Wednesday, April 28, 2010

San Diego Grand jury: County needs ethics

Craig Gustafson

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The San Diego County Grand Jury has advocated for years to strengthen the city of San Diego's Ethics Commission.

Now they're pushing for county government to create a similar oversight body for its politicians, high-ranking officials and lobbyists.

County officials have long maintained that no such overseer is necessary because the California Fair Political Practices Commission investigates complaints throughout the state, including San Diego County.

The grand jury's report released Tuesday notes that the FPPC has only five investigators to look into complaints around the state. Since its inception in 1976, only 83 of the agency's 1,400-plus fines have been issued in San Diego County. The agency also only monitors lobbyists at the state level, so registered lobbyists at the county go unwatched.

The grand jury recommended county officials establish the County Fair Political Practices Board because the state agency is not equipped to audit county elections, doesn't enforce local lobbying laws and doesn't have sufficient staff to probe conflict-of-interest allegations.

The 19-member grand jury is made up of county residents that investigate and report on local governments. The county must respond to the recommendations within 90 days.

The impact of the Napa County Grand Jury

By Edward Suden | Posted: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 12:00 am | (0) Comments

In response to those who hold the opinion that the Napa Grand Jury does not accomplish anything by its reports, I respectfully offer the following. Recommendations made in a Grand Jury Final Report are meant, in part, to raise the awareness of the public and the media to the subject matter of those recommendations. However, this does not mean that any actions initiated by a governmental agency or body to the subject matter of those recommendations were necessarily only in response to those recommendations.

The 2008-2009 Grand Jury Response Report provided the following partial list of the positive actions taken by governmental agencies and bodies after the 2007-2008 Grand Jury issued their individual final reports.

1. A Browns Valley Fire Station Number Five is projected to be built and staffed in January 2013.

2. The city of Napa has improved its financial operation.

3. The Calistoga Joint Unified School District installed Columbine locks on all classroom doors, a telephone was placed in the art room and the district has purchased EpiPens and sharps boxes.

4. Community Emergency Response Team training will be implemented in Napa County high schools and middle schools.

5. Napa Valley College installed computers with wireless capabilities in campus police cars, has deployed a computer-based emergency notification system to communicate with college staff and uses the AlertU system to send emergency Short Message messages to students.

6. A training manual has been developed and ongoing training instituted for new members of any county agency and advisory group.

7. The Napa County Housing Authority has established a capital improvement fund for the farmworker housing centers.

8. The Memorandum of Understanding between the Napa County and the volunteer fire departments is being revised to give the county fire chief the full authority to manage and to be accountable for all aspects of the volunteer fire departments.

9. Funds paid to volunteer firefighters who are part of a County Deploy Strike Team are being made on a routine basis and in a timely manner.

10. A type IV engine that will fit into and be housed at Soda Canyon station has been ordered for delivery.

11. The Berryessa Peak public safety radio repeater will be equipped with a microwave relay system.

12. The Napa Central Dispatch Public Safety Access Point can “conference” the CalFire Emergency Command Center on fire and medical/fire dispatch calls.

13. The department of corrections created a new grievance procedure.

14. A thorough update of the Road and Street Standards is underway and changes will cover all aspects of the standards used for maintenance and new development conditions.

15. The Department of Public Works continues a comprehensive review of its safety manual.

The 2009-2010 Grand Jury Response Report provided the following partial list of positive actions taken by governmental agencies and departments since the release of the 2008-2009 Grand Jury’s individual final reports.

1. The County Counsel’s office now schedules regular bimonthly meetings of the entire staff rather than less frequently, as in the past, and is developing a formal conflict-of-interest policy to address the problem of two opposing county agencies or departments that both request representation from the office of the County Counsel.

2. The Adult Probation Department has increased the number of evidence-based programs available to probationers, increased officer safety with regard to holding arrested probationers awaiting transport, and along with the district attorney has developed a pre-sentencing report protocol that conveys to probationers information regarding California Penal Code 1203.4 concerning the possible dismissal of their cases.

3. The Napa City-County Library is planning a review of the library collection to ensure the library is meeting the needs of the entire community, and has increased training for its library commission members.

4. The library commission by-laws and long-range policy are being reviewed and updated.

5. St. Helena Unified School District is developing a site-specific associated student body manual and is working to establish detailed written internal controls for the relationship between school-connected organizations and the district.

6. The Howell Mountain Elementary School District has re-implemented the D.A.R.E. program.

7. Napa County, the city of Napa, and the city of American Canyon are meeting with the district attorney, Napa police chief, and the chief probation officer, along with national gang consultant experts, to develop a long-term master plan for youth and gang violence.

8. Calistoga Joint Unified School District is collaborating with community and governmental agencies to provide parent workshops whose focus is educating parents to help identify gang culture, attire and attitude, and has adopted a stricter dress code policy.

9. The city of American Canyon is revising municipal ordinance(s) with regard to Transient Occupancy Tax.

If you have the time, energy and desire to make positive changes for the benefit of the citizens of Napa County, consider volunteering for the Napa County Grand Jury.

(Suden lives in Napa.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Grand jury service has its responsibilities

Shut up and listen.

Knowing when to do both are traits sought in a good Shasta County grand juror.

Although it can be a lot of work, those who have served on the Shasta County grand jury say the demanding job is worth it.

“The grand jury is a great opportunity to get the inside story on a number of things,” said 54-year-old Ray Frisbie of Whitmore.

Frisbie, a retired 32-year Anderson Union High School teacher, served on the 2006-07 and 2007-08 grand juries and was its vice-foreman during his second term,.

His reasons for volunteering were simple.

“I was just interested in local government,” he said. “I had a hankering to do it.”

While that certainly helps, those who volunteer to serve on the grand jury usually are motivated by a sense of community service — and perhaps ingrained with a few busybody tendencies.

Having a bit of free time on their hands is especially helpful.

Volunteers are asked to devote 10 to 20 hours a week for a year to serve on the grand jury, according to its website —

They must also be good listeners, and inquisitive questioners, but should know when to stop talking and protect the confidentiality of the jury’s work.

“You can’t say anything that’s going on,” said Frisbie, adding that’s one of the hardest things about being on the jury.

Seventy-two-year-old Duane Mason of Palo Cedro, who was the 2001-02 grand jury foreman, said he decided to volunteer after moving to Shasta County from Seattle after his retirement as a Federal Aviation Administration electronics engineer.

“I was looking for something to do,” he said. “I felt it was something that could make a difference and give me an opportunity to learn about local government and officials — and meet some new and interesting people. I believe all those expectations were filled.”

Despite the demands, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of those interested in trying to join next fiscal year’s watchdog group.

An open house that was held last month at Turtle Bay Museum attracted 70 people interested in serving on the next grand jury, which is due to be seated June 28.

Dale Trudeau, the jury’s current foreman who was a speaker at the open house, said such recruiting events normally average about 14 people. He and Frisbie credited the larger-than-normal turnout with an aggressive marketing and publicity effort.

A registration table — similar to those voter registration tables often seen outside supermarkets — was set up outside the Shasta County Courthouse during the unveiling of the restored Lady of Justice statue last month to kick off the recruitment drive.

In addition, members of the Shasta County Grand Past Jurors’ Association, which promotes grand jury service, have been making the rounds of community service groups and other organizations to beat the grand jury drum.

“Everyone has worked very hard to encourage people to volunteer,” said Shasta County Superior Court Executive Officer Melissa Fowler-Bradley. “After all, the grand jury is only as good as the citizens who apply.”

Friday is the deadline to submit applications to serve on the 2010-11 grand jury.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Editorial: Marin DA made wrong choice in probing grand jury report

Posted: 04/23/2010 05:30:10 AM PDT

DISTRICT ATTORNEY Ed Berberian's investigation into the unauthorized circulation of the county civil grand jury's report on Marin's public energy startup came up emptyhanded.

We are puzzled that Berberian considered this issueƊimportant enough for his staff to spend time on, other than he might not have wanted to say "no" to Supervisor Charles McGlashan, who sought the county probe as a way to publicly discredit the report, which was critical of his pet energy project.

Berberian has not made a particularly good case for putting his investigators on this matter.

He may have thought he was rushing to protect the integrity of the grand jury process, but even if the grand jury's strict confidentiality rules had been breached by the wider than expected circulation of the courtesy advance copies of this report, we don't view that as a violation that warrants an official investigation.

Marin has a talented and hardworking district attorney office. There are bigger fish to fry.

The civil grand jury has not publicly voiced any consternation over the early release and circulation of its report. Perhaps the grand jury should take a look into Berberian's decision to do McGlashan's bidding.

What was at stake? What's the offense? Does anyone care?

Besides McGlashan. He blasted the report, and the honest, hard work of the grand jury because he disagreed with its findings on a controversial project that he's championed passionately.

His public call on Berberian to investigate the issue was part of his hyperbolic attempt to characterize the grand jury as a political tool of PG&E, which is fighting the county's green energy initiative.

There hasn't been a public peep from the grand jury that it was worried that its process had been seriously compromised. But Berberian cast his office's investigation as a look into a possible violation of a grand juror's sworn duty to keep the reports confidential before their public release date.

Berberian is a fine prosecutor and he ably heads and directs a strong team of attorneys and investigators. In this case, however, the public would have been better served by his office pursuing complaints about violations of campaign laws and open-government rules.

The grand jury, as a courtesy, releases advance copies of its report to affected parties. In this case, the grand jury's report was widely circulated - 49 copies - several days before its official release.

The grand jury's release of so many copies, Berberian concluded, "greatly compromised the likelihood of maintaining confidentiality for the prescribed period." Again, we are talking about only a handful of days.

The district attorney even suggested that those who circulated the report may have done so without any knowledge that they had advance copies that weren't supposed to be "public" until Dec. 7.

Berberian's advice is that the grand jury should restrict the circulation of advance copies and make confidentiality requirements clear.

We are not sure that advice is worth the expense of having an investigator look into this "violation."

Of course, newspapers are typically not adverse to leaks, but in this case there doesn't seem to be a serious breach.

Berberian, one of the few independently elected county officials left, should show greater independence and make sure that precious county resources are committed to the pursuit of violations that are more consequential than circumstantial.

McGlashan sent county investigators on a political wild goose chase. We're surprised his fellow board members, who have said repeatedly how important it is that the county watch its pennies, stood by and silently watched as a county investigation was launched.

Was a law broken? Possibly. Was it worth a formal county investigation? No.

Berberian's decision to search for a smoking gun was fruitless. The only thing it did was reinforce McGlashan's unfair attack on the grand jury, an independent panel of citizens who essentially volunteer their time to examine local governmental issues. The grand jury deserves to be treated with more respect.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

San Mateo Grand jury: Consolidate financial jobs

April 21, 2010, 02:37 AM Daily Journal Staff Report

The county should consolidate its elected controller and treasurer/tax collected into a single appointed chief financial officer to give residents the most effective and efficient option, according to the civil grand jury.

The jury’s report released Tuesday recommends the Board of Supervisors ask the Charter Review Committee to look at the idea and consider an amendment. The committee is currently meeting and expected to bring back any recommended changes in June.

As suggested by the grand jury, the county manager would appoint the chief financial officer who would report directly to him.

The Board of Supervisors has already tweaked the treasurer-tax collector position once at the prodding of the grand jury, adding in January new rules requiring office holders to meet certain education and experience qualifications. The change takes effect January 2011 and applies in January 2015, when the office comes up for re-election following this June’s race.

Consolidating the offices would create annual salary savings and money from eliminating the cost of elections, according to the jury report. The jury also held combining the offices simplifies the governmental organization structure, provides greater accountability and allows for greater professional expertise. On the flip side, it also noted elected positions offer greater accountability to voters, combined departments could create potential conflicts of interest and allows the elected official to challenge decisions by the Board of Supervisors.

The consolidation recommendation comes as longtime Treasurer Lee Buffington is set to retire. Four candidates are running for the office. Although the treasurer position often goes unnoticed, it received attention after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy leeched nearly $150 million from the San Mateo County investment fund and Buffington was called on to explain why the risks were not known.

The civil grand jury carries no legal weight but subjects of reports must reply in writing within 90 days.

San Mateo County grand jury: Consolidate controller, treasurer-tax collector

By Jessica Bernstein-Wax

Daily News Staff Writer
Posted: 04/20/2010 09:41:59 PM PDT
Updated: 04/21/2010 12:13:40 AM PDT

The San Mateo County civil grand jury on Tuesday released a report recommending that the county combine its controller and treasurer-tax collector jobs into a single chief financial officer position.

The report also recommends that the county manager appoint candidates to the new position with ratification by the board of supervisors. Voters currently elect a controller and treasurer-tax collector in San Mateo County, and four candidates will vie for outgoing Treasurer-Tax Collector Lee Buffington's job in June.

"These highly technical jobs do not lend themselves to oversight directly by the public/electorate," the report says. "Appointment of this highly technical and managerial position creates a mechanism to obtain the most qualified professionals through job specifications and professional standards, thus providing a wider avenue to attract candidates through broad searches."

Combining the two departments "would likely result in annual cost savings; however, further analysis is required," the report stated.

"Our sense is that there can be some significant savings for the county," grand jury foreman Bill Blodgett said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Blodgett added that it's difficult for voters to perform a job search for such complex, technical positions.

"This isn't like hiring a mayor, hiring a board of supervisors member," he said. "In those cases, you're really looking for people who can represent your positions, your philosophy, in forming public policy. That's not what we're talking about here."

Of California's 58 counties, 15 have reorganized their controller and treasurer-tax departments since 1982, the report said. Six — including Marin, Sacramento and Santa Clara counties — now have an appointed chief financial officer.

Assistant Controller Bob Adler said voters should decide the matter but added that he isn't convinced that combining the offices will save money.

"I'm not too sure about the economies of scale," Adler said. "That should be something that should be actually figured out as to whether it would save money."

Some counties have maintained controller and treasurer positions that report to the chief financial officer, which may be just as costly as keeping things the way they currently are in San Mateo County, he said.

In addition, separate offices provide "an internal control," Adler added.

"It's a check and balance so that the person who has control over the cash isn't responsible for reporting the cash," he said.

Meanwhile, the San Mateo County Charter Review Committee will hold its first meeting reviewing elected and appointed offices and consolidation this afternoon.

"We haven't really opened that discussion — I can't say what the committee is thinking," Chairman Sean Foote said. "I am really interested in looking into it."

The meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. today at the Menlo Park City Council Chambers, 701 Laurel St.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

District attorney admits defeat in attempt to trace civil grand jury leak

Richard Halstead
Posted: 04/13/2010 06:28:22 PM PDT
Updated: 04/14/2010 09:37:01 AM PDT

District Attorney Edward Berberian announced Tuesday he was unable to determine how a Marin civil grand jury report slamming the Marin Clean Energy initiative got into the hands of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and other critics before its official release in December.

Berberian launched an investigation at the request of Supervisor Charles McGlashan, director of the Marin Energy Authority's board. McGlashan said he acted after Chuck Utzman of Mill Valley, a critic of the Marin Clean Energy initiative, informed him that David Rubin, PG&E's director of service analysis, had e-mailed him a copy of the report on Dec. 5 - two days before its public release date.

The authority is utilizing a state law that allows it to compete with PG&E as a retailer of electricity in an effort to boost renewable energy use in Marin.

Berberian said there is no question that the report was distributed publicly before its intended release date. He said his investigators questioned several people who said they obtained copies before the release date of Dec. 7. These were people other than those authorized to read the report in advance - grand jury members and council members whose municipalities belong to the Marin Energy Authority.

But Berberian said his investigators were unable to trace the leaks back to their source.

"We ran into a blank wall," he said.

Berberian said the people who obtained the report before they were supposed to told investigators who they received it from, but those people denied giving it to them.

"These are all non-public officials," Berberian said. "You never get a link that shows that something came from a public official."

Under state law it is a misdemeanor for a grand jury member to disclose privileged information. State law also requires grand juries to provide agencies affected by their reports with a copy of the document at least two working days before its public release. The law prohibits agency members from distributing such reports before their public release but provides no sanction for violations, Berberian said.

In the case of the Marin Clean Energy report, the grand jury sent out 49 copies - one to every council member whose city or town belongs to the Marin Energy Authority. A cover letter instructing recipients that they were required to keep the reports confidential until Dec. 7 was attached to each report, Berberian said.

But Berberian said it's possible the letter could have become separated from the advanced copy, "either accidentally or deliberately. You can come up with all kinds of theories."

McGlashan said, "I'm very satisfied that the district attorney did a very thorough analysis and concurred with the fact that the law was broken. We just can't figure out how and why."

Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at

Grand jury recommends reducing Humboldt supervisors' salaries

Supes challenge findings, say there will be detailed response to report

Donna Tam/The Times-Standard
Posted: 04/14/2010 01:27:16 AM PDT

Members of the Board of Supervisors are challenging the accuracy of details presented in the latest Humboldt County Grand Jury report, which recommends they lower their salaries.

The report, released Monday evening, said the grand jury began looking into the salary issue after receiving a complaint and found the supervisors did not appropriately vet their salary raises before approval. The result is salaries much higher than surrounding counties with similar demographics, according to the report.

The grand jury report lists three recommendations for moving forward: supervisors reduce their salaries starting in fiscal year 2011; that any additional monetary salary rewards be based on additional workloads or duties, not longevity in office; and that a third party, such as the grand jury, provide guidance on appropriate salary levels for the Board of Supervisors, along with the methodology for adjusting the levels.

Supervisors voted 3-2 in 2008 to approve an annual 3 percent raise for three years -- fiscal years 2008-2009, 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 -- with 1st District Supervisor Jimmy Smith and then Supervisor Johanna Rodoni dissenting. Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace, who was an incoming supervisor at the time, and 2nd District Supervisor Clif Clendenen, who was a candidate at the time, also voiced their objections to the raise during the September 2008 meeting.

Current supervisors Bonnie Neely and Jill Duffy voted in favor of the increase, along with then Supervisor John Woolley. Woolley said the 3 percent raise was in line with a cost of living increase and he was following previously set policy that provided guidance on how to set salaries.

Lovelace said the supervisors who initially approved the raise have since declined to take the 3 percent raise for the 2009-2010 year.

With the 3 percent increase in 2008-2009, the supervisors' salary increased to $77,000. The 3 percent raises were less than the staff's recommendation.

Smith said the county is working on a detailed response to the report, which, he said, did not take into consideration some relevant information, such as the supervisors' past voluntary pay cuts.

”We're doing a detailed response to that because the information is inaccurate,” Smith said. He reemphasized his ongoing decision not to take any increases.

Neely and Lovelace made similar statements.

”As best as I can tell, the grand jury deliberately avoided certain information that didn't tell the story they didn't want to tell,” Lovelace said.

A call to the grand jury office was not immediately returned Tuesday.

County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes said the board will discuss the issue in its annual response to the grand jury report. The county has 90 days to respond.

The grand jury states it did a review of the salary schedules in response to a complaint that noted a discrepancy between the supervisors' salaries and those of supervisors in more heavily populated Shasta County.

The report found that the current methodology used for setting salaries has resulted in the supervisors receiving a salary that is 78 percent higher than the average salary of surrounding counties with similar economies and governance structures; 29 percent higher than counties within a similar population bracket; and 11 to 24 percent higher than the historic methodologies used. Some of the counties used in comparison included Butte, Shasta, Mendocino, Yolo and Napa.

Woolley said several years prior to the 2008 vote, the board decided not to use a Superior Court judge's salary as a benchmark any longer because it thought a supervisor's duties were not in line with a judge's.

Woolley said he did not want to comment on whether he thought the grand jury's report was a fair assessment, and said the current board will have to debate what to do about the grand jury's opinion.

He said the role of a supervisor is one that needs a sufficient wage to attract quality candidates, especially considering the number of issues that come across a supervisor's plate.

”I feel the work that the supervisors do is all-encompassing. You take it as a 24/7 type of job; you're never quite off,” he said.

The grand jury report recommends the supervisors reduce their salaries starting with fiscal year 2011 and suggests changing the “longevity” increase to an increase based on extra duties or workloads.

The only board member who benefited from the “longevity” increase -- an additional 5 percent raise for supervisors with 10 or more years of service -- was Neely.

Neely wrote in an e-mail that she declined the longevity increase in 2009. She said she also took a voluntary 10 percent reduction in salary in 2003 and 2004. Neely said she felt the salary discussion would be more productive in another setting.

”I think the manner in which the county sets compensation for supervisors is appropriate because it is developed by professional county staff and approved by the board of supervisors, all of whom are accountable directly to the voters. I'm open to additional methods of reviewing compensation,” she wrote. “However, the grand jury is the wrong choice. Determining the salaries of public officials is inconsistent with the grand jury's important role as an investigative body.”

Lovelace agreed, adding that the grand jury showed “a lack of integrity” in its approach on the matter.

”It's pretty clear to me that they took on this issue with a preconceived agenda of how they wanted to portray it,” he said.

Lovelace said he, Clendenen and Smith have filed letters indicating that they have “sworn off” any raises.

”We're the only people who have something contractually on file that says we can't take a raise if we wanted to,” he said.

Donna Tam can be reached at 441-0532 or

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Taft city manager accused of more wrongdoing

Attorneys for the city of Taft on Tuesday issued council members a legal opinion that portrays raises handed out retroactively to top city managers by Taft City Manager Robert Gorson as an illegal gift of public funds.

The opinion also outlines a questionable relationship between those raises and the fact Gorson went months without paying rent on the city-owned home where he was living, before finally bringing his account current.

The debate over contracts, complete with a Kern County grand jury report that was sharply critical of Gorson and a second attorney's opinion exonerating him from fault, has split the Taft City Council and launched the city into turmoil.

The public release of the document added fuel to the conflict.

Tuesday's report from the Gibson & Gibson firm states Gorson used the illegal raises to buy loyalty from top managers.

And in one case, the opinion says, those raises paid off personally for Gorson.

City Finance Director Teresa Statler got two retroactive raises, together worth $2,337 a month, from contracts implemented by Gorson without the knowledge of the Taft City Council in 2007 and 2009, the opinion states.

When Gorson failed to pay the $1,425 in monthly rent he owed the city of Taft for his home on Hillard Street for nearly seven months, the opinion states, Statler did not collect the debt and did not report the delinquency to the Taft City Council.

The opinion says Gorson paid seven months worth of rent in June 2009, bringing his account up to date, paid the rent due at the beginning of July on time, then failed to pay rent on time for the next four months.

Statler, despite being instructed in June 2009 to report any further late payments to Gibson & Gibson and the Taft City Council, did not report Gorson's late payments for July, August, September and October of 2009.

"To summarize, the City Manager has only made a single timely rental payment from July 2008 to February 2010," the opinion states. "The finance director should never have allowed the City Manager to either pay rent months late, or pay no rent at all for periods of several months. The result was effectively an additional gift of public funds to the City Manager, whose failure to pay timely rent resulted in the City's loss of interest on the unpaid rents."

Gorson said Wednesday he had not received a copy of the opinion and when asked about the late rents, suggested it was not his role to comment on information in the opinion.

"It's in the hands of the city council. I defer policy decisions to the city council," he said.

A call to Statler was not returned.

Taft Councilman Paul Linder said the issue of late rents has been resolved.

"We have taken prudent action regarding the non-payment of rent," he said.

Katherine Gibson, a principal of Gibson & Gibson, said the opinion was not a public document and was designed to offer a frank, honest assessment of legal issues to the council privately.

"I don't feel it should have have been released to the newspaper," she said.

Linder, who joined with Mayor Dave Noerr and Councilman Randy Miller to defend Gorson's contract decisions in a city response to grand jury accusations, said the document wasn't marked as protected by the attorney-client relationship.

But he said its release doesn't help solve problems in Taft.

"This should have been an attorney-client privileged document," Linder said. "I am disappointed that we as a council have not been able to address this in a more formal manner. Three of us are trying to put this stuff to bed."

Those three members have called on their chief opponent, controversial former Mayor Cliff Thompson, to resign from the council.

Linder said Thompson and Councilman Craig Noble have "conflicted themselves out of being able to deal with these issues" because they are involved with, or may be involved with, claims against the city of Taft.

Thompson said the illegal contracts and rent issues outlined in the Gibson & Gibson opinion are bad for the city of Taft.

"I put my faith in the grand jury," Thompson said.

Council members Miller and Noerr said Wednesday afternoon that they had not read the opinion and could not comment on it. Noble declined to comment.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Grand jury clears Modesto City Schools board, brass of any wrongdoing

The Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury "did not find any evidence of actionable wrongdoing" by the Modesto City Schools Board of Education, Superintendent Arturo Flores or Deputy Superintendent Chris Flesuras.

The six-page report released today reviewed tension between district employees and Flores since his hire date in 2007.

The discord boiled over in 2009 when then-Deputy Superintendent of business Debbe Bailey's employment contract was bought out a year before it expired. Bailey is seen as a supporter for Flores' predecessor, Jim Enochs, who was superintendent for 20 years.

A complaint was filed with the jury in September 2009 that alleged illegal hiring practice, a hostile working environment at the district office, personal use of district resources, exorbitant expenditure of district funds on consultants and lawyers and a lack of board oversight of Flores.

The report says the complaints mostly stemmed from decisions that the administrators are entitled to make. It said the trustees could have done a better job making the transition from Enochs to Flores.

Other pieces of the report:

- The grand jury spent three months reviewing thousands of pages of documents and interviewed 11 witnesses, including Flores, Flesuras, Bailey, present and former trustees, present and former employees and representatives of the Modesto Teachers Association.

- The grand jury found no evidence that trustees violated the Brown Act, a state law that requires most district business to be discussed in public meetings.

- The report states that trustees' "decision to quickly implement sweeping changes districtwide" contributed to the bumpy transition to Flores' tenure.

- Jury recommendations include continuously educating trustees on the Brown Act; giving new leaders more time to study the culture of the district; and adopting a "whistleblower policy" to protect employees who come forward with possible information about wrongdoing. Bailey said she was punished for bringing her financial concerns to Flores' attention.

Read more:

Supervisors respond to 2009-10 Grand Jury report


In a response to the most recent 2009-10 Grand Jury report, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors says it agrees with a majority of its findings, including that the vague wording in its Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) ordinance is open for interpretation, leaving opportunities for owners and agents of inns, rental properties and hotels to avoid collecting bed taxes and paying them to the county.

A letter approved by the Board Tuesday morning states that it will implement revisions to the TOT ordinance, clearing up any ambiguities, as soon they determine how litigation occurring in other counties over Internet travel companies might affect Tulare County.

But supervisors wrote in the letter that they would not require the Tax Collector’s Officer to physically inspect all properties that are subject to paying the special tax, as recommended by the Grand Jury.

“The recommendation will be implemented by the Tax Collector within [her] appropriate function. The Tax Collector will collect and audit as related to TOT,” the letter states. But “physical inspection of properties is not within the function of the Tax Collector.”

In January, the Grand Jury reported that the county’s current ordinance had resulted in a loss of $9,000 in tax revenues. It addressed three aspects of the TOT ordinance that it said were not clearly defined: which types of rental accommodations are subject to being taxed under the ordinance, what constitutes a day’s stay and a partial day rental.

The Board of Supervisors agreed that those aspects of the ordinance needs to be revised, but said it could not respond to a separate finding that stated other agencies within the county had given information to owners and agents which had been misleading.

“The Board is not able to respond to this finding as it is not possible to verify with other agencies or the information provided,” Board Chairman Steve Worthley wrote in the letter.

Contact Jenna Chandler at 784-5000, Ext. 1050, or

Grand jury: Nevada County Assessor's office didn't break law

A grand jury investigation into the Nevada County Assessor's Office found officials did nothing illegal, but could do a better job of educating property owners about their rights.

The Nevada County Grand Jury investigated a citizen complaint about the office's procedures on property assessment and released a report on the secret proceedings Thursday.

Nevada County's real estate market has been declining for several years. Jurors examined whether the county office was being responsible to reassess property, thus lowering tax bills.

A computer analysis procedure that could have pointed out more properties eligible for a lower assessment was used to evaluate the 2008-09 assessment roll, but was not used on the 2009-10 roll.

“It is ultimately the homeowner's responsibility to be aware of a property's assessed value and to request a review in a depressed market,” the report said.

But the assessor's office “has a duty to assist the public by providing better communication and performing periodic analysis of the market,” it continued.

Jurors recommended the computer analysis be expanded, and said the assessor's office should issue press releases twice annually to inform property owners of their rights.

Nevada County Interim Assessor Jim Dal Bon said he did not make the decision to forgo the computer analysis process last year. Dal Bon became assessor after Dale Flippin resigned from the post in December 2009.

Dal Bon agreed with the jury's recommendations and said his office will be more proactive in public relations. His current project is creating a pamphlet explaining the property tax and assessment process.

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail or call (530) 477-4247.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tulare County supervisors to respond to criticism over transient occupancy tax

Tulare County supervisors Tuesday are expected to approve a response to a series of Tulare County Grand Jury recommendations related to the county's transient occupancy tax.

That tax is levied for rented rooms in homes, hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts as well as seasonal rentals of homes and cabins.

In an interim report issued in December, the Grand Jury reported that confusion over portions of the tax ordinance resulted in some property owners not charging the tax to guests.

A private contractor hired by the county collected $34,622 in delinquent taxes, fees and penalties, according to the report. Ambiguity-related appeals to the Board of Supervisors resulted in the loss of about $9,000 in taxes, it noted.

"Vagueness in the county's TOT ordinance has resulted in a lack of accountability of some owner/agents ... causing the County to incur a loss of tax revenue," the Grand Jury concluded.

Recommendations included rewriting part of the ordinance using clear language.

If supervisors approve the four-page response Tuesday, they will agree with most of the Grand Jury's points and note that a revision of the transient occupancy tax ordinance is being developed.

A revised draft of the ordinance includes a requirement that taxes would be charged to guests at properties that rent for 15 or more days a year, including rooms rented for less than a day, said Rita Woodard, the county's treasurer/tax collector.

But the matter was pulled from the board agenda recently after officials learned that online hotel-booking agencies had challenged in court whether they must pay similar taxes in Los Angeles and San Francisco counties.

Woodard said county-ordinance revisions specify that the tax would apply to online booking services. A new draft of the ordinance will be presented to the board April 13.

Sacramento grand jury calls for overhaul of Rio Linda water district

Things have gotten so out of control at the Rio Linda/Elverta Community Water District - with political squabbling, lawsuits, wasted taxpayer money and a generally unsafe water system - that it's time to reorganize the dysfunctional local government agency, according to the Sacramento County Grand Jury.

Today, the grand jury released the findings of its investigation into the district, which serves 18 square miles in northern Sacramento County.

"Based upon its investigation, the grand jury has little hope that (the water district) will be able to take the necessary corrective actions without outside help," wrote Rosemary Kelley, the grand jury forewoman, in a cover letter accompanying the report. "The conduct of the board of directors has been deplorable. It has wasted taxpayers' dollars at the same time that it has brought disrepute on the District ... Since they have failed repeatedly in the past, there is no reason to believe that they will be successful in the future. The only hope for the District is that major changes are enforced."

The grand jury found numerous problems, many of which The Bee has chronicled over the past year, including low pressure, unsafe drinking water, questionable spending and apparent conflicts of interest on the part of the Board of Directors.

Among the grand jury's findings:

Despite a 2007 compliance order from the California Department of Public Health for dangerously low water pressure, the current Board of Directors has failed to upgrade the system. "No significant supply improvements have been made under the 2007 Compliance Order," according to the report. As a result, the state issued a second compliance order on Dec. 28, 2009.

Unsafe water pressure is a fire hazard. That's because firefighters might not be able to power their hoses if pressure is too low. The insurance industry is aware of this and largely as a result, residents conservatively pay an extra $100 per year in insurance premiums for single-family homes, the grand jury found.

Board members "often interfere with the operations of the (district) general manager," according to the report. Board members often go around the general manager and speak directly with outside agencies and officials. "This results in contradictory and misleading information being presented to the district," the grand jury found.

A board member's personal business has received money from the district - an apparent conflict of interest. In February, The Bee reported that Vivien Spicer-Johnson, a board member, had received money for running district ads and notices in her monthly newspaper. The District Attorney's office has been looking into the possible conflict.

The board violated open meetings laws by discussing possible well sites in closed meetings, according to the report. "Rio Linda/Elverta residents have alleged the proposed site for a new well is owned by a relative of a director," the Grand Jury found.

In a February interview with The Bee, interim general manager Michael Cardenas acknowledged the district was considering buying land from a cousin of Johnson's to use as a well site.

"Almost everybody in Rio Linda is connected to everyone," Cardenas said.

The current board's decision to fight the union has cost scarce resources. "Currently the district only has six employees and has never had more than ten employees; yet the District has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on labor negotiations and employee lawsuits," according to the report.

A board approved surcharge might violate the statewide Proposition 218, which requires utility rates to be proportional to the cost of providing service. That's because small homeowners and big business pay the same $15 bimonthly amount in the district.

While the Grand Jury report bashes the current leadership of the district, led by board President Mary Harris, the investigation also questions the lack of action by the state, county and other agencies.

The Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission is required to conduct a Municipal Service Review for each agency in the county. Such a review is a way to evaluate how the agencies provide public services. LAFCO has never conducted such a review for the district, the Grand Jury found.

The grand jury can't compel compliance with any of its recommendations. The district does, however, need to respond to the report by July 6. To read the full report visit .

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