Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tulare County Grand jury: Board of Supervisor's raises were 'public, legal'

Foreman explains report on supervisors, says ethics weren't for panel to decide

BY VALERIE GIBBONS • • July 3, 2009

The foreman of the Tulare County grand jury said jurors' investigation of the county Board of Supervisors' 2008 pay raise began and ended with whether it was against the law.

The investigation found nothing illegal. But the jury's foreman, Gene Mooers, said any further recommendations from the three-month-long investigation would have had to be approved by the county counsel, Kathleen Bales-Lange.

"If we had tried to get that report to say anything stronger than that, we would have run into trouble with the county counsel's office," Mooers said.

Mooers said the jury's charge was not to decide whether the pay raises which supervisors ultimately voted not to accept were ethical or appropriate.

"The ordinance is very clear," he said. "What our supervisors did was totally legal."

On Sept. 30, the supervisors approved unanimously what was described on the agenda as "changes for employees in Units 9, 10, 11, 19, 20 and 21." It turned out that included raises for the county's elected officials.

What went unmentioned as the supervisors bundled the change along with 19 other items on a single vote was a county ordinance that gave supervisors automatic raises any time they approved them for other elected officials.

The raises, coming amid a budget crisis and layoffs of county employees, amounted to 4.56 percent and were disclosed only several months later in a legal notice the county was required to publish.

When the supervisors' raises became public, there was a sustained public outcry. The supervisors voted Feb. 10 not to accept the raises.

Phil Cox, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, called the grand jury report on the matter accurate and thorough.

"I'm glad to see they found it was a legal and transparent process," he said.

All grand jury reports are approved by Bales-Lange, who is an employee of the Board of Supervisors, and Tulare County Superior Court Judge Melinda Reed, who oversees the grand jury, Mooers said.

Libel against public officials is a key concern for Reed. It played a major role in her instructions to this year's incoming grand jury on Wednesday.

"Charges of malfeasance are often entirely unwarranted and you must proceed with caution," Reed said. "You must proceed with diligence and take care not to undermine the public's faith in their government."

Judi Lazenby, the immediate past president of the California Grand Jurors Association and its current legislative affairs director, said she could not recall an instance when a county grand jury has been sued for libel.

"But it's very possible," she said. "There are a lot of people who get very upset about these reports."

Lazenby said all but a few of California's county grand juries use their county counsel to review their findings, but state law does allow for an outside attorney or the attorney general to provide legal counsel for the grand jury.

In 2002, a Tulare County grand jury sought to do just that, recommending the county counsel's office be removed from its advisory role.

"The county counsel's office was unable to give absolute assurance that Úethical walls' could remain intact and thus protect the confidentiality of grand jury investigations," that grand jury said in a report.

Bales-Lange said at the time her office had a procedure to deal with ethical problems.

Seven years later, the county counsel's office still approves grand jury reports.

Gary Gilman, the foreman of the 2002 grand jury, asked for comment this week on his grand jury's attempt to seek outside counsel, said he was "not in a position at this time to discuss that."

Lazenby said Bales-Lange is widely regarded as an authority on grand jury legal matters.

In fact, she's scheduled to conduct a training session at a California Grand Jurors Association meeting later this month on the role of legal advisers in grand juries.

In its in final report released last Saturday, the grand jury concluded that the supervisors' salary increase last year was a public and legal process.

The jury's investigation was featured on the front cover of its final report this year.

"With the recent economic downturn, it is understandable how the [board's] salaries became a controversial issue," the jury wrote.

"The local publicity and accusations that the [board's] increases were not made public is not supported by the evidence. All applicable rules were followed."

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