Thursday, July 16, 2009

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.

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