place the accused on the CACI.

It is also decided if an in-person contact with the family within 24 hours is needed or if a visit to the family within 10 days is appropriate.

A referral is then sent to another social worker who further investigates and interviews those involved. That worker then must determine if the accusation is unfounded, inconclusive or substantiated.

If deemed unfounded, the case is closed. If found inconclusive or substantiated, the child may remain with the family, be removed or placed in the custody of the courts.

Being deemed inconclusive places the name of the accused on the CACI for at least 10 years. If the claim is substantiated, the name of the accused is put on the CACI for life.

Those people put on the CACI are notified by first class mail after their names are sent to the Department of Justice. Being placed on the CACI may prevent someone from being employed where there may be contact with children.

That list contains more than 800,000 names and is not routinely purged of erroneous or unsupported entries, the grand jury said. People can appeal being on the list, but that doesn't mean the name will be removed.

Because of this, the grand jury recommended the accused be notified before being put on the list, so they have the chance to respond.

The jury also suggested contacting the accused through certified mail with a return receipt to ensure that person is aware they will be placed on the CACI. It was also discovered that in some cases, the accused was not interviewed before being placed on the CACI.

For the full report, visit www.solanocourts.com.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

City hall unfazed by Ventura County grand jury report

'Stringent policy' has kept Camarillo in compliance

By Michelle Knight knight@theacorn.com

It didn't take more than two paragraphs for the city's reply to a recent report by the Ventura County grand jury concerning employee use of city vehicles.

Earlier this year, the 2008-09 grand jury investigated all 10 cities in Ventura County on their practices and tax reporting regarding employee takehome vehicles. The findings and recommendations were published May 11, and the cities had 90 days to respond.

Camarillo's June 25 response essentially says the city has reviewed and adjusted its policies on the use of city vehicles every year since 1989 and complies with income tax laws.

"We have a very stringent policy with respect to companyowned vehicles," Mayor Don Waunch said this week.

Waunch said he was on the committee that reviews all city policies with a "fine-tooth comb."

"And that's why we're in compliance," he added.

In its report "Is the City Car a Free Ride?" the grand jury made four recommendations: Two were directed at Ventura and Ojai and two applied to all 10 cities in the county. The jury recommended all cities evaluate their practices for takehome vehicles with an eye toward reducing costs and review whether they are in compliance with income tax reporting laws. Use of police and fire vehicles were not included in the investigation.

Regarding fringe benefits, the jury referred to an Internal Revenue Service publication that requires employers to include in employees' taxable income imputed income—the value of the personal use of employer-owned vehicles.

In Camarillo, five in the city's fleet of 45 are take-home vehicles. Most of the employees who take home a vehicle work in the public works department. The city does not report their use as imputed income.

City Manager Jerry Bankston said there's no need to because the employees are subject to emergency call-outs and require special equipment in the vehicles; they do not use the vehicles for personal use. City policy does not permit administrators to take home a cityowned vehicle, he said.

For the city of Ventura, the grand jury had pointed remarks. Ventura has 37 takehome vehicles—a "disproportionately large" percentage that's three times the average of all the cities—and did not report imputed income, the report states. The jury recommended that Ventura use an independent auditor to validate its policy of not reporting imputed income on all its take-home vehicles.

On the other hand, the grand jury commended the city of Thousand Oaks for reducing its number of take-home vehicles from 39 to five in January, saving the city about $100,000.

Hank Kelley, foreman of the 200910 grand jury, said the public should be interested in the findings because the jury's mission is to ensure government operates properly and spends taxpayer money appropriately.

"Are they doing it efficiently? Is there a better way to do it? Are there indications of malfeasance?" he asked. "We basically, for lack of a better term, are a civil watchdog."

The 2008-09 grand jury report "Is the City Car a Free Ride?" is available at the county's website http://grandjury.countyofventura.org; click on "reports."


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Solano County Grand jury report offers fixes to paratransit system

By Danny Bernardini
Posted: 07/15/2009 08:14:48 AM PDT

Paratransit riders in Solano County aren't being properly served and several changes need to be made, according to the grand jury.

After attending public hearings, Paratransit Coordinating Council meetings and interviewing department heads, the Solano County grand jury released a report Tuesday with a handful of suggestions for improving service.

Jurors are concerned about proper notice not being given for public meetings, a lack of communication with riders and that staff is not completely addressing riders' concerns.

Solano County paratransit services have been provided since 1975 and are offered to people with disabilities. There are 16 buses, each of which can carry 12 people in standard seating and four others in wheelchairs.

Before July, a rider would call and schedule an appointment to be picked up. That driver would take the rider to a destination in Vacaville or Fairfield and arrange for a later pickup.

Since the report was completed, Solano County and the cities of Dixon, Vacaville and Fairfield have altered the way paratransit service is provided. Now riders who need to travel between towns are taken to a transfer station, where they must change buses and pay a new fare. These changes are not reflected in the grand jury report.

Jury members had the opportunity to ride on one of the buses and noticed several obstacles. Among them was that it took three minutes before a dispatcher picked up the phone, and when they did, other dispatchers' voices in the background made it difficult to communicate. The jurors also noted that some scheduling issues arose.

During a December 2008 public hearing on unmet transit needs, common complaints included a need for more service and better coordination with Fairfield/Suisun Transit. Service in Benicia was requested, and people raised concerns about late and early pickups, long trips and treatments cut short because a patient had to leave to catch the bus.

Similar complaints were found in the call logs of the Fairfield and Suisun Transit system. Callers also complained about driver attitudes, poor scheduling, safety issues and communication problems.

The grand jury made five recommendations, the first being that public meetings should be noticed in local newspapers and public sites with enough time for those interested to attend.

The top priority for dispatchers should be returning phone calls and confirming rides, the jury said. Dispatchers also should work on eliminating background noise, the jury said.

It was also noticed that no first-aid kits were in the vehicles, and that drivers are no longer required to be certified in CPR training. The jury said that could lead to situations where riders are unable to get emergency medical attention in a timely manner.


Report praises Glenn county operations

By Rick Longley/Staff writer

The 2008-2009 Glenn County grand jury report is critical of some county agencies, but it heaped praise on others.

The Glenn County Board of Supervisors "meets the county's need for a prudent, responsive governing board and should be commended," states the report released June 30.

Members of the jury attended a number of board meetings from January to May. They found board members stayed on schedule and focused on agenda items in the time allowed.

"Discussions among board members were respectful and to the point," the report says. "Differences were discussed and voted on in general session." They recommend local residents attend board meetings occasionally to better understand county operations.

Board Chairman Mike Murray said, "I appreciate their attending the meetings and their comments. It is not often we hear good things like that."

Jail reviewed in report

The Glenn County Jail also received good marks for general operations in its annual review by the grand jury. The report did note a need for another lieutenant to supervise while transportation officers are away from the jail, and two more correctional officers to reduce overtime.

Sheriff Larry Jones said the jail originally had 18 correctional officers allocated, but two are on transportation duty taking inmates to various locations in the state. The remaining 16 officers must cope with an understaffed guard tower among other issues.

The sally port entrance needs expansion for the safety of jail personnel, and the air-conditioning units need replacement as the "equipment continually freezes up limiting cool air to the jail facility during the summer," jurors said. The laundry facility also needs the washer and dryer replaced with higher capacity, energy-efficient units and the laundry area expanded, the report said.

Improvements at the jail include installation of a video arraignment program; installation of a metal detector in booking; and use of a new fingerprinting scanning system. Prisoner meals got good reviews for quality along with the jail's kitchen facility.

Those improvments are dramatic, Jones said, and have made operations easier for everyone involved.

"I appreciate the jury's diligence," he said. "It takes time to tour this facility and grasp what is going on here."

Juvenile hall

The report on Jane Hahn Juvenile Hall suggested the facility "was clean and orderly with adequate and mandated supplies" during a November visit by grand jurors.

In addition, the report said, "The administration and staff are to be commended for their professionalism and care for the juveniles in their charge."

However, jurors said the Board of Supervisors "must adequately fund this facility allowing for California state standards to be maintained for staffing and building maintenance."

Contact Rick Longley at 934-6800 or rlongley@tcnpress.com


Riverside County Supervisors order HR to evaluate grand jury report

RIVERSIDE — The Riverside County Board of Supervisors directed the Human Resources Department on Tuesday to respond to a report criticizing a pension plan that provides temporary employees benefits that fall short of those offered under Social Security.

In a five-page evaluation of the county's 401(a) defined- benefit plan offered to workers in the Temporary Assignment Program — known as TAP — the Riverside County Grand Jury identified practices it characterized as detrimental to the temps.

The grand jury, composed of 19 residents selected to serve a yearlong term during which they scrutinize and report on government operations, detailed how the 401(a) plan came about, following the county's decision to initiate TAP in the late 1990s to rein in expenditures going to private-sector temporary employment agencies.
Quick growth

According to the report, TAP quickly expanded from 200 employees in 1999 to nearly 2,000 employees less than a decade later.

During this period, the Laborers International Union of North America — representing forensic technicians, nursing assistants, building maintenance workers and others in county government — complained that TAP employees were earning wages on par with permanent employees.

In a conciliatory gesture, the county lowered TAP employees' wages 5.5 percent, to a level below what permanent employees are paid for comparable work.

However, to make up the loss to temps, the county adopted the 401(a) pension program, which works like Social Security and is implemented in lieu of Social Security, according to the grand jury.

However, in the 401(a) plan, only 3.75 percent of a TAP worker's earnings are withheld, compared to 6.2 percent under Social Security. The employer matches the withholding, which in the case of the 401(a) means paying out 3.75 percent in matching funds, according to the grand jury.

The report indicated that by implementing the 401(a) program, the county lowered its tax liabilities and seemingly offset TAP workers' losses from reduced pay.

No full returns

But problems arise when temporary workers leave TAP after contributing a few thousand dollars or less to their 401(a) plans. The grand jury said federally approved actuarial formulas and other predetermined criteria built into the pension program often reduce temp workers' lump sum payouts to a small percentage of their contributions.

The grand jury used the example of a 24-year-old who earns a total of $35,000 after a few temporary assignments amounting to hundreds of hours.

Using the 401(a) provisions, the temp would have contributed roughly $1,313 to the pension plan. If, for example, the employee obtains a job elsewhere and wants to liquidate the plan, the plan's distribution value would have to be calculated to determine the payout.

According to the report, the formula calls for multiplying total earnings by 2 percent, in this scenario netting $700, which is then multiplied by an actuarial rate of .277, resulting in a lump sum payout of only $194.

If a temp employee's contributions exceed $5,000, then the employee is guaranteed a pension beginning at age 65, just like Social Security, though the payments could be marginal, according to the report.

“Those in their twenties and early thirties actually do not receive the bulk of their contributions,” the grand jury wrote. “In essence, the county benefits by not returning their full contribution and also benefits by paying only 3.75 percent to the IRS.

“These monies unjustly enrich the county to the detriment of TAP employees. From their standpoint, it would be better to pay full Social Security at 6.2 percent, that would be added to their federal retirement benefit.”
30 days to respond

The Service Employees International Union filed a labor grievance on behalf of temporary workers last year, alleging the county had improperly withheld $7 million from workers' paychecks since 2004 in connection with the 401(a) program.

The grand jury stated that SEIU was exploiting confusion over the program to drum up support for organizing temporary workers under the union's banner. However, according to the report, there is “no evidence that unionization of TAP employees serves any useful purpose.”

The grand jury said the county has not adequately informed TAP workers about how the 401(a) defined benefit plans operate, adding to the controversy.

The Human Resources Department will have 30 days to respond to the grand jury's findings, and the board is expected to submit its own response within the next three months.


Solano County Grand jury criticizes vehicle program

By Danny Bernardini/ DBernardini@TheReporter.com
Posted: 07/16/2009 01:00:55 AM PDT

The city of Fairfield's Vehicle Program on Tuesday came under criticism from the Solano County grand jury, which found problems with taking home vehicles, among other issues.

In their report, grand jurors balked at the idea that 24 percent of the 377-vehicle fleet was being used to commute between work and home.

"The city should examine the original justification and determine if the policy is still appropriate," the report's authors said.

The city's fleet includes automobiles, sport utility vehicles, trucks and vans. It excludes special-use vehicles, such as fire engines, street sweepers and heavy equipment.

As part of the Assigned Vehicle Program Procedures, only employees living within the city limits are allowed to take home an assigned vehicle, the grand jury reported.

Exceptions to that rule in the Police Department include motor officers, canine officers and those who drive unmarked cars. Also exempt are division managers and bureau commanders, who are entitled to either a take-home car or car allowance. Among those employees, only those living within 60 minutes from the Police Department are eligible.

At the time of the report, the city was reviewing whether to allow only those employees who live within city limits to take home a vehicle.

The jury also found fault with the city's choosing to buy vehicles rather than renting them. The report indicated that, by leasing vehicles, the city could adjust the size of its fleet to match budgets that shrink and grow.

The grand jury also recommended the city manager review language in the vehicle policies to avoid conflicts between city and department rules. The current language of the rules allows for a loose interpretation, which could lead to fiscal abuse, the jury said.

A review of the Police Department's assigned vehicle policy also needs a review, the jurors wrote, as it has been more than 15 years since the last one and the U.S. economic health has changed.

The final recommendation is for the city to combine purchasing vehicles with other governmental agencies, which has previously shown savings.

For a full report, visit www.solanocourts.com.


Editorial: Grand jury points to neglect in city, county governments

On the face of it, last week’s San Mateo County civil grand jury reports focused on deficiencies at Mid-Coast Television and with agricultural land and taxation rules. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see that both take aim at Half Moon Bay City Hall and with county officials on the Peninsula. Both reports suggest government officials weren’t engaged in the kind of oversight necessary to see that good policy is well-implemented.

With respect to MCTV, the Coastside’s cable-access channel, the grand jury reported what we all already knew: The channel runs a lot of canned programming and, particularly until recently, hasn’t exactly been a model of innovation. In fact, it the organization’s leadership has been engaged in a series of moves to retrench and protect the status quo, changing bylaws to squeeze out meddlesome members and cement the power of a small handful of paid employees and board members.

If that were all it found, the grand jury would have been wasting its time. The dust-up over membership at the station played out in the Review and elsewhere months ago. But the report notes that the station subsists largely from local government franchise fees. And the government has done a lousy job of seeing that ratepayers get what they pay for. The required survey of members has never been done. The city and county government don’t seem to care that dissent within the membership has been effectively quashed.

The county government certainly fairs no better in the report on agricultural land and the Williamson Act. The grand jury found that the county has neglected the program – which is supposed to provide tax relief for farmers who might otherwise be pressured to sell their land to the highest development bidder. How bad is it? The county has been applying 1980s numbers to determine the value of property and the state has even suspended payments that are meant to offset a portion of the tax receipts lost to local government as a result of the Williamson Act.

Of the two, the Williamson Act report is by far the most important. Sixteen percent of land in the county is covered by the act and if even a fraction of that land has been granted tax relief it shouldn’t have, millions of dollars have been lost. The program is important to farmers. We shouldn’t allow others to take advantage.

Now is not the time to be leaving money on the table. In both instances, the grand jury has shown the way to greater fiscal responsibility. Too often, governments merely respond to such reports with a limp letter of apology or defense. This time, the city of Half Moon Bay and the county of San Mateo should take the grand jury’s words to heart.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Grand jury: Sequoia Healthcare District should decline property taxes

June 30, 2009, Daily Journal Staff Report

The Sequoia Healthcare District should decline some or all of its share of the general tax, reducing the rate for property owners whose funds are used for philanthropic purposes, according to a civil grand jury report released yesterday.

The Board of Directors is allowed to pass on the tax on a one-year basis and should consider that in years with a healthy operating surplus, the jury recommended.

The hospital district was formed in 1946 to build and operate Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City. Since 1996, nonprofit Sequoia Health Services — a joint effort of the district and Catholic Healthcare West — took over with each entity appointing five members. After 96 percent of hospital assets were transferred to SHS in 1996, the health care district continued collecting the tax which it funnels into public and nonprofit programs like children’s health care.

SHD revenue totals approximately $6.8 million annually. Taxation code allows the board to decline some of the tax on a one-year basis and doing so would lower each property’s taxes accordingly, the jury report states.

The jury’s new findings were an update to a 2004-05 investigation of whether the district still represents its health care interests. That jury recommended the district develop and implement a 10-year working investment plan to manage its financial reserves. The plan has since been replaced by a strategic plan establishing a sense of direction with priorities, goals and strategies.

The jury found the district continues its health care goals but provides “minimal communication” about services to residents. The district should consider an annual mailer guiding residents to its Web site and grant applications.

The district should also work with other health care systems in the county to decrease health care costs and become more efficient, the report stated.

Civil grand jury reports carry no legal weight but recipients must respond in writing within 90 days.


Sale of Oceano Dunes land: Grand jury chastises county staff

Omission of map with off-road restrictions in a report to the state is called ‘disturbing’
By Bob Cuddy | bcuddy@thetribunenews.com

The county’s handling of a report affecting the multi-million dollar sale of the Oceano Dunes is “disturbing” because it gave the erroneous impression that the sale allows off-road vehicles in an area where they are banned, the civil grand jury says.

The planning department’s omission of a key map — and references to it — in its report gave a false impression to the county Planning Commission and “was at best inept staff performance or at worst deliberate deception,” the grand jury wrote in one of several reports released toward the end of its term June 30.

The report dealt with the county’s possible sale of its 584 acres of the Oceano Dunes, known as the La Grande Tract, to the state, which operates the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreational Area.

The would-be sale is one of many factors that could decide whether off-roaders continue to use that section of the dunes, roughly one-third of the total.

The county says its planners merely made a mistake.

“There was no effort to deceive the public or decision makers,” Acting Planning Director Kami Griffin said in an e-mail that excerpted parts of the department’s response to the grand jury. “Whether a mistake made by staff is ‘inept performance’ is subjective and should not be part of ‘findings’ from a grand jury unless it is supported by facts,” the department’s response reads.

The department’s conclusions “do not control the decision to buy, sell or lease land,” it continued.

“Public review and testimony is critical to the planning process, and in this case, was vital in that it was responsible for catching mistakes in the staff report,” the department response says.

When the report came to the Planning Commission in 2006, county planners omitted what they dubbed the “Figure 4 map,” which designated a “vehicle free area” in a large portion of the land being offered for sale.

The ban on vehicles would have “conflict(ed) with the state parks’ intended use for the parcel,” the grand jury wrote.

In addition, the report omitted references to the map in other parts of the text.

The county found out about this only after a citizen, Larry Bross, called the report into question at the Planning Commission meeting. The Board of Supervisors later agreed with Bross.

Questioned about the changes in the staff report, an unnamed planner told the grand jury that it was “an accident, an oversight.”

Another said the county official with the greatest knowledge of the land’s complicated history had retired, and staffers newly assigned to the report “did not recognize the importance of the Figure 4 map.”

The grand jury was skeptical of that explanation, however, since text references to the Figure 4 map also had been removed.

The implications were significant, the grand jury wrote. “This report was designed to inform important environmental and financial decisions.”

“The appearance of changing approved policy documents to indicate the opposite of their intent is disturbing.

“Planning staff are not policy makers and misrepresenting approved policies cannot be tolerated.”

The grand jury recommended that the Planning Commission require source documents when it receives reports from the Planning Department, and if a report is changed, the department should justify the change.

The Planning Department must file a written response to the Superior Court by Aug. 17, and the Board of Supervisors must file its response by Sept. 16.

The 19-member civil grand jury, composed of citizen volunteers, investigates complaints about county government.

Its recommendations are not binding, but the departments it investigates must file a formal response with Superior Court.


Replace temps' pension plan, grand jury tells Riverside County supervisors

A pension plan for Riverside County government temporary employees should be scrapped and replaced with Social Security, according to a report to be presented to the Board of Supervisors today.

In a five-page evaluation of the county's 401(a) defined-benefit plan offered to workers in the Temporary Assignment Program — known as TAP — the Riverside County Grand Jury identified practices it called detrimental to the temporary employees.

The grand jury, composed of 19 residents selected to serve a yearlong term during which they scrutinize and report on government operations, detailed how the 401(a) plan came about following the county's decision to initiate TAP in the late 1990s to rein in expenditures going to private-sector temporary employment agencies.

TAP expanded from 200 employees in 1999 to nearly 2,000 employees less than a decade later, according to the report.

During this period, the Laborers International Union of North America, representing forensic technicians, nursing assistants, building maintenance workers and others in county government, complained that TAP employees were earning wages on par with permanent employees.

In a conciliatory gesture, the county lowered TAP employees' wages 5.5 percent below what permanent employees are paid for comparable work. However, to make up the loss to temps, the county adopted the 401(a) pension program, which works like Social Security and is implemented in lieu of Social Security, according to the grand jury.

However, only 3.75 percent of a TAP worker's earnings are withheld, compared to 6.2 percent under Social Security. The employer matches the withholding, which in the case of the 401(a) plan means paying out 3.75 percent in matching funds, according to the grand jury.

The report indicated that by implementing the 401(a) program, the county lowered its tax liabilities and seemingly offset TAP workers' losses from reduced pay.

However, problems arise when temporary workers leave TAP after contributing a few thousand dollars or less to their 401(a) plans. The grand jury said predetermined criteria built into the pension program often reduce temp workers' lump sum pay-outs to a small percentage of their contributions.

Public comments on the grand jury report are expected during today's board meeting.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Tehama County Jail old, understaffed

Updated: 07/13/2009 09:18:51 AM PDT

Though kept clean and in good working order, the Tehama County Jail is old and understaffed, according to an investigation by the Tehama County Grand Jury.

Every year, the Grand Jury, a group of Tehama County citizens chosen through a combination of screening by Judge Dennis Murray and random selection, is convened to investigate complaints against local government agencies.

Among the jury's recommendations are the filling of vacant staff positions and the need for an additional medical position. But unlike several agencies, no response was required from the jail.

The 227-bed jail must maintain an absolute minimum level of staffing at all times, not only for the safety of the inmates and of the guards, but to meet certain requirements of the state. That includes checking all cells on an hourly basis, said Jail Capt. Ronald Dodd.

The needed minimum staffing varies between 10 correctional officers and a sergeant during the daytime on a court day, to four COs and a sergeant on a Sunday night, all of whom work 12-hour shifts and are encouraged to avoid overtime.

Right now Dodd oversees 29 COs, with three deputies temporarily moved from patrol to make up for three frozen CO positions that earn between $2,500 to $3,100 a month.

With only two full-time nurses, who work four days a week, 10 hours a day, one of those officers may have to drive an inmate to St. Elizabeth Community Hospital if no nurse is present to determine whether an inmate is seriously ill, mildly ill or not ill.

The number of COs is also higher because of the jail's design. An odd mix of old-fashioned steel bars and sleek, modern design, the jail shows the changes prison architecture has undergone in 20 years.

On one side of the complex, cells open into narrow hallways, with each hallway named after the color of the door at the end.

Looking through the window of Orange Tank, only the gray bars that make up the doors and walls of each cell are visible, prisoners concealed by the angle of the doorway, though security cameras have been installed throughout the building.

But just a few doors down, the complex jumps forward to the mid 1990s, where a CO can observe two floors worth of prisoners from a second-story tower built into the complex. Here, a CO has access to security camera footage and a two-way intercom system, allowing the guard to communicate with individual cells without leaving his post.

The department is considering converting its dispatch offices, housed next to the jail right now, into additional cells. At some point the department also hopes to construct a new jail north of the probation department north of Walnut Street.

But this year the county is asking for a 3.5 percent budget cut from all its public safety departments.

And talks involving state funding have only invoked a facility that would use state guards and house state prisoners, Sheriff Clay Parker said.

You're building a state prison, he said. What's the difference?

For now, as Capt. Ron Dodd patrols the halls of what he refers to as a small city, any tensions created by a stretched budget do not appear to have reached prisoners.

On Wednesday, as Dodd stops by a recreation room, prisoners greet him with smiles, jokes and sometimes minor requests.

One asks Dodd to plug a cord that runs beneath the cell door and into an outlet on the other side of the corridor, and he obliges.

Another, in a newer part of the complex that houses a two-floor communal living space with open bunk beds and communal toilets and televisions, approaches Dodd to ask him if the captain will apologize on behalf of the inmate to another inmate.

If you treat people humanely, they will treat you humanely, too, Dodd later remarked.




The Alameda County Grand Jury recommended in its annual report today that the city of Oakland adopt more stringent accounting requirements for travel expenses.

The grand jury said much of the travel involves attending out-of-state conferences "with the primary purpose of social networking" that return little, if any benefit, to the city of Oakland, which faces a $100 million deficit for the current fiscal year.

The report, entitled "City of Oakland Excessive Travel Costs," said many of the training courses city employees attended were of questionable value to the city or weren't cost effective.

As an example, it said city employees traveled to Alaska, where one of the courses dealt with teaching "The Art of Eskimo Yo-Yo Making."

The report said on another occasion, 10 employees traveled across the country to attend the "McGruff Crime Dog Conference" designed to improve civilian, non-police department employees with crime-fighting strategies.

The grand jury said a better practice, and one that would provide better value, would be to send one employee to a conference, evaluate the benefits of the training afterward, and then make a decision on whether to present the training session in Oakland at a lower cost and to a wider audience.

The panel said it's especially concerned about the number of employees who traveled to conferences and training sessions that appeared to have little connection to official city business, the number of out-of-state trips taken by employees and the number of days employees spent away from work traveling.

The grand jury said it's also concerned about "the poor documentation employees provided for their travel expenses and the equally poor job their supervisors did in reviewing those expenses" as well as the absence of any review of travel expenses that are paid with city credit cards.

"The credibility of city government becomes questionable when expenses are not carefully scrutinized," the report said.

Grand jurors said the volume of travel to out-of-state conferences and training sessions of questionable value "suggests that a culture has developed among some senior Oakland officials that city employees are entitled to this type of travel as a benefit of employment."

The panel said that belief "should be re-examined and eliminated" because taxpayers deserve value for their dollars.

The grand jury said an example of questionable travel occurred when 27 employees traveled to the Black Public Administrator's Conference in Arkansas at a cost of $55,5000.

The agenda for the conference demonstrated that little time was spent on training or education and most of the sessions revolved around networking, according to the panel.

The report said the Oakland Police Department appeared to be the only city department that is doing a good job at carefully scrutinizing employees' travel expenses.

Grand jurors said the departments with the most travel between July 1, 2007, and June 30, 2008, were the Human Services Department and the Finance and Management Department.

Eighty Human Services employees went on 140 out-of-state trips and were gone a total of 376 days. Seventy-six finance employees went on 146 trips and were gone 419 days.

The report says Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums was one of those who traveled frequently in fiscal 2008, spending $44,025, according to his travel logs.

Dellums spent $1,740 for conference fees, $7,495 for transportation, $25,789 for lodging and $9,000 for meals, according to a city report.

The report says no hotel bills or receipts were provided to the grand jury for Dellums' expenses and the numbers provided to the city don't match credit card charges.

Oakland City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente said today that he and Councilwoman Jean Quan have tried to impose tougher controls on travel costs but their efforts have been resisted by other council members.

De La Fuente said "there's not even a line-item in the budget" for travel costs.

The councilman said he agrees with the grand jury that it's hard to know exactly how much the city spends for travel costs because some charges that are paid by credit cards aren't included in travel reports.

He said the city's first comprehensive report on travel expenses is expected to be released in September.


Glenn County Grand jury looks at HRA allegations

Friday, Jul 10 2009, 8:32 pm
By Rick Longley/Staff writer

The county Human Resource Agency comes under fire in the 2008-2009 Glenn County grand jury report for allegations of a hostile work environment, inconsistent employment practices and accounting irregularities.

Following an October investigation, allegations of drug and alcohol abuse by employees on the job also surfaced, the report states, as did claims that hiring, firing and promotion practices used by the agency were inconsistent with its policies and procedures.

“Many of the staff at HRA have very high stress occupations, coupled with what many describe as a hostile working environment,” says the report released last week. “They spoke of public humiliation, ridicule and verbal contempt from upper management. Some employees have been blatantly threatened with the loss of their jobs through harassment and intimidation.”

Glenn County HRA Director Kim Gaghagen, who is not mentioned by name in the report, retired June 30. Public Health Director Scott Gruendl is serving as interim HRA director until a replacement is found.

Gruendl said the agency’s formal response to the grand jury is due by Aug. 28, and Gaghagen left him a draft response to develop.

“Most of the grand jury recommendations about the HRA have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented,” Gruendl said.

He identified an unnamed deputy director of administration mentioned in the report as Sean Munns, who resigned after being out on medical leave for several months. Munns was arrested outside his ex-wife’s Willows home in May 2008 in an incident he later attributed to a bad reaction to prescription medication. No charges were ever filed, a Glenn County sheriff’s spokesman confirmed Thursday.

Gahagen directed the agency for several years and was in charge last year when the grand jury was conducting its investigation. Gruendl said he could not comment on whether the alleged misconduct could be attributed to Gahagen or Munns, or whether they were the subjects of the grand jury’s allegations. Munns’ position remains unfilled.

Financial patchwork
The grand jury report did not specify any financial problems at the agency due to mismanagement, but recommended a complete audit by an independent agency.
“A number of employees stated that funds are being funneled away from the intended purpose and the designated programs,” the report states. “Accounts are billed and paid to other divisions under the HRA umbrella. Currently, audits are performed on individual departments as well as specific grants; however, the agency is not audited each year due to the vast number of programs.”

Among other programs, HRA oversees employment services to county residents, In-Home Supportive Services, Child Protective Services, and housing and public assistance programs. Gruendl said the county’s finance department has outside auditors review the books of various HRA programs annually, although the entire agency is not audited every year.

As for the hiring and firing of employees, Gruendl said Glenn County’s personnel department handles most of these functions along with the State Personnel Board, since many HRA employees fall under the state merit system.

The county also has a drug and alcohol abuse policy in place for alleged abuse on the job with specific criteria for testing employees suspected of such abuse in the workplace, Gruendl said.

Gruendl said he plans to meet with middle and upper managers to get their thoughts on how the agency is working, and may do an online survey of employees so he can understand the morale issues facing the HRA.

Glenn County Chief Administrative Officer David Shoemaker said last week he had no comment on the HRA report. Outgoing grand jury foreman Robert A. Gillam also said he could not discuss the report with anyone outside the jury.


San Mateo Grand jury: Oversight for Mid-Coast Television needed

A lack of oversight of Mid-Coast Television resulted in a lack of program quality surveys and left station leaders to self regulate, outcomes the grand jury suggested should be changed in a seven-page report released yesterday.

Contractually obligated to two organizations, the city of Half Moon Bay and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, Mid-Coast Television was not given the financial oversight the public should expect. As a result, contractual actions like seeking new funding and conducting community surveys were not completed. A seven-page San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report suggested a more cooperative relationship between the three groups to better serve the community.

MCTV is a nonprofit founded in 1983, which reaches 6,000 Comcast television subscribers. Programming includes recent public governmental meetings; archival footage of festivals and social events; archival public service and special interest shows; slideshows promoting local services and upcoming events; and candidate debates.

MCTV is contractually bound to two agencies that share responsibility for the funding and the oversight of the station, the county and the city of Half Moon Bay. The 1998 agreement with Half Moon Bay requires MCTV to develop a viewer survey as a tool for public feedback and improvements. No such survey was conducted, according to the grand jury report. The station has, however, expanded services available online.

The organization has one paid employee, the president and station manager. The Board of Directors approve operational policy. Earlier this year, the board voted to change the bylaws eliminating membership outside the board, which eliminated a member’s right to inspect station records.

Half Moon Bay city officials and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors should work with MCTV to communicate and coordinate agreements, according to the grand jury recommendations. The groups should also create a strategic plan to improve quality and relevance of service. New revenue sources for the station should be sought and improvement-based community services should be developed.

The full seven-page report can be viewed online at www.sanmateocourt.org/grandjury.


Sonoma County grand jury urges library to protect kids from adult Web sites


Published: Friday, July 10, 2009 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 10, 2009 at 11:20 p.m.

Byron Hendrix, 49, casually viewed lewd images at the downtown Santa Rosa library on Friday afternoon, exercising what he described as his First Amendment rights.

As teens walked past the Internet station where he sat, Hendrix clicked through one escort ad after another, each displaying women in various positions, some less clothed than others.

Asked if he thought it was appropriate for children to be exposed to such material at the flagship branch of the Sonoma County Library, Hendrix’s answer was simple.

“No, but who told the kid to stand there and watch?” Hendrix said, adding that he was doing nothing illegal.

Children’s “inadvertent exposure to pornography” is among several issues investigated by the Sonoma County Grand Jury in a report released Friday called “Santa Rosa Central Library Revisited.”

The civil grand jury’s report recommends that the library install Internet filter software “as a means of protecting minors against pornography” and to relocate computer screens at the central library so they cannot be seen from the main aisle.

Library officials have long resisted such recommendations. On Friday, Library Director Sandra Cooper described the use of pornography filters as a “slippery slope in terms of First Amendment rights.”

“We’re looking at other ways to deal with the problem that don’t interfere with people’s access to information,” Cooper said.

The library report was one of four released on the Internet on Friday, rounding off the jury’s eight inquiries for the investigative body’s 2008-2009 term. The civil grand jury has no criminal authority. Its 19 volunteer members are appointed by the Superior Court and charged with reviewing complaints about the actions and policies of local government.

The report comes a year after the previous grand jury looked into behavior issues related to homeless patrons using the library as a de-facto shelter. That jury recommended measures such as banning loitering or prohibiting patrons from bringing bedrolls and bundles into the library. It also recommended that the library coordinate “random but regular” visits by Santa Rosa police officers.

Richard Klein, foreman of the 2008-2009 grand jury, said jurors decided to prepare a new report on the library this session because “the last one was rejected” by library commissioners. “This grand jury looked into it to see if there were any errors” in the previous investigation, he said.

While the earlier report focused primarily on problems with homeless patrons, the new one speaks more generally about behavioral problems at the library.

“The characterization of homeless people as a problem was not the way to do it,” Klein said. “What we chose to do this year was just ignore the characterization.”

The current report found the library’s updated 2008 Standards and Behavior policy “must be enforced to send a clear message to visitors that their conduct and interference with the rights of all users will not be tolerated.”

Cooper declined to comment Friday afternoon at length about the findings of the report because she had not yet read the document. But she did say that a library staff committee has been “working on enforcement issues” since the beginning of the year and that staff briefings are now taking place.

Margaret Lynch, chairwoman of the library commission, said she could not comment on the grand jury report until other members of the commission had a chance to view it, which along with the grand jury’s three other inquiries were to be included in today’s Press Democrat.

The lack of monitoring or filtering of pornographic material over the Internet was a major focus of the jury’s look at the central library.

On Friday, it was business as usual at facility on E Street in Santa Rosa. Parents and children searched for books or played games, adults worked online on resumes and a few haggard patrons struggled to keep awake over the pages of a reference book or magazine.

At Internet stations, some patrons viewed their Facebook sites while others conducted research on Wikipedia. One man visited an online gambling Web site.

Hendrix of Santa Rosa took a seat toward the back of the library after viewing the escort sites. He said that while it is not illegal for him to look at such material in the library, he would welcome measures to protect children from inadvertently walking past someone viewing pornography.

Bianca Stebbins, a Santa Rosa mother who visited the library Friday with her two daughters, said the issue is not a matter of free speech or censorship. Stebbins, a business and life coach, grew up in communist Romania, where “censorship was our middle name.”

Stebbins said that since the library does not carry “XXX” magazines, there’s little justification for allowing “XXX” Web sites.

“Filtering Web sites is not censorship,” Stebbins said. “My children have the right to come to the library and be safe in their intellectual development, which is what the library is here for.”

The other topics reported upon in the grand jury report are:

Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office investigations into officer-involved fatal incidents, which got high marks from the jury. However, District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua was criticized for taking too long to complete the reports.

Sonoma County Animal Care and Control, which was lauded for improving its programs and the treatment of animals.

The Sonoma County Board of Education, about which the jury made no recommendations but posed questions about school district consolidation and whether the superintendent of schools should be an appointed rather than elected position.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213

or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.


Stanislaus County Grand Jury Report Recommends Ouster Of Councilman

Riverbank City Councilmember Jesse James White should be removed from office because he had not yet registered to vote at the time he applied to run as a candidate in the November elections, according to a Stanislaus County civil grand jury report released on Wednesday, July 1.

White had his nomination papers issued July 21 but did not register as a voter until July 25, which constituted a violation of the state elections code, according to the investigation.

As a result, the grand jury recommended the council "invalidate the election" and remove White from his post.

City Manager Rich Holmer and City Clerk Linda Abid-Cummings, however, doubt whether the city has the authority to invalidate an election and will hire an attorney specializing in election law as to whether this is possible.

A grand jury report is a simply a recommendation and has no force in law. Riverbank and its officials have 90 days to respond in writing to the report.

Jesse James White has been a controversial figure on the council since he first declared candidacy as a 19-year-old college student with no previous political experience, but supported by his grandfather Dave White, who has sat on the council off and on for 20 years, and is a current council member.

Running among five candidates for two council seats, Jesses James White won 24.6 percent of the vote and took second place after former Mayor David I. White, who is not related to either Jesse James White or Dave White but was also on the November ballot.

Both Jesse James White and Dave White are the targets of a recall movement by Riverbank Citizens for Fair Change, which sought a grand jury inquiry.

The jury report said it received complaints against the City Manager Rich Holmer, former mayor Chris Crifasi and the two city council members. It found the city manager became aware in December 2008, just a month after the election, of Mayor Chris Crifasi's intention to resign and chose not to disclose this information to the citizens. Holmer has said he was asked to wait a while and saw no illegality or harm in this.

The report also is critical of the City Clerk for not validating the accuracy of information on election documents submitted to her office although the form calls for a signature of verification.

The report finds Riverbank has a strong manager and weak mayor form of government with information flowing up to the city manager but not so much downward.

One city employee was quoted as saying he or she was not expected to think but to do what he or she was told.

The city manager needs to more visible in his leadership role and council should develop a written set of policies and procedures for each department, the report adds in making additional recommendations.


San Mateo Grand jury: Garbage contracts are flawed

July 09, 2009, By Heather Murtagh

Awarding two garbage-related contracts by the South Bayside Waste Management Authority was not done “with integrity and transparency,” a goal of the agency, according to a yet-to-be-released civil grand jury report.

The 12-member SBWMA awarded two 10-year contracts, for collection services and facility operations, in preparation for the expiration of its contract with Allied Waste — set to end Jan. 1, 2011. Choosing those contracts was done without thorough company background checks or a clear process for rating the bids, according to a 23-page San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report set to be released Friday. Reconsidering the pending contracts and changing the process for reviewing bids in the future are two of the three recommendations within the report.

Virginia Chang Kiraly, chair of the 2008-09 civil grand jury, could not comment on the report since it is not yet scheduled to be public. However, she added the group stands by the research it did and conclusions reached.

Allied Waste, which was denied for both contracts, originally contacted the public and the press complaining about the original contract practices.

“It’s a complete validation of what Allied has been saying for about a year. The process is flawed,” said Pete Hillan, spokesman for Allied Waste, now called Republic. “It’s a huge win.”

Overall, the investigation led to 13 findings including that the process was flawed, without clear indication of how proposals would be rated; background checks on chosen companies were not fully vetted; and elected officials do not serve on the board. In addition, South Bay Recycling’s proposal included mistakes and omissions totaling $1.2 million it asked SBWMA to cover.

As a result, the process appeared to allow for undue influence and was poorly executed, according to the report.

To rectify these problems, the grand jury suggested the contracts be reconsidered; the future process for awarding contracts be reworked; and the authority agreement be amended to include elected officials from member groups on the board.

SBWMA was formed in 1982 to consolidate local collection services while coordinating efforts to manage solid waste disposal in 12 areas — Atherton, Belmont, Burlingame, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Hillsborough, Menlo Park, Redwood City, San Carlos, San Mateo, West Bay Sanitation District and unincorporated areas of San Mateo County.

Allied Waste has operated both collection and disposal services of solid waste since SBWMA’s inception. The current contract ends Jan. 1, 2011, prompting SBWMA to call for separate contract bids for the two services.

In November 2007, the agency’s board began seeking contract bids for collection services. Four proposals — Allied Waste, Bayside Environmental Services and Transfer, Norcal Waste Systems of San Mateo County and Republic Services of California, Inc. — were submitted by March 11, 2008.

Judging was split into two committees, evaluation and selection. The evaluation committee analyzed and numerically scored each proposal. The weight of and giving of points was not uniform, with which the grand jury report took issue. Norcal was selected on Aug. 28, 2008.

Noting a well-publicized controversial history Norcal had with San Jose, the grand jury found a representative from San Jose was not contacted about the problems before awarding the contract. In addition, the consultant hired by SBWMA to verify competitor references, helped draft the contract for Norcal when it applied to the San Jose position in 2000.

Burlingame and Atherton have yet to adopt the contract. Each city works as its own franchise when voting on the contract, said SBWMA Executive Director Kevin McCarthy.

Burlingame Finance Director Jesus Nava, who serves on the SBWMA Board of Directors, explained the city waited to vote because of a desire to see the finished grand jury report.

Seven proposals were turned in for the contract to operate the Shoreway Facility — which includes the San Carlos transfer center, material recycling facility and environmental education center.

South Bay Recycling was made the top runner and has since been in negotiations to change the proposal, according to the grand jury report. South Bay Recycling plans to run the site as a satellite location from its offices in Southern California. This contract has yet to go before the 12 agencies, said McCarthy, who noted it goes before the board later this month.

The full report will be made public Friday. The groups involved have 90 days to respond.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: heather@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.




Lake County Grand jury releases massive 2008-09 Grand Jury report

Written by Elizabeth Larson
Thursday, 09 July 2009

LAKE COUNTY – Allegations of perjury, complaints about the county Office of Education, a local water district's financial controls, a city development project and oversight of local detention facilities are among the dozens of investigations contained in the 2008-09 Lake County Grand Jury Report.

The report was released to county department heads and agencies on July 2, according to Bron Locke, the outgoing foreman, who has held that position for two years. It became available to the media and general public on Wednesday.

The document appears to be the largest report, in volume, that the grand jury has produced locally. It comes in at 271 pages, surpassing the 254-page 2007-08 report.

A letter from the grand jury that introduces the report explains that it contains 56 total reports produced by seven committees – budget and finance, government services, health and social services, planning and public works, public safety, public services and ad hoc.

Of its investigations, three were turned over the Lake County District Attorney's Office for further review and potential investigation.

Two complaints that the grand jury didn't undertake also were sent along to the district attorney, the report explained.

The grand jury conducts several annual oversight inquiries that include the cities of Lakeport and Clearlake, and the Board of Supervisors.

During the 2008 election, grand jurors had the opportunity to observe the Registrar of Voters' handling of a presidential election. The grand jury made recommendations about improving voting precincts at Clearlake City Hall, which it found to be “unorganized, chaotic and noisy.”

Jurors also investigated last summer's findings of a large illicit marijuana garden that Supervisor Rob Brown found on his property while clearing brush. The grand jury concluded that it found no evidence to suggest Brown was involved with the illegal crop.

Among its investigations were a continuing look into the Lake County Office of Education, which had been the source of a partial investigation that was released in last year's report, as Lake County News has reported.

One of the report's most in-depth investigations centered on the Clearlake Oaks County Water District and its fiscal challenges. The grand jury made 35 findings and 28 recommendations, most of them centering on better financial controls and personnel policies.

The grand jury also investigated several complaints.

Those included an allegation that the district attorney abused prosecutorial discretion by writing a “Brady letter” regarding an officer's credibility to his commander. The report noted that such letters can seriously damage a law enforcement officer's career. The letter, which blocked out the officer's name, noted that a case of perjury against the officer had been forwarded to the District Attorney's Office, but it wasn't prosecuted due to insufficient evidence.

Another complaint involved Brown Act violations and lack of transparency relating to the City of Lakeport Municipal Sewer District property, which the council has wanted to develop for housing.

Considerable space in the report also was donated to the county's jail and detention facilities and how they are managed.

More in-depth explanations of the report's key points and its major investigations will be the subject of upcoming Lake County News articles.

“Overall I think it's a good report and it contains many recommendations that will be of help to the county,” said County Administrative Officer Kelly Cox. “It's well organized and presented in a very professional manner.”

The report offers recommendations and seeks response from a variety of elected officials – who have 60 days to give a response to the Board of Supervisors – and agencies, which must respond in 90 days, the report explains.

The 19 grand jurors for 2008-09 included Foreman Bron Locke, Joy Allred, Ginny Cline, Richart Everts, Pauline Hauser, Phil Myers, Lonny Rittler, Linda Alexander, Harold Dietrich, Ken Fountain, Dave Johnson, Ron Nagy, Steve Tellardin, Melissa Bentley, Mike Daugherty, Kathy Harrell, Tom Marquette, Larry Platz and Carol Vedder.

The group logged approximately 75,285 miles during its year of investigations, according to the report.

With the 2008-09 report now released, it was time to discharge the group that created it to make way for the 2009-10 grand jurors, who were sworn in and seated Wednesday morning in a ceremony in Lake County Superior Court's Department 2, with Judge Richard Martin presiding.

Also on hand were Judge David Herrick, Judge Arthur Mann, County Counsel Anita Grant, County Auditor-Controller Pam Cochrane, District Attorney Jon Hopkins, Cox and several outgoing grand jurors.

Several of the jurors will stay on for an additional year, including Bentley, Johnson, Myers and Vedder. New members include John Bain, Lakeport; Rose Marie Blackwell, Clearlake Oaks; William Brunner, Lakeport; Fred Christensen, Lakeport; Venoma Gill, Clearlake; Wanda Harris, Hidden Valley Lake; Larry Heine, Lower Lake; Marilyn Johnson, Lakeport; Steve Keen, Glenhaven; Douglas Martin, Lucerne; Gerald Morehouse, Lucerne; Jack Scialabba, Clearlake; and Diane Trudeau, Cobb. Dustin Gillham of Lakeport also was on the list but didn't show up to be impaneled during the ceremony.

The new grand jury is hitting the ground running, with a training scheduled for Thursday, said Christensen, who Judge Martin appointed as foreman.

Christensen has experience on various commissions and boards in other areas. “My familiarity with governmental institutions is pretty thorough.”

He said the holdover grand jurors from last year will be “a great asset” to the new grand jury.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at elarson@lakeconews.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .


Placer County Grand jury recycles blue bag controversy

Again, recommendation is to drop them

By Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
Karina Williams, Gold Country News Service

A Placer County grand jury report is putting renewed pressure on participating communities, including Auburn, to toss out programs that now see residents bagging recyclables.

The jury is asking for a second straight year that Auburn, Lincoln, Loomis and Placer County eliminate their so-called Blue Bag programs.

The report says the Material Recovery Facility that takes the bags as well as unprocessed trash is efficient enough to pull recyclables from the waste stream and blue bag benefits are marginal.

But Auburn’s representative on the county’s Local Solid Waste Task Force said he’ll continue to advocate keeping the bag program.

Auburn City Councilman Bill Kirby said he’d like to see local communities consider expanding recycling efforts to possibly include household food materials. He added that the blue bag program helps foster home efforts to keep materials out of the waste stream.

The grand jury report follows tours of the Western Placer Waste Management Authority Material Recovery Facility in Roseville, research into recycling rates and discussions with waste authorities.

It concluded in a report released last month that there is “no evidence the time, effort or money spent on the Blue Bag Programs by residents contributed anything significant toward achieving the recycling goals of the jurisdictions.”

But Kirby said that he and other City Council members voted unanimously when the issue was first broached a year ago to keep the program because it’s an important gesture that keeps recycling in people’s minds.

“The bottom line is we understand blue bags are probably not the most efficient way to do things,” Kirby said. But the popular program – 67,000 blue bags were turned in by Auburnites in 2007 – is worth it in terms of encouraging waste reduction behavior patterns, he said.

Extrapolating the use of 52 blue bags a year for weekly pickups, Auburn – with a population of about 12,000 – would have about 1,300 households taking part.

Lincoln is also resisting the grand jury recommendations. Like Auburnites, Lincoln residents are provided with free bags. The city pays $26,000 per year for the bags, which are picked up at city hall. In Auburn, the bags are delivered upon request.

The grand jury points out that blue bags comprise a “very small percentage” of the total volume of processed refuse at the Roseville area Material Recovery Facility on Fiddyment Road. The facility is operated under contract by Nortech Waste Inc. and under the authority of the Western Placer Waste Management Authority. The authority is a joint-powers authority that includes representation from participating cities and Placer County, which own the adjoining regional landfill.

Jim Durfee, Western Placer Waste Management Authority executive director, said he didn’t see the issues changing much from last year’s grand jury report, when his board chose to make no response to the recommendation.

Instead, the authority remains supportive as long as those agencies elect to continue their involvement in the program.

“Although the blue bags themselves (not the contents) are not currently marketable as a recyclable commodity and are landfilled, a majority of the contents within the bag are successfully recovered,” Durfee told the jury last year in an official response. “Although they represent only a small fraction of the overall waste processed at the MRF, due to the relatively high recovery rate achieved from the blue-bagged materials, the program serves to marginally decrease waste.”

The grand jury gives jurisdictions 60 days to respond to its recommendations.

The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.


Grand jury report on Riverside County Fire Department: Cut costs, reduce strife

The Press-Enterprise

Read the Grand Jury's 2008-2009 reports.

Riverside County should consider forming its own fire department in the future instead of contracting with the state, which plans to hike administrative fees this year, a new county grand jury report says.

Fire officials should also do more to discipline career firefighters who create a hostile work environment for their volunteer colleagues and to address conflict between the two groups, the grand jury said.

The report, released last week, makes 10 recommendations for cutting costs and reducing strife in the Riverside County Fire Department. The department relies on about 1,000 Cal Fire firefighters and personnel to protect the county and 18 contract cities. Cal Fire employees help train and work side-by-side with about 700 volunteer firefighters.

County Fire Chief John Hawkins, a state employee, declined to comment on the report Wednesday. He said his department is following standard procedure and formulating an official response to the grand jury. The response will be reviewed by the county executive office and Board of Supervisors and issued by Sept. 28.

At a May supervisors meeting, Hawkins said an anticipated increase in this year's administrative fees is not Cal Fire's fault. The higher cost reflects an increase in the fees that the state Department of Finance charges Cal Fire, he said.

County spokeswoman Lys Mendez said the county does not yet have a dollar estimate for how much Cal Fire administrative costs would go up, but they would increase from about 9.7 percent of the total contract amount to 11 percent.

Hawkins added at the May meeting that his department was working closely with the executive office to cut spending and help ease the county's budget crisis. Supervisors have since approved a budget that includes about $5 million in cuts to the department.

Officials with the separate associations representing career and volunteer firefighters declined to comment on the grand jury's recommendations and findings, but spoke generally about their concerns.

"It brings to light some of the issues that some firefighters are facing in the county," Angel Sanchez Jr., chairman of the Volunteer Firefighters Association, said of the report.

Terence McHale, policy director with CDF Firefighters, the union which represents career firefighters with Cal Fire, said the report should not be taken at face value.

The grand jury says local leaders with CDF Firefighters repeatedly told members that volunteer firefighters lacked training and were plotting to replace them.

"This type of propaganda has lent itself to the creation of a hostile work environment at some stations," the report says.

At some stations, Cal Fire firefighters commonly call in paid staff on overtime instead of using readily available volunteer firefighters to respond to a call, the report said. Such delays could jeopardize people's safety, the report said.

The grand jury also found that some equipment purchased by volunteer firefighter companies had been tampered with or had disappeared.

Most new volunteer firefighters did not receive new protective equipment and frequently what they received was extensively worn and sometimes defective, the grand jury said.

McHale said he disagrees with much of the report but concurs with at least one recommendation. The report says volunteers should be referred to as "paid-call firefighters" since they have the option to receive compensation on certain calls.

"Paid-call firefighters are a part of the equation; we recognize that," he said. "We respect that but we also want to make sure they are used in a capacity that enhances response, where they don't hurt themselves or endanger vulnerable citizens, who I believe expect and deserve the most well-trained and experienced personnel."

Reach Julia Glick at 951-368-9442 or jglick@PE.com


San Bernardino S.B. County supervisor to push for ethics panel

The Press-Enterprise

San Bernardino County Supervisor Neil Derry is making a renewed push for an ethics commission as well as a new proposal that would allow for easier access to documents.

Derry provided more details about the proposed ethics commission and the new proposal for a "sunshine ordinance" in a meeting with The Press-Enterprise editorial board Thursday. He also said he may take the latter idea to voters in a ballot measure if his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors reject it.

Last week's county grand jury report, which included a section on governmental reform that backed the establishment of an ethics commission, has provided fresh momentum to the proposal, Derry said.

He said he hopes the supervisors can begin discussions of the ethics commission within the next few months.

"We want to push it back to the front seat and get it moving," said Derry, who made forming an ethics commission part of his election platform last year.

The commission would be an independent panel of five members empowered to review the conduct of elected county officials and their staff and fine them for any campaign finance violations. Members would be randomly selected from applicants who meet a list of criteria and serve two- to four-year terms, Derry said.

He said the commission would have an annual budget of $500,000 and three staff members.

While preparing their proposal, Derry and his staff have met with other jurisdictions that have ethics commissions.

Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, has also agreed to provide advice, Derry said. Stern helped set up the Los Angeles commission and the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

Supervisor Paul Biane also has backed the idea of an ethics commission and is working on the proposal with Derry. But, in an interview last week, Biane estimated the cost of an ethics commission much higher than Derry -- about $2 million -- and said it could be difficult to start a new program during such a tight fiscal time.

Derry said he will pledge $50,000 from his district's discretionary budget and challenged his four colleagues to do the same.

Supervisor Josie Gonzales likened an ethics commission to a "baby sitter" in a speech two weeks ago, but she said Thursday that she is still open to the idea and studying what other jurisdictions have done.

"If they have some good tools, I would definitely be interested in supporting that in San Bernardino County," she said.

However, Gonzales said her concern is that it does not create more government bureaucracy.

Although Derry said the ethics commission proposal could be changed as it's discussed by supervisors, he was insistent about the sunshine ordinance proposal.

The ordinance would eliminate "deliberative process" as the sole reason to redact or not release public documents. The county has cited deliberative process on occasions in denying requests for public documents.

"It is abused by the county of San Bernardino, there's no doubt about it," Derry said. He said he will propose a ballot measure if the board does not approve the ordinance.

Gonzales said she is open to the idea but said it was unhelpful for Derry to threaten to take the proposal to voters before broaching it with the board.

Reach Imran Ghori at 951-368-9558 or ighori@PE.com



San Mateo Report Grand jury claims county missing out on money

July 10, 2009, By Michelle Durand

San Mateo County is losing out on potential revenue and risking hefty fines by neglecting its local program to enforce a state agriculture preservation law, according to a civil grand jury report which recommends an audit and revamp to bring the properties into line and onto the tax roll.

“When these properties are misclassified, the county isn’t getting taxes and, in this budget, think about what that means for the special districts that get that money,” said Jury Forewoman Virginia Chang Kiraly.

The California Land Conservation Act — better known as the Williamson Act — promotes agriculture and open space by saving landowners 20 percent to 75 percent in property tax annually.

The act creates an arrangement between counties and cities to voluntarily restrict the land to agricultural and open-space uses for a rolling 10-year contract. The land can have an individual house on it but it does not meet the standard if there is only a residence without agriculture. The landowners’ property taxes are reduced and local governments participating receive an annual payment in reimbursement. The county received $59,338 for fiscal year 2006-07 for 540 parcels.

The grand jury found the county’s compliance obligations have “been seriously neglected during the last 20 years” and agricultural lands may be significantly underassessed. Without a property strategy and update, the county is potentially missing out on precious money — even at $50,000 to $60,000, it adds up over two decades, Chang Kiraly said — and risking fines. In 2007, the county was fined $74,000 because six property owners violated the law. In response, a consultant was hired to improve the program and prevent future breaches of contracts.

As part of the state budget crisis, the state may opt to suspend repayments for the Williamson act properties but the proposal is a “moving target” and shouldn’t be reason to hold up changes, Chang Kiraly said.

The suspension may only be one year and the county needs to be ready to go when the program begins again, she said.

The county is currently working on a formal response to the report but it involves coordination between several departments including Planning and Building, the Assessor’s Office, Tax Collector and Controller’s Office, said Planning Director Lisa Grote.


Grand jury blasts San Jose's Luther Burbank school board

By Sharon Noguchi

Posted: 07/11/2009 08:12:15 PM PDT
Updated: 07/12/2009 04:22:26 AM PDT

Related document

* Civil grand jury report on Luther Burbank School District board

With seven years of climbing test scores, wild success in teaching reading and a record of lifting the most struggling students, Luther Burbank School District has been hailed as a model for educating poor and immigrant children.

Now the tiny San Jose district is getting noticed for something that could threaten that progress: a grand jury report that blasts Luther Burbank for a crisis of leadership and an intimidating board that may have run afoul of the law.

In a scathing report, the Santa Clara County civil grand jury awarded the five-member Luther Burbank board an F for mishandling its duties, among them firing a popular superintendent and hastily hiring a replacement without vetting.

The jury singled out board President Antonio Perez for creating a "hostile, authoritarian environment characterized by disrespect, intimidation and the appearance of retaliation." It suggested he step down as president.

The report concluded gloomily that the one-school district, which serves primarily low-income immigrant families in San Jose's central Burbank district, may not be able to change the board's systemic problems. The Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office is looking into the findings, spokeswoman Amy Cornell said, and Santa Clara County Schools Deputy Superintendent Cary Dritz is naming a committee to review and respond to the report.

The Luther Burbank school board is scheduled Tuesday to discuss the grand jury's 33-page report, which has done little to change the tenor at the school: Two secretaries have taken stress leaves, a principal and five teachers have complained of harassment and parents say they are terrified to speak out.

"I'm afraid of what might happen to my children," said Maria Uribe, mother of three. Even though her youngest just finished eighth grade and will move on to high school in a different district next year, she said she and other parents fear unspecified retaliation.

Since the report's publication in June, Perez has been a frequent visitor to Luther Burbank's only school, strolling on the playground, walking into rooms or sitting in the school office.

A parent who works as a school crossing guard said Perez reported her to her boss for allegedly talking with parents about the grand jury report while on duty.

Perez said he visits school because his son is in kindergarten there. "One thing I did notice is a lot of employees expressing their First Amendment rights during working hours. I'm sure there (are) a few laws against political activities using public resources," he wrote in an e-mail to the Mercury News.

The grand jury report, culminating a yearlong investigation by the civilian watchdog, alleged multiple failures, among them:

# The board summarily fired Superintendent Richard Rodriguez and on the same evening hired an interim superintendent without proper notice or vetting.

# Perez appears to be intimidating employees who supported the former superintendent and who were summoned to speak to the grand jury.

# Layoffs and demotions, while budget related, seemed to single out those considered hostile to Perez and the new administration.

# In a potential conflict of interest, Perez voted to award district contracts to a company that his woodworking company does business with.

# The district has violated open-meetings and public-notification laws.

In a lengthy interview with the Mercury News, Perez, in his seventh year on the board and third as president, said the jury was brainwashed by Rodriguez, whom the board ousted in November. Perez said he had to bring in a new administration to clean up a fiscal mess in the district office.

Rodriguez said he left the district with a $2 million surplus. He's distressed at recent events and says the board lacks ability and "has no business whatsoever overseeing a school district."

Despite the strife, Luther Burbank had been rising in the eyes of educators for its success with some of the hardest to educate children. Three-quarters of its students are classified as English-language learners.

The school's academic performance index, based on annual state standardized tests, has risen from 530 in 2001 to 761 in 2008. Among schools with similar demographics, the district jumped in ranking from a 1, the lowest, to a 9, nearly the highest.

The California Department of Education has singled out the district as a success story in closing the achievement gap, by lifting performance of Latino children, many of whom spoke no English when they entered school. And last year, the school placed 11th, among 800 schools, in a federally funded program, "Reading First," intended to boost reading in K-3 classes.

Perez dismisses progress on tests. "Academic excellence — the word makes me sick." He says high APIs mask poor middle-school performance, with many eighth-graders earning D's. "I never let people forget the crappy education I got at Burbank," said Perez, 41, who attended Luther Burbank School as a child.

Teachers worry that turmoil and cutbacks will set back students' progress. They hope for outside intervention and say morale is sagging, with ballooning class sizes, cuts to an English-language support job and a demotion for the curriculum director.

Interim Superintendent Fernando Elizondo denied that the grand jury's report and the staffing cuts and demotions have demoralized the staff. "I'm pretty sure that I can read a morale issue," he said, and he hasn't detected one on campus. "These teachers have really kept their focus on kids and learning."

The board will address the grand jury report at a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at its district office, 4 Wabash Ave., San Jose.