Sunday, May 2, 2010

Monterey County 'Gang of five' holds pursestrings

Grand jury seeks spending and meeting disclosure
Herald Salinas Bureau
Posted: 05/02/2010 01:28:20 AM PDT
Updated: 05/02/2010 08:43:38 AM PDT

A small group of local law enforcement, fire and emergency response officials has held sway over a big pot of anti-terrorism money since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, doling out millions in federal homeland security funding over the years in confidential meetings with no public notice or participation.

Members of the group, which is known in state government circles as the "gang of five," say the sensitive nature of the meetings involving potential disaster response vulnerabilities justifies keeping them secret despite a call from the 2009 civil grand jury to make them public and notify the local media.

Besides, they argue the public and the media have access to the "nonsensitive" information regarding the group's decisions later in the process, though they also point out there has been a notable lack of interest in the group's activities. They say the funding proposals and subsequent spending are subject to extensive scrutiny by federal and state authorities, and argue that all the homeland security money has been spent wisely and efficiently.

Yet a recent media investigation showed widespread abuse in California of the homeland security spending, including waste, rules violations and poor accounting practices. The investigation by independent media organization California Watch found Monterey County had a single accounting error that allegedly resulted in local administrators receiving federal reimbursement for the same purchase twice. A county administrator said the error simply involved a misplaced accounting entry and was cleared up immediately.

About the group

Known as the Anti-Terrorism Approval Body or Grant Approval Authority (GAA), the local group includes Sheriff Mike Kanalakis, Marina Police Chief Eddie Rodriguez, Monterey Fire Chief Sam Mazza, North County Fire Chief Chris Orman, and county Emergency Management Agency director Tom Lynch, who recently replaced the retired county Health Department director Len Foster on the GAA.

In response to the grand jury's recommendations, county officials have decided to include information about the group, including its rules, its scope and all related spending, on the Internet, where it can be accessed by the public. The site — — should be available by June or July, according to officials.

Officials have also indicated they will respond to other criticisms contained in the report. But the group's meetings will remain confidential, and any notice and scrutiny of its decisions will come only after the fact.

County Administrative Officer Lew Bauman acknowledged the debate over the level of public disclosure. But Bauman argued that the public would not be served by divulging the issues, programs and procedures being discussed in the meetings — often involving key infrastructure information on bridges and water systems, potential terrorist and criminal activity, and possible vulnerabilities. He compared the group's work to local law enforcement's discussions about anti-gang strategies, which are not disclosed. He also noted that county lawyers had opined that since the group wasn't technically a legislative body that it didn't have to publicly notice the meetings, nor open them to the public.

"To the extent that it's appropriate, that information will be included on the website," Bauman said, but the deliberations themselves will not be. "Our intent isn't to hide anything from the public."

At the same time, Supervisor Jane Parker said the county should try to be as open as it can about the group's activities.

"It certainly makes sense for an agency working on behalf of the public to go beyond the letter of the law to try to be as transparent and available to the public as possible," Parker said.

Members of group

Since homeland security funding became available in 2002, the GAA has decided how to spend more than $8.3million, including purchases of everything from bomb squad and hazmat response team equipment to emergency response vehicles, as well as funding for a wide range of training and exercises including bio-terrorism and WMD awareness. The group's membership is decided according to federal rules for homeland security funding. The members represent the cross-section of law enforcement, fire, emergency management and other agencies that could qualify for the funding.

Through the Office of Emergency Services, which administers the program, the county receives a predetermined amount of homeland security funding each year based on population, including $956,000 for 2010. The GAA is set to meet on May 30 to consider spending proposals from local public agencies before making its funding decisions and sending the requests to the state in late summer. Approval is generally received by the end of the year but since the funding lags well behind, local governments often front the money and get repaid.

Subject to guidelines

All the local GAA's funding decisions are subject to state and federal guidelines, and approval, and all spending is monitored by government agency auditors. Those guidelines dictate that a certain percentage of the funding be spent on law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services priorities or a combination of them, and all equipment purchases must be chosen from an approved list. But the group has broad discretion regarding how the dedicated funding is distributed, and a full 40 percent of the funding is completely discretionary.

The recent California Watch report raised questions about how strict state and federal oversight has been. Based on a review of hundreds of state inspections aimed at local homeland security spending in the state, the report found that agencies had purchased computer software they didn't use, bought items such as a lawnmower and big-screen TVs that likely wouldn't make the state safer, failed to seek competitive bids for purchases, and kept shoddy records. There didn't appear to be any mechanism in place for evaluating how much safer, if at all, local jurisdictions were after spending the money.

The report found that California didn't start investigating the use of homeland security funding until 2006, years after the funding program started, and when a violation was discovered local jurisdictions were told to find an approved way to spend the money rather than surrendering it.

Oversight tightened

David Krauss, interim director for the county's Office of Emergency Services and a 37-year law enforcement veteran, has participated in the GAA process and homeland security programs in other counties, and said the rush to get anti-terrorism funding into the field in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks likely led to the abuses. But he said oversight has tightened considerably since then.

Kanalakis, who has served on the local GAA since it was founded, said local officials have always been scrupulous in their efforts to determine the most effective way to spend the annual homeland security funding.

"Over the years, I really believe the dollars that have come into the county from homeland security have been spent well," Kanalakis said.

According to county records, homeland security money has been spent on equipment and training for everything from bomb squads and hazmat teams to urban search and rescue units, and most recently the new Peninsula SWAT team, which received $400,000 in funding.

In the works with homeland security funding is a new $1million Mobile Command Center, which is being funded over a multi-year span and will serve as the main control center for all major incidents in the county under the guidance of the Salinas city fire department, Kanalakis said. Some spending proposals have ultimately been rejected or delayed, including the sheriff's bid for more than $600,000 in homeland security funding for a helicopter equipped for police surveillance. While the GAA approved the bid over a multi-year period, as did state and federal authorities, according to Kanalakis, the sheriff's request for the county to cover some of the cost up-front until it could be reimbursed was rejected by the Board of Supervisors.

The grand jury report

In its report, the grand jury found plenty of fault with the GAA's methods. The report noted the group "does not operate transparently in the spirit of California's open-meeting laws," and meetings are marked by the lack of public notice and public participation. It also noted that the grant administrator, who is charged with overseeing the local funding program, is also excluded from the deliberations. And, the grand jury found that the grant administrator notifies only participating agencies of the group's decisions, but not the public. The report recommended sending out press releases to announce its actions.

But county officials in their response rejected the notion that the GAA was subject to the Brown Act, which governs public meetings, and argued that the media and the public simply hadn't expressed much interest in the group's deliberations. They also said issuing press releases is challenging because it takes so long after the group makes its decision to receive the final funding approval.

Besides, they argued, homeland security funding is discussed at the quarterly Operational Area Coordinating Council meetings, which are noticed and open to the public. But the meetings are only posted at the county's Emergency Services Center and not on the Office of Emergency Services website. County officials responded by pointing out that the GAA operates under guidelines established by state and federal authorities, and that the program's rules dictate all spending benefit the entire county rather than individual agencies.

But Kanalakis promised the GAA would be more open in its solicitation of spending proposals in the future, broadening its scope to include as many projects that meet the program's criteria as possible.

Krauss said the goal is to make certain the public has as much information as can be disclosed without risking public safety, thus the plan to include the program's details on the OES website.

"In the final analysis, we need to get better at letting the public know where the information is," Krauss said. "I think the information was out there, but there just was not a lot of interest out there."

Jim Johnson can be reached at 753-6753 or

The gang of five
Known as the Anti-Terrorism Approval Body or Grant Approval Authority, this small group of local law enforcement, fire and emergency response officials holds sway over a big pot of anti-terrorism money.
Mike Kanalakis: Monterey County sheriff
Eddie Rodriguez: Marina police chief
Sam Mazza: Monterey fire chief
Chris Orman: North County fire chief
Tom Lynch: Monterey County Emergency Management Agency director

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