Monday, August 30, 2010

Tulare County Board of Supervisors to respond to Grand Jury's recommendations

BY DAVID CASTELLON • • August 30, 2010

Social workers from Tulare Coun-ty Child Welfare Services will not have to get psychological evaluations on children before placing them in foster homes, nor will the process for county jail inmates to file grievances over their medical treatment change.

Those are two of the responses to eight Grand Jury reports that the county Board of Supervisors could approve during its weekly meeting Tuesday.

The reports, released last month, detailed findings from Grand Jury investigation of local government agencies and programs along with recommendations to correct problems identified.

Three of the investigations focused on the county jail, looking at medical treatment for inmates, privacy for "pro per" inmates -†those representing themselves in court -†and problems with clothing issued to inmates.

Other reports covered investigations of how speed limits are determined on county roadways, reported problems in the county Planning Commission and the Teviston Community Service District, CWS practices and possible deficiencies in the county Resource Management Agency's enforcement of zoning ordinances and collection of fines and other fees owed to the county.

If approved by supervisors Tuesday, the 43 pages of responses would be submitted to Superior Court Judge Melinda Reed.

Here are some of the Grand Jury claims and responses:

> The supervisors say mental health evaluations aren't needed for all children prior to foster care placement.

"When CWS is removing a child in emergency situations, we have no choice but to place that child in

foster care to ensure their safety," and if social workers believe that mental health evaluations or treatment are needed, they can arrange for it, the supervisors' response states.

The report also denies that youths are given little or no instruction on how to access medical services, Social Security and money for education before being emancipated as adults.

"The board disagrees with this finding," as social workers are required to provide this information to the children, along with instruction on accessing Medi-Cal and other health benefits, seeking employment, vocational training and applying for college and financial aid.

CWS will not follow the Grand Jury's recommendation to conduct unannounced visits to foster homes unless social workers already suspect that something is wrong, the supervisors state.

"As for the Grand Jury claim that not all foster homes are visited by social workers monthly, as required, the supervisors state there are exceptions to the rules, including cases in which children are placed with relatives and when waivers are granted based on the stability of the placements."

The response doesn't state if any incidents occurred in which any social workers failed to conduct one-month visits, when required.

> The supervisors disagree with the Grand Jury's conclusions that more than 400 code enforcement violation cases aren't being worked by RMA. Their response states that 257 of the cases have been corrected, and that the county is waiting for the property owners to pay their fines and penalties.

As for the 143 that haven't been corrected, the owners have code compliance agreements with the county.

A report on the effectiveness of RMA's Building Division in code compliance enforcement and revenue collection will be submitted to the supervisors within the next six months.

> The supervisors agreed that attendance and punctuality has been a problem with some members of the Planing Commission; an attendance rule has been enacted that members who miss three consecutive meetings without good cause will be replaced.

"If the grievance requires a medical response, it is immediately forwarded to the medical staff to resolve," the supervisors' response states, although no statistical data to support this is included.

The board also disputes claims that medications weren't being refilled in a timely manner, stating that there have been isolated occurrences. The response goes on to say that there may be lags of up to four days in obtaining medicine for inmates because of the county's contracted pharmacy being closed on weekends or the pharmacist needing time to clear up questions with medical providers.

As for claims of delays for inmates to be seen by medical specialists, when needed, the supervisors noted that some delays are due to the difficulty in finding specialists in this area willing to treat inmates.

> The supervisors agree to review procedures to provide privacy for pro per inmates conducting legal research in the Bob Wiley Detention Facility's law library.

Jail staff also will provide reference cards and instructions for using the library's computer for conducting online legal research.

> The supervisors deny giving preferential treatment to individual communities in setting speed limits, although priority is given when speed is a public safety issue.

> The Grand Jury investigated complaints of intimidation, sexual harassment, California open-meeting law violations, voter fraud and other claims against the Teviston Community Service District.

On several of the points, including that some meetings weren't open to the public and water meters weren't being read on a regular basis, the supervisors decline to comment, stating only that the matters aren't in their purview.

The Grand Jury reported finding no grounds to support the voter fraud and sexual harassment claims.

The supervisors agreed to schedule training for service district board members on conducting government meetings and to follow the Grand Jury recommendation to hire a general manager for the district by the end of the year.

A policy prohibiting use of cell phones during commission meetings will be developed by the Dec. 20 meeting, the supervisors' response states.

> In response to the Grand Jury claim that about 40 percent of inmate clothing sent out for laundering wasn't returned, the supervisors state that a new system has been put into place at the jail to better monitor clothes.

In addition, "routine cell searches are conducted each day to retrieve the clothing."

> The supervisors disagreed with the Grand Jury's conclusion that medical and non-medical grievances by jail inmates aren't always directed to the "responsible" officials.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Port San Luis Harbor District: Grand jury report rebutted

Commissioners at the Port San Luis Harbor District — the focus of a critical county civil grand jury inquiry earlier this year — responded this week that the report belittled the progress the district has made over the past few years.

“(D)espite six months of study, numerous records requests and multiple interviews and site visits, this report did not provide evidence to warrant the negative and editorial title, nor offer practical advice or suggestions not already implemented by the district,” Carolyn Moffatt, president of the district’s board, stated in a letter included with the district’s response to the report.

Commissioners voted 5-0 on Tuesday to approve the response, which was sent to the county grand jury and San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall.
The grand jury report, “Port San Luis: A Tarnished Jewel,” questioned how the district prepares its financial reports and awards contracts to concessionaires and raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest involving harbor commissioners.

It also said the district could lose out on additional funding if too much sand prevents boats from launching.

District officials agreed that it’s difficult or impossible to launch a boat when the sport launch is sanded in and when the large boat launch is in shallow water — and that the district could lose money as a result.

But they said the grand jury disregarded district efforts to maintain the viability of the launches, by dredging and planning for future projects. The district has been continuously dredging both launches since March, Harbor Manager Steve McGrath said Thursday.

The district is seeking grants to rebuild and extend its large boat hoist 60 feet into deeper water. A 2007 study concluded the project would cost $700,000.

In a previous interview, McGrath said, “Our inability to launch boats has a greater (impact) on our public service function than on our bottom line.”

The harbor district was formed in 1954 and includes most of the county south of the Cuesta Grade, with the exception of Morro Bay and Los Osos.

Its five-member Board of Commissioners oversees a $4.1 million budget, two-thirds of which is funded by property taxes.

The district has in the past three years increased by 22 percent the amount of money it has raised in enterprise funds, or money that comes from the district’s business operations, such as the paid-parking lot in Avila Beach.

The enterprise funds have increased to $1.2 million from $1 million — a point commissioners felt was overlooked.

Commissioners felt the grand jury “didn’t recognize the overall picture and focused on some small areas,” McGrath said.

The recommendations from the civil grand jury are advisory only, but the district was required to respond to the report by Sept. 23.

Commissioners responded to several other points, including:

• The commission disagreed with the grand jury report’s claim that the district has no competitive bidding policy for concessionaires. One has been in place since April 2008.

• Commissioners agreed with a report recommendation that the district should promote the rental availability of an assembly room in its Gateway building.

• Commissioners will meet to further discuss the grand jury’s point on potential conflicts of interest before Dec. 21.

The report stated that harbor commissioners should not vote on issues involving a service provider with whom they have a business relationship, or on issues involving the San Luis Yacht Club if they are members.

More online

To read the county grand jury’s report, go to

To read the Port San Luis Harbor District’s response, go to, click “Meeting Agendas and Minutes” and select the agenda from the Aug. 24 meeting.

Read more:

Sutter Creek drafts Grand Jury response

Friday, August 27, 2010

By Matthew Hedger

E. Peterson & Company
A copy of the City of Sutter Creek's proposed response to the 2009/2010 Amador County Grand Jury report has been released prior to a special city council meeting Aug. 30, expected to draw a vociferous crowd.

The draft response begins by saying city leaders appreciate the seriousness of issues raised and acknowledges a jury finding that the council has "final overall responsibility for all aspects of the city's operations."

It does, however, say that the jury was "incorrect" in its comments suggesting councilmembers were unaware of many issues.

"This implies that if it were not for the Grand Jury Report, many of these issues would never have been revealed or corrected," states the response, penned largely by Sutter Creek City Manager Sean Rabe. "This is incorrect, especially regarding the Finance, Administration and Personnel section of the report. The City Council has taken very significant actions to correct many of these issues long before they were referred to the Grand Jury."

In all, the draft says the council agrees with 53 jury findings in the finance, administration and policy section of their report, partially agreed with 3 findings, and disagreed with 6 statements, including one suggesting the use of city credit cards to pay for meals with consultants and contractors, and then seek reimbursement from same, was a conflict of interest. It also rejects a suggestion that the city's finance department be required to report directly to the council, and a suggestion to renegotiate city employee contracts.

"The city council feels that although there is significant support for this issue, the benefit package of city employees is a matter for collective bargaining process rather than the Grand Jury," states the draft response.

An exhortation in the jury's report calling for citizens to become actively involved to help city government "avoid defaulting to continued mismanagement" is referred to in the response as "an unwarranted insult and below the professional standard expected of a Grand Jury recommendation."

City leaders also disagreed with the jury's finding that their public-funded partnership with the privately held Amador Council of Tourism could be a conflict of interest.

Regarding jury findings concerning the city's Sanitary Sewer Management Plan, the preliminary response from the city is largely agreeable, and recommends implementing many of the jury's recommendations. But the city disagreed on several other points, including an allegation that much of the SSMP work had been neglected due to the city's "budget crisis."

The city also agreed with many of the jury's statements concerning the Waste Water Treatment Plant, including a finding that the plant was not operating as planned. City leaders have stopped short, however, of agreeing with an allegation that a $2.2 million upgrade to the plant was a failure, saying that suggestion is premature, pending a final review and report on plant operations, expected within 90 days. The council also responded that it "agrees in part" with a finding that the WWTP effluent is currently exceeding Regional Water Quality Control Board standards and that the plant modifications "did not establish compliance." The council also agreed that sub-contractors hired to perform the work were poorly managed. A slew of problems identified with the plant is the subject of an independent analysis currently being conducted, which is expected to be completed and presented to the council by the end of the year. Financial problems associated with the plant have been referred to the new finance director, who is expected to report on his findings within 90 days.

Grand Jury findings of perceived problems facing the city's police department were, by and large, accepted by city leaders, with many of the jury's recommendations to solve them listed as implemented. Many of the procedural and staffing issues identified have been alleviated by the departure of the multi-tasked former Chief of Police Rob Duke and the subsequent hiring of a new chief. The city disagreed with a jury allegation that a shortage of staff officers was causing them to be reactive, rather than proactive.

"There is not enough evidence to support this finding," states the report, "The SCPD has a long history of effective investigations and successful prosecution of major crimes."

Procedural changes related to animal control within the city which caused confusion and were identified in the jurys' report have also been addressed, according to the city's response. The city has re-implemented their contract with the county for animal control services, and all officers have been apprised of proper procedures. The council is disagreeing with a recommendation that the agreement with the county be renewed annually, pointing out it has been in force continously since 2005 and is self-renewing.

The city provided two attachments to the draft response, one, listed as an audit committee preliminary report, and the second, a task list related to financial control issues. Both documents outline the city's continued attempts to codify and manage tasks the jury felt were not being performed correctly.

A special city council meeting to discuss the preliminary draft response to the Grand Jury Report is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Community Center.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Op-Ed |Former Plumas Grand Jury Members: Frightening Realities About Fire in Plumas County

Is your house in a fire protection district? The answer is Maybe Not!
Published on Aug 23, 2010 - 5:50:56 AM

By: Charles Plopper, Paul Erickson, Pam Gill, Carole Scott, Eleanor Klemesrud, Richard Brand, Julien Howe and Charles Bourquin Concerned Citizens and Former Plumas Grand Jury Members

August 23, 2010 - “Does my home have fire protection?” As the 2009-2010 Plumas County Grand Jury has discovered, getting the answer to this question is not straightforward. The worst way to find out is by reporting to “911” a fire in your home or your neighbor’s home and then no one shows up to fight the fire. Just as bad, a fire crew may show up, but only to fight your house fire when it starts to burn into the surrounding forest. Alternatively, they may show up, fight the fire and then charge you for it.

There are no fire protection services for at least 4,631 (19%) parcels in Plumas County. You can’t be guaranteed of any fire fighting response if you live on one of these plots of land, which are all located outside of a Fire Protection District (FPD) or Community Services District (CSD). You may be billed for firefighting services if they are rendered. The 4,631 number is the minimum number, because each parcel is zoned to permit more than one home.

“What communities in Plumas County don’t have protection for house fires?” The list below represents whole communities outside of fire districts. It does not include all areas. It is important to contact your local fire department to verify your fire services.

Some Communities outside of Fire Protection Districts

Almanor Basin/North County Area
- Warner Valley
- Canyon Dam
- Humbug Valley
- Feather River Home site
- Willow Creek Home site
- Caribou
- Seneca

Quincy/Meadow Valley/Mid-County area
- Keddie
- Butterfly Valley
- Bucks Lake
- Spring Garden
- Little Grass Valley

Greenville/Indian Valley/Feather River
- Storrie
- Tobin
- Belden
- Twain
- Paxton
- Rush Creek

Portola/Graeagle/South County area
- Clio
- Blairsden
- Johnsville
- Mohawk Vista
- Feather River Inn
- Dixie Valley

“How do I find out if my house has fire protection?” Every homeowner should contact the nearest fire house and ask very specific questions: Will they come to your home to fight a fire? Will they fight it once they get there? and Will they charge you?

Your house may be covered, but are your neighbors’? Their fire can quickly become yours!

Be aware when you contact them that fire fighting units of the US Forest Service (USFS), which may be the nearest station, are not authorized by USFS policy to fight fires in structures, but only fires in the wildlands (forests, grasslands). Their job is to protect the forests and not homes in rural areas.

“Who do I call?” According to the Plumas County Planning Department, there are 13 fire protection districts that, along with the city of Portola, operate volunteer fire departments. There are also seven Community Service Districts, which are “authorized to operate fire departments,” but may not actually be required to provide fire protection within their districts. These Community Service Districts may contract for fire services from adjacent volunteer fire protection districts. The table below lists the Fire Protection and Community Service Districts that fight house fires in Plumas County.

Plumas County Fire Districts including CSD/PUD’s providing Fire Protection

Fire Protection Districts

1. Beckwourth FPD (832-1008)
2. Chester PUD (258-3456)
3. City of Portola FPD (832-6803)
4. Crescent Mills FPD (284-6922)
5. Eastern Plumas FPD (832- 4818)
6. Graeagle FPD (836-1340)
7. Hamilton Branch FPD (596-3458)
8. La Porte FPD
9. Meadow Valley FPD (283-2620)
10. Peninsula FPD (259-2306)
11. Prattville-Almanor FPD (259-3822)
12. Quincy FPD (283-0870)
13. Sierra Valley FPD

Community Service Districts

1. C-Road CSD (836-0288)
2. Gold Mountain CSD (832-5945)
3. Greenhorn CSD (283-6450)
4. Indian Valley CSD (284-7311)
5. Long Valley CSD (836-2550)
6. Plumas Eureka CSD (836-0532)
7. West Almanor CSD (259-5112)

“What about CAL FIRE?” In all the counties surrounding Plumas and Sierra counties (Lassen, Tehema, Butte, Nevada), CAL FIRE has active fire stations that fight fires in houses outside of local fire districts, but not in Plumas County.

In round figures, two-thirds of the Plumas County land surface is part of the Plumas and Lassen National Forest. and Lassen Volcanic National Park; the remaining onethird is comprised of privately owned parcels of which a substantial majority are located in what California has designated as this county’s State Responsibility Area (SRA). Exceptions to this classification are parcels within Local Responsibility Areas (LRA) that include the land located in local fire protection districts, such as, within the City Limits of Portola, a relatively large area surrounding Chester, two small areas of several blocks each located in Quincy, and small areas near the fire houses in Graeagle, Whitehawk, Beckwourth, and Chilcoot. Plumas County’s SRA includes numerous approved subdivisions as well as privately owned forest production and agricultural parcels.

Superficially it would appear to be a “good thing” that a large number of Plumas County residents’ homes are located in designated SRA’s. Statewide CAL FIRE has an outstanding reputation for its emergency fire protection services.

However, CAL FIRE’s presence in Plumas County is extremely limited. CAL FIRE does not employ any emergency responders, nor does it house any firefighting equipment within the county.

In SRA’s in counties other than Plumas County, CAL FIRE has the fiscal responsibility for provision of the following services:

1. Insure fire safe conditions, based on California State fire codes (4290 and 4291), including road construction, signage, access, vegetation clearance, turnarounds, fuels reduction and defensible space, and water sources, by:

- Evaluation of plans for building permits and new developments

- Inspection of construction sites for new and remodeled homes

- Inspection and enforcement on properties with existing homes

2. Issuance and enforcement of burning permits.

3. Suppression of fires involving residences and other structures.

4. Suppression of fires in wildlands (grasslands and forests).

5. Repair of suppression related activity damage (e.g., spreading of dozer berms, installation of water bars, minor road repairs, minor fence repair, etc.) will be done as an integral part of overhaul/mop-up.

6. Operation of information and education programs including: Red Flag Alerts, press releases regarding fire management and risk, Smokey Bear, and local education.

CAL FIRE does not provide these services in Plumas County. “Who is supposed to provide this service if CAL FIRE doesn’t’?” The US Forest service is supposed to, based on a “Cooperative Fire Management Agreement” (CFMA) between the US Forest Service and CAL FIRE adopted 20 years ago in 1991. CAL FIRE traded off its Plumas County acreage emergency services responsibilities to the US Forest Service in exchange for acreage located somewhere else. The missions of the Federal and State agencies are quite different.

The US Forest Service attempts to protect the national forests, while CAL FIRE protects forests and also provides structural fire protection in locales where it has an active presence.

A recent memorandum from the Chief of the US Forest Service to Regional Foresters entitled “Wild Land Fire Suppression Policy for Structure Protection,” states that US Forest Service units are to “apply strategy and tactics to keep wildland fires from reaching structures, as prudent to do so.” However it also states:

“The Forest Service shall not:

- Take direct suppression actions on structures other than those that tactically reduce the threat of fire spread to them.

- Enter structures or work on roofs of structures for the purpose of direct suppression actions.”

Two recent house fires in SRA’s in Plumas County, outside of local fire protection districts, indicate some of the consequences of these policies. In one case, the only fire fighting unit to arrive was the USFS unit near Quincy. This fire fighting unit watched the house burn to the ground while being prepared to fight the fire should it threaten to spread into the adjacent national forest land. In the other case, the first fire fighting unit to arrive was from the nearest local fire protection district in Graeagle. The unit had trouble finding and reaching the house and actually getting around the structure to fight the fire, because the new home had been approved for occupancy without inspection or enforcement of state fire codes concerning roads, signage, turnarounds, clearance, etc. The house burned to the ground, but, because the destroyed residence was not in the fire protection district, the fire protection district billed the homeowners for the costs of sending the engines and crews to their home. In this case this cost was more than $20,000.

Download the report

Jurupa mandatory expulsion votes under grand jury scrutiny

07:58 AM PDT on Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Press-Enterprise

RIVERSIDE - For more than a year, Jurupa Unified School District trustees Michael Rodriguez and Noreen Considine have cast "no" votes on student expulsions that have come before the school board, even in cases where state law mandates that students be expelled.

Their votes on what are known as "mandatory expulsions" have now come under the scrutiny of the Riverside County grand jury, which is questioning board members and school administrators about the issue.

According to school district records, Rodriguez voted last year against expelling a student who admitted to bringing a loaded gun onto a high school campus. Considine had left that meeting early and did not vote.

The three other board members -- Dawn Brewer, Mary Burns and Sheryl Schmidt -- cast the votes needed to expel the student.

Since December 2009, Considine has joined with Rodriguez in voting against the mandatory expulsions of students who sold drugs on campus or at district-sponsored events.

"I have testified to the grand jury," said Ed Hawkins, the former superintendent of the Jurupa school district. "It was about the issue of the board violating the law with regard to mandatory expulsions," he said.

The California Education Code section on discipline lists five violations that require a school district governing board to expel a student found to have committed the act.

The violations are: possessing a firearm on campus; brandishing a knife at another person; selling controlled substances on campus; committing or attempting to commit a sexual assault or possessing an explosive.

Neither Considine nor Rodriguez returned calls or e-mails for comment.

Elliott Duchon, the district's current superintendent, and board members Burns and Schmidt said they had been invited to come in and talk to the grand jury during the past two weeks.

Brewer said she talked to the panel Monday.

They all declined to provide details of their grand jury discussions.

The grand jury does not confirm or deny details of issues it may be scrutinizing, said a woman who answered the telephone at the Riverside County grand jury office. She would not give her name.

Daniel Haueter, an attorney in the San Bernardino county counsel's office, said he believes that despite the mandatory expulsions listed in the education code, a school board member has the discretion to vote their beliefs.

"They could be voting 'no,' because they believe there was some procedural problems that makes expulsion unjustified," he said.

Haueter is assigned to San Bernardino County school districts and advises administrators on numerous issues including discipline matters.

He said he has always questioned the five mandatory expulsions spelled out in the education code. "I don't think you can say to a board member, 'You have to accept this,' " he said. "There's always discretion."

Hawkins had a different opinion on the issue.

"When a trustee fails to perform a mandatory task like an expulsion of a dangerous student, that's dereliction of duty," he said.

In the years since his 1987 retirement as superintendent of Jurupa schools, Hawkins, 88, has served on administrative panels that consider discipline matters for both the Jurupa and Riverside school districts.

He said he was not a panelist on any of the mandatory expulsion cases at issue.

Hawkins accuses Considine and Rodriguez of violating their oath to uphold the California Constitution, which guarantees that students and teachers have a right to safe schools.

Rodriguez has never publicly explained his "no" votes on mandatory expulsions.

In an unsuccessful lawsuit she filed against the school district last year, Considine said she believed students' due process rights were being violated by the Jurupa district's disciplinary procedures.

Considine's husband, John McLaurin, has represented students at expulsion hearings.

Duchon said when a student is considered for discipline, including expulsion, the parents or guardians receive a student discipline handbook which outlines the process and the rights of the parents and students.

Reach Sandra Stokley at 951-368-9647 or

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Trinity County Grand jury: Post Mountain must forgive, work together


For the second year in a row, the tiny Post Mountain Public Utilities District south of Hayfork has drawn negative attention from the Trinity County grand jury that has concluded the special district may not survive its latest round of troubles unless members of the community "forgive each other and learn to work together."

The Post Mountain PUD is a special district formed to provide fire protection, road maintenance and electric power for approximately 1,000 parcels of land in the Trinity Pines Subdivision located between Hayfork and Forest Glen off Highway 36. An estimated 25 percent of the lots have been developed as residences.

The district has never accomplished its goal of supplying electricity to the subdivision and recently has been struggling mightily to provide fire protection and road maintenance for area residents.

It's also now facing the challenge of retaining enough governing board members to comprise the quorum of three needed to conduct business.

Property owners within the district are charged a $24 annual assessment for fire protection services and have long been requested to pay an additional $35 donation for road maintenance, which some people pay and others don't. The subdivision is served by a combination of private roads and some county roads.

In a report last year, a previous grand jury said the Post Mountain PUD defies the definition of a smoothly functioning district with a clear mission or purpose. That report noted Brown Act violations occurring during governing board meetings in which discussions veered from agenda topics or occurred in private when they should have been public.

Meeting minutes were presented in which area residents complained of long-standing issues going unresolved such as snow clearing not happening and locked gates installed by property owners across roads preventing plows or fire trucks from getting through.

After a follow-up investigation over the past year, the 2008-09 grand jury found many continuing deficiencies.

In its most recent report, the grand jury found that the meetings of the district's board of directors "have often been out of control" and the group is not getting things done — specifically equipment maintenance/ repair, snow removal and road repairs.

Most recently, the Post Mountain fire department nearly ceased to function after the board removed several members and only two volunteers remained. Since then, some new volunteers have stepped forward and are attempting to reorganize the fire department.

A longtime resident of Trinity Pines and former member of the special district's governing board, Margaret Irwin, called the change in fire department staffing a good thing, saying people were very reluctant to volunteer "under the old regime. It was a chaotic, bad situation and people didn't feel safe. The problem is we have a huge influx of pot growers here."

Representing Trinity County's District 5, Supervisor Wendy Reiss said she has worked with the Hayfork Fire Department to help provide training for the new Post Mountain volunteers attempting to reorganize their fire department. She has also attempted to work with the governing board to ensure Brown Act compliance.

The grand jury recommended that the community hold a town hall meeting to recruit more volunteers willing to be trained. It suggested hiring a facilitator to help control the meeting and recommended a number of other steps and common rules of order to help ensure that meetings are respectful and productive.

Post Mountain PUD facilities and equipment include a fire hall, two fire engines and a pickup as well as two snowplows for winter road maintenance. The grand jury found that all of the equipment for both roads and fire "is in a state of disrepair that should not be allowed since it affects the safety of people in the district." It noted the water system at the fire hall hasn't worked for two years and the district doesn't have drivers qualified to drive some of its vehicles.

The grand jury recommended that the district take immediate steps to make sure all equipment is repaired and fully operational and there are qualified and licensed drivers for all equipment.

It noted that board meetings are frequently canceled due to lack of a quorum and recommended holding special meetings when that happens because the "current state of affairs of the district cannot be ignored for two months."

The governing board is comprised of five seats, but has long been operating with just four members. In recent years, there have been several resignations, a few new appointments, and the board is currently down to just three members. Current board president Tom Onwiler has announced his intended resignation Oct. 1.

If the board fails to appoint another member before then, it will cease to function. In that case, the responsibility defaults to the Trinity County Board of Supervisors to appoint someone. With a special district election scheduled in November, no candidates filed for the three four-year terms and one two-year term on the Post Mountain PUD Board.

The grand jury again recommended a town hall meeting to rally support and get volunteers to fill the board, noting that most of the experienced people on the board and fire department have resigned and the new board is getting very little help.

The grand jury report indicated "there is a faction in the community that feels the board is not being run properly, but prefers to complain rather than step up and help. The group believes that the grand jury can solve all their problems, but this is not true. The grand jury does not have any power to dictate any resolution to their problems; it can only investigate and recommend a possible solution."

It concluded that the Post Mountain community "needs to start fresh, look to the future and all work together for the common good of the community. Post Mountain is a beautiful place to live. The community has a lot of equipment and facilities, which, if maintained and managed properly could provide the services needed. The community has potential for a great future. Cooperation and united effort can make this happen. It is imperative that they start right away."

The district board has not yet formally responded to this year's grand jury report and Board President Onwiler could not be reached for comment. In a response last year, the district board urged the public to "bear with us" as new board members began the process of tackling the problems.

Former board member Irwin, who resigned in 2002, said in her opinion the district needs to be allowed to die and become a substation of the Hayfork Fire Department, a 30-minute drive away from Trinity Pines.

"We need a fire department here, but it could be run better by Hayfork," she said.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hughson's long-term drama nears end

City lawmakers' actions could get them booted
By Patty Guerra

HUGHSON -- Voters on Tuesday will decide whether to remove and replace half their City Council.

It's the first time the city has conducted a recall election, but the divisive conditions that predicated the election are nothing new to Stanislaus County's smallest city.

In its tumultuous recent history, Hughson has endured a council reduced to two people, a mayor ousted after being charged with misusing his city credit card and a series of city managers quitting or being fired amid controversies.

"I think what happens is, in a small town, some of the people that get a little bit of power don't really know how to handle it," said Jean Henley, a longtime planning commissioner and former councilwoman. "People forget that they're there for the majority of what the people want instead of what I the individual want."

Longtime residents hope that with Tuesday's recall, the city can move ahead.

The recall is aimed at Councilmen Thom Crowder and Doug Humphreys; former Councilman Ben Manley's name is on the ballot as well, though he resigned earlier this month. Voters will be asked two questions for each: Should he be removed from office, and if so, which of two candidates should replace him?

Residents launched the recall effort after the three men refused to resign in light of a Stanislaus County civil grand jury report last year accusing them of breaking state law by conspiring through e-mail to fire then-City Manager Joe Donabed.

The grand jury said Crowder illegally tried to use his influence as an elected official to secure a job, a charge he denied.

City attorney's advice claimed

All three said they may have made a mistake by sending e-mails, but that it wasn't intentional and they acted under the direction of then-City Attorney John Stovall.

Humphreys said the grand jury got its facts wrong.

"I sent a blanket e-mail to a lot of people," he said. "But it was nothing about the city manager."

He denied accusations that he has an agenda; residents have accused the three councilmen of angling to bring back former City Manager and Police Chief Dave Whiteside.

"There is nobody on the grand jury that lives in Hughson; nobody on the grand jury spoke to me," Humphreys said. "If they didn't ask me any questions, how could they know what my agenda would be?"

He alone is fighting the recall. Manley resigned earlier this month, citing "continued attacks my wife and I have suffered emotionally and physically" during the recall effort. Crowder, whose term ends in November, said he won't fight the recall and didn't file for re-election, though he briefly considered running for mayor again.

Crowder has had his ups and downs in the city: In 2000, he resigned as mayor after losing a re-election bid. He won a 2004 mayoral election after opting out of the race. He was appointed to his current term last year to replace Ramon Bawanan after Bawanan assumed the mayor's post.

The outspoken Crowder has rankled many residents, calling those behind the recall effort "pea brains" and "disingenuous scumbags." He admitted he is blunt, but said he's trying to do what's best for the city.

Crowder said he originally sought the grand jury investigation to look into wrongdoing at City Hall, where some employees claim a hostile work environment exists. The former public works director is facing felony charges of tampering with computer files.

Many of Crowder's detractors start sentences, "I like Thom, and he's done a lot for Hughson, but ... .' " They say his disregard for constituents and recent actions make it impossible for him to continue to serve.

Lots of work for winners

After the grand jury issued its report, Bawanan regularly called on all three men to resign.

"You have violated the public's trust and forever damaged your ability to serve on this council," he told them at the end of a City Council meeting in January. "You forgot that as a member of the City Council you work for the residents, not the other way around."

Bawanan stopped his calls, saying he would let the recall take its course.

Whoever ends up leading the city after Tuesday will have plenty of work: The city remains without a 2010-11 budget and is in search of a permanent replacement for Donabed, whose contract expired in May.

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ford to dock Smith's pay for travel expense overpayments

Ukiah Daily Journal Staff
Updated: 08/20/2010 01:14:26 PM PDT

The Mendocino County grand jury announced 4th District Supervisor Kendall Smith's pay will be docked for $3,087, the amount she was overpaid for travel expenses between January 2005 and November 2006.

In an Aug. 6 letter, Mendocino County District Attorney Meredith Lintott directed County Auditor-Controller Meredith Ford to immediately start payroll deductions until the amount was paid.

The grand jury questioned the overpayments again this year after Smith denied she was overpaid for business travel between Fort Bragg and Ukiah in prior grand jury reports.

"You established the overpayment as $3,087," Lintott writes to Ford. "Demand has been made upon Smith to repay this sum by you, the District Attorney ... as well as by the grand jury. No payments have been tendered by Supervisor Smith."

Lintott's most recent letter refers to a March 24, 2008 letter she sent to Fort Bragg attorney James L. Larson, who once represented Smith on the matter.

In the letter, Lintott says the grand jury was pursuing repayment to the county from Smith for "trips she claimed between Fort Bragg and Ukiah when there was no actual travel and when her cost of overnight lodging was little or nothing because she either stayed with friends or in a room which she rented for $100 per month."

Smith's response previously was that she claimed the travel expenses based on a "per-diem" calculation she thought was acceptable because two other supervisors used it.

Red light cameras in Redwood City have not resulted in a significant drop in accidents

By Bonnie Eslinger

Daily News Staff Writer
Posted: 08/21/2010 03:00:00 AM PDT

Red-light cameras at a major intersection in Redwood City have not led to significantly fewer traffic accidents, the city's police chief acknowledges in his response to a critical grand jury report that concluded the devices are used mainly as revenue generators.

In a June report, the San Mateo County civil grand jury questioned the use of red-light cameras, which it suggested are more effective as cash cows for governments than as life savers.

Redwood City has had red-light cameras at the intersection of Whipple Avenue and Veterans Boulevard since March 2008. It is one of at least eight cities in the county that have installed such devices in the name of public safety at selected intersections, according to the grand jury report. The current fine for camera-caught violations is $446.

According to a letter Redwood City police Chief Louis Cobarruviaz wrote in response to the grand jury report, there hasn't been a significant reduction in accidents since the cameras were installed. However, the number of red-light violations has dropped, indicating the devices may be an effective "deterrent," he wrote.

City officials did not provide the number of accidents before and after the cameras were installed, saying the information was unavailable Friday.

The city council is scheduled to discuss Cobarruviaz's letter Monday night before voting to send it to the grand jury. But Council Member Ian Bain said in an interview that if the cameras are not reducing accidents, they're not fulfilling their intended purpose.

"In terms of effectiveness, I don't think the number of tickets is the measure," he said.

Red-light cameras have become increasingly popular traffic law tools for cities across the country. But they're also lightning rods because they can "catch" one violator after another, who then receive citations in the mail that demand hefty fines.

The grand jury found that the number of citations issued from red-light cameras for failing to completely stop before making a right turn was "out of proportion to similar offenses and as a result is often appealed to the traffic court."

Without offering specific numbers, Redwood City confirmed that many of its citations from the cameras were for turning right against a light without stopping, but noted such infractions endanger bicyclists, pedestrians and other drivers.

Mayor Jeff Ira said he didn't know the city was ticketing right-turn violators until he himself got caught on camera. He intends to bring it up Monday night.

"When the council first approved this, we only approved running through the red light, not the right-hand turn," he said.

Based on data from November 2009 through March 2010, the grand jury found that Redwood City issues an average of 500 citations a month from infractions caught by red-light cameras. Most of the revenue from fines goes to the state and county, but what's left over for the city amounts to an average of about $65,000 per month, according to the report.

A police department representative was not available to answer questions Friday.

Cobarruviaz's proposed response to the grand jury says the city has no plans to install additional cameras, but the police department's website indicates it is considering putting them at the intersections of Woodside Road and Broadway and at Veterans Boulevard and Woodside Road.

A city spokesperson said the website information is "outdated."

The grand jury also found that red-light camera vendors recommend locations based on the "potential number of red-light violations and not necessarily the number of accidents that can be prevented" and encourage cities to sign up for the program by offering "cost neutral" clauses that promise they'll make enough revenue to pay for the program.

On Thursday, attorney Bruce Simon sued two major traffic camera vendors -- Redflex and American Traffic Solutions -- on behalf of a Palo Alto woman, charging that the "cost neutral" provision in the contracts is illegal. The two companies provide red-light cameras to all the San Mateo County cities that use them, according to the grand jury report.

"We're going after the private companies that induce these municipalities to get into these contracts as revenue enhancing vehicles," Simon said. "If it's supposed to be about safety and preventing accidents, the revenue aspect shouldn't be as important."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Whitman calls for statewide grand jury, Brown's camp wonders why

Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman is sounding tough in her new radio ad, calling out the cases of waste, fraud and abuse in California. She's proposing a "statewide grand jury of civic-minded Californians" that has the power to investigate and indict to get rid of these problems in the state.
"The message will be very clear -- if you're caught robbing the taxpayers, you'll go to jail," Whitman says in the ad.
There are only a handful of states (like Florida) that have statewide grand juries as most of the time grand juries are used at the county level. And critics of Whitman's plan says that's where they should stay.
"You are creating something that's redundant," said Peter Keane, an emeritus dean at Golden Gate University School of Law.
But the Whitman campaign said that a statewide grand jury would actually be more efficient because it would minimize the number of California counties that had to look at cases of waste, fraud and abuse happening at the state level.
Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the campaign of Whitman's opponent, Democratic state Attorney General Jerry Brown, came back with this statement:
"Only Meg Whitman could pitch creating a government agency to reduce government waste. Its a simplistic idea custom-made for a radio ad, but the reality is that Gov. Schwarzenegger tried this already and had to admit the waste wasn't there."
Darrel Ng, a Whitman spokesman, said that the statewide grand jury would use existing state resources to save costs, including pulling staff from other offices. And he said that the potential cost savings of the jury "would far outweigh any minor additional costs that might be incurred."
Our dandy state Constitution neither precludes nor authorizes a statewide grand jury, saying only: "One or more grand juries shall be drawn and summoned at least once a year in each county."
This report was written by staff writer Drew Joseph. E-mail him at

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Capitola says 'no way' to branch closure: Leaders respond to grand jury recommendation to turn library into reading room

Posted: 08/18/2010 06:35:59 PM PDT
Updated: 08/18/2010 06:36:26 PM PDT

CAPITOLA - City leaders have taken issue with the Santa Cruz county grand jury's recommendation that the community take over Capitola Branch Library and turn it into a reading room, saying the report ignores a deal struck between the city and county six years ago as well as the growing demand on the Capitola branch.

"We value and treasure our community library; it is a part of our community identity and cannot be replaced by a regional library," said Mayor Sam Storey, who sits on the Santa Cruz Public Libraries' Joint Powers Board.

Capitola leaders were responding to this year's grand jury report, which was released to the public in June. The grand jury is an independent body assembled of county residents that each year investigates various governmental bodies and releases a report analyzing their practices and behavior. This year's report included analysis on the Santa Cruz Public Library System, Lompico County Water District and others.

While the report did not recommend the governing Joint Powers Board shutter the smaller of the system's 10 branches, it did recommend local communities like Capitola possibly take them over until system leaders can buy much-needed technological infrastructure and build a cash reserve, which they do not have right now.

That is where Capitola leaders drew the line.

In their response to the report, council members noted the city's deal with Santa Cruz County to build a new, 7,000 square-foot library to replace the temporary, 4,300 square-foot building the branch occupies now. The Capitola City Redevelopment Agency has committed at least $2 million to the project, and the city has created a committee to recommend a site, funding strategies and how development should proceed. In addition, more than 60 percent of visitors to the Capitola branch come from outside city limits, the reply stated, showing that it serves a more regional demand.

As a result, "the idea of converting the existing Capitola Library to a reading room, even for an intermediate term, is unacceptable," the city's response said.

The libraries' dire financial situation comes after the system's budget shrank from $12.6 million to $11.3 million last year. It is expected to keep dropping to $10.7 million over the next few years as the nation's economic doldrums continue taking their toll on tax revenues. This year's budget is about $11 million.

About half of the library system's budget is paid for with revenue from a quarter-cent local sales tax first passed in 1996. County voters in 2008 agreed to make the tax permanent. But as residents shop less during the recession, that revenue stream has fallen off.

The Joint Powers Board has formed a subcommittee to develop long-term strategies for managing the branches as the ongoing recession continues. Members are expected to return this fall with recommendations.

Library system Director Teresa Landers said she is waiting for the committee to return before she recommends converting Capitola or any other branch into something else.

"We need to let this process unfold and let this task force do its work before coming to any conclusions about branch closures or any other structural changes," Landers said.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Woodlake officials: Grand Jury report politically biased

BY ERIC WOOMER • • August 11, 2010

Woodlake city officials have formally denounced a Tulare County Grand Jury report on an accidental shooting in January 2009, calling the report "biased" and "grossly negligent."
The Grand Jury report — titled "Lack of Common Sense or Negligence?" — was critical of city administrators and Woodlake Police Chief John Zapalac.

The report claimed that officials were less than forthcoming about the Jan. 19, 2009, shooting of Leland Perryman, who was walking with his wife and dogs in an orchard east of Exeter when he was hit in the chest with a .40-caliber bullet.

An investigation concluded that the bullet likely came from the Exeter Police Department's nearby shooting range, where Woodlake officers were training. The Grand Jury charged Woodlake officials with failing to follow safety rules.

Responses to the Grand Jury report were filed by the city of Woodlake, Zapalac and City Administrator Bill Lewis. The common theme: The Grand Jury findings were unfounded and under-developed.

The response from the city, written by Mayor Raul Gonzalez Jr., stated that Woodlake's city attorney informed the Grand Jury on May 20 that officers — who earlier had canceled Grand Jury interviews — would be available if subpoenaed. No interviews were rescheduled before the report was released July 3, he said.

"The City of Woodlake holds the Tulare County Grand Jury in contempt for failing ... with its mission and duties," Gonzalez wrote.

Gonzalez said that the report was rushed to be completed before the June 8 sheriff's election involving Zapalac and incumbent Bill Wittman, who was re-elected.

"The Grand Jury prepared a hit piece with a political agenda, formulated to impact a contested election," Gonzalez wrote.

Current Grand Jury Foreman Bill White, who was involved in the Woodlake report, said he is forbidden by law to comment on the investigation. He did say that Grand Jury investigated the Woodlake shooting thoroughly.

"I assure you the Grand Jury did their due diligence and investigated accurately with the information we had," he said.

The Grand Jury asked prosecutors to reopen their investigation of the shooting. Lewis, who was not interviewed by the Grand Jury and said he knows of no city employees who were, said the request represents an act of political posturing and self-validation.

Tests inconclusive

Ballistics tests conducted by the Sheriff's Department were inconclusive as to which gun fired the bullet that struck Perryman, he said.

Zapalac said he was disappointed with both the investigation and the Grand Jury report. He said the presence of three Sheriff's Department volunteers on the Grand Jury created a political conflict of interest.

"The agenda was to put me in poor light," he wrote. "The entire incident was nothing less than an ambush by the Sheriff's Department."

L.A. County grand jury serves subpoenas seeking thousands of documents from Bell

The subpoenas come two weeks after Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley announced an investigation into the high salaries paid city officials, possible improper business dealings and allegations of voter fraud.

By Jeff Gottlieb, Jack Leonard and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times

August 9, 2010|6:42 p.m.
A Los Angeles County grand jury has served subpoenas seeking thousands of documents and financial records from the city of Bell as two investigations into the city's salary scandal intensified Monday.

The subpoenas come two weeks after Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley announced a wide-ranging investigation into the high salaries the city paid local officials, possible improper business dealings and allegations of voter fraud.

It's unclear exactly what documents the grand jury is seeking. Several sources told The Times they were unsure whether prosecutors received all of the records as of Monday,

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The California attorney general's office announced Monday that it had issued a new round of subpoenas to force nine current and former Bell officials to give depositions and to turn over federal and state income tax returns.

Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown is also demanding personal records relating to pay and pension benefits, gifts the officials have received, and documents pertaining to bank accounts and business interests. Two weeks ago, his office demanded records from Bell City Hall, but this marks the first indication that the attorney general was also looking at the actions of individual city officials as well.

Brown said the subpoenas involved several City Council members as well as former City Manager Robert Rizzo, whose nearly $800,000 salary sparked widespread outrage and prompted him to resign. The Times reported Sunday that when benefits were added, Rizzo's total compensation for this year would have topped $1.5 million.

The attorney general also said Monday that his probe was expanding to include the city's former law firm, Best, Best and Krieger, which also received subpoenas. The city last week ended its contract with the lawyers. Shortly thereafter, a longtime city attorney, Edward Lee, who worked for Best, Best and Krieger, announced that he was leaving the firm. A spokeswoman for Best, Best and Krieger said the firm had received the subpoena and is "assisting in any way we can."

If the investigation finds evidence of wrongdoing, Brown said, prosecutors would "take action in weeks, not months."

State prosecutors plan to depose the Bell officials Aug. 19 and 20.

Cooley, who is running for attorney general, and Brown, who is running for governor, both appear to be looking into similar activities in Bell. But so far, their investigations appear to be following independent tracks.

Bell's new interim city attorney said Saturday that the city was launching its own investigation into the high salaries and benefits paid to Rizzo and other top officials.

Documents obtained over the weekend showed that Rizzo was making about double the $787,000 previously reported. His total compensation, according to city documents, was supposed to total more than $1.5 million this year, which included $387,786 a year for vacation and sick time.

The documents show that the city would pay $48,996 annually into Rizzo's deferred compensation plan and $20,496 into his 457 plan, which is similar to a 401(k) for government employees.

These retirement funds were in addition to his public employee pension, with the city paying his contribution. A Times analysis estimated that Rizzo would collect an annual pension of more than $600,000 upon retirement.

The records show that when the benefits package is included, former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia's $376,288 salary more than doubles, to $845,960, and ex-Police Chief Randy Adams' annual pay jumps from $457,000 to $770,046.

Late last week, Bell released documents showing that lower-level city officials also had extraordinarily high salaries, with two department heads receiving compensation of more than $400,000 annually and several other employees earning more than $200,000.

City Council members are being investigated for the nearly $100,000-a-year salaries they were receiving for their part-time jobs. As a result of the anger directed at them by Bell residents, the council members voted to cut their pay by 90%.

In addition to compensation and salaries, Brown said Monday that he was expanding his probe to include allegations of election fraud involving absentee ballots.

The Times last week reported allegations from Bell voters that city officials walked door to door telling them how to vote on their absentee ballots, filled out ballots for some voters and picked up completed ballots from others, all in apparent violation of the state election code.

"We've got some reports of improper and possibly illegal electioneering," Brown said. "If in fact the election itself has been tainted by improper electioneering or other violations of state law, that involves civil or maybe criminal action, and in some circumstances can overturn the election itself."

The office established a toll-free hotline for people who may have had absentee ballots picked up by Bell officials. The number is (866) 625-4400.,0,2914607.story

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Top managers in Mountain View, Santa Clara earn top dollar compared to peers in larger San Jose

By John Woolfolk and Diana Samuels

Bay Area News Group
Posted: 08/08/2010 12:00:00 AM PDT

Santa Clara, with just a tenth the population of San Jose, paid its city manager and police chief more than its bigger neighbor last year. So did even smaller Mountain View.

While the $303,451 salary Santa Clara City Manager Jennifer Sparacino received last year may pale next to the bloated purses of officials in Bell -- a town of 40,000 near Los Angeles whose salaries for top officials have sparked national outrage -- the Bell scandal has renewed scrutiny of city salaries everywhere.

For most government agencies, the amounts paid to top officials are just a fraction of their budgets, which is why cost-cutting efforts tend to focus on rank-and-file employees. Still, politicians are especially sensitive about seemingly outsize salaries at a time many taxpayers are struggling with shrinking paychecks.

Santa Clara Councilwoman Jamie McLeod noted that Sparacino has won major professional awards, oversees a city that includes a public utility and recently took a 10 percent pay cut.

"She is, in my book, one of the best, if not the best in the country," McLeod said.

But resident Chris Koltermann, a leading critic of the city's move to subsidize a new football stadium for the San Francisco 49ers, was surprised to learn Sparacino and Police Chief Stephen Lodge are paid more than their San Jose counterparts.

"We have a good city staff," said Koltermann. "But private businesses look at what salaries are paid across the board for similar types of jobs, and it would behoove Santa Clara to take a look at that."

Sparacino, in fact, was the top-salaried public official in Santa Clara County in 2009 who's not a doctor at Valley Medical Center.

And though many public officials earned more last year when overtime and other compensation were added in, only three in the nine-county Bay Area drew higher salaries: Nathaniel Ford, chief executive officer of San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency ($332,489); Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi ($422,382); and Nancy Farber, CEO of Washington Hospital Healthcare System in Fremont ($596,180).

The Mercury News review of compensation data also found:

# Doctors at Valley Medical Center dominated the list of highest-salaried public employees; 76 VMC doctors earned base pay that's more than $300,000 last year. Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith said the county is about to embark on a comprehensive review of employee compensation. "I would anticipate that there are some employees who are making more than the typical market and some that are lower. We have to address that," he said.

# Four dozen public employees around the Bay Area took home more than $100,000 in overtime. They included six VMC nurses; firefighters in San Jose, Mountain View and Sunnyvale; and eight police officers in crime-plagued Richmond.

# By cashing out some six weeks worth of unused vacation, San Mateo County Counsel Michael Murphy earned $308,045 -- 25 percent more than he earned the year before. That's also 25 percent more than the salary paid his counterpart in Santa Clara County, which is larger by more than 1 million residents.

Murphy said he understands that "as government, we need to spend the people's money wisely. But the other side of that coin is there's an awful lot that we do."

Last week, state Controller John Chiang said he will create an online database of statewide public employee salaries so they are easier to scrutinize. The Bay Area News Group posted its own such database for local governments earlier this year; it can be accessed at

The controversy over high-level compensation comes as local governments have been laboring to contain pay and benefits for line employees. A recent report from the Santa Clara County Grand Jury blasted local agencies for their generosity, branding the costs "not sustainable."

Among other critiques, grand jurors reported that workers in Saratoga and Palo Alto can take up to 75 paid days off by rolling over unused time from previous years. For firefighters in Santa Clara, the report said, that number is 84 days.

City officials say those numbers are inaccurate or lack context. Saratoga City Manager Dave Anderson noted that his town doesn't differentiate between vacation and sick days and said he would probably not approve a vacation leave of 75 days because it would leave an employee without sick time in case of illness.

As cities have prepared their required responses to the grand jury, many have insisted they are hanging tough.

Mountain View Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga recently said the city should "toot our own horn" about efforts to cap vacation and sick-leave cashouts. Still, the city of 75,000 had some of the county's highest average compensation for employees: Median total compensation for police and firefighters is $190,591, and for other workers it's $123,754.

And when it comes to its top employees, Mountain View doesn't skimp. City Manager Kevin Duggan earned a salary of nearly $280,000 last year, eclipsing San Jose City Manager Debra Figone's salary of almost $265,000.

Police Chief Scott Vermeer earned $287,161. By contrast, San Jose Chief Rob Davis was paid $230,177.

Mountain View Mayor Ronit Bryant said the council reviews the salaries of its appointed city officials each year and is "obviously extremely pleased" with Duggan's performance.

Duggan argued his pay is "very comparable" to his counterparts in neighboring Palo Alto and Sunnyvale, adding that when retirement and other perks are factored in, "they might actually be paid more than I am."

He also noted that Vermeer had gotten a 20 percent raise for assuming the duties of the fire chief for 18 months, which Duggan said saved Mountain View about $200,000. Now that the city has hired a fire chief, Vermeer's pay has dropped to $213,000 -- plus 10 percent for training the new chief.

As for Santa Clara Chief Lodge -- who, unlike Davis and Vermeer, is elected -- Councilman Jamie Matthews said he "is world-class and has brought in grant funding nearly equal to his annual salary to fund our cold-case unit." Lodge received $256,820 last year but is taking a 5 percent cut.

They aren't the only city leaders being asked to justify public employee pay to taxpayers who have fallen on hard times -- especially in the wake of the Bell controversy. Bell's chief administrative officer was paid $788,000, while the police chief took home $457,000 and part-time council members made $100,000.

"Even the best-paid California managers are not in the Bell category," said Michele Frisby, spokeswoman for the International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C. She said city manager salaries in California tend to be in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.

Most politicians make far less. San Jose's full-time council pay rate is $90,000, less than the nearly $99,000 council salary in San Francisco but more than the $72,000 in Oakland, according to city surveys. The San Jose council this year reduced its pay 10 percent in light of record deficits and requests for similar employee concessions.

Mayor Chuck Reed has declined a 20 percent raise, keeping his salary at $109,000. In San Francisco, which has a "strong mayor" government in which the city's top elected official also serves as chief executive, mayoral pay last year was $251,000.

Elected leaders' pay in smaller cities with part-time councils is much lower. In Santa Clara, Mayor Patricia Mahan was paid about $17,000 last year, while council members made more than $10,000.

Steven Frates, director of research at the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy, said taxpayers shouldn't necessarily expect salaries for top officials to correspond with a city's size.

"Running a small city can be more difficult in some respects," he said.

He and other government watchdogs argue that with the exception of Bell, it's generally the pay and benefits for unionized public workers -- not management -- that are sapping funds for basic services like fire protection, parks and libraries.

"If you really want to pay attention to where the bucks are going," Frates said, "you've got to look at the line employees."

Exactly how capable are grand juries of affecting change?

Jury duties

“Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

So goes the infamous line from English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The words could also be applied to recent goings-on within the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, according to findings in a Santa Barbara County Grand Jury report released earlier this month.

The report, titled Currents and Undercurrents in the Santa Ynez Valley, accuses the river district’s Improvement District No.1 (ID 1) of lacking transparency, wastefully spending taxpayers’ money, and maintaining poor relationships with other local agencies.

According to the report, the problems stem from an escalating power struggle among the special districts and the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), a state-mandated agency charged with monitoring government jurisdiction.

ID 1 manages and distributes water in much of the Santa Ynez Valley area. The Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District is also parent to the Santa Ynez Community Services District, which manages the area’s sewage collection. In 2006, both of the special districts rejected a suggestion from LAFCO to form a merger for the sake of government efficiency and cost effectiveness.

The report says ID 1 officials initiated state legislation AB 2686 to establish the district as a special district independent of LAFCO jurisdiction. That bill passed through both houses of government but was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The report alleges the process cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars without giving them the knowledge needed to approve the decision.

The district and corresponding agencies, including the county board of supervisors, now have 60 to 90 days to respond.

On May 11, ID 1 general manager Chris Dahlstrom released a statement addressing the report, in which he said: “The district looks forward to taking advantage of this opportunity to respond to correct a number of omissions and inaccuracies it has identified in the report.”

The district’s five-person board of trustees plans to discuss the issue at an upcoming meeting, and eventually submit a formal response.

But as the Grand Jury—and the public—awaits word from the different agencies, other questions come to mind: What powers are grand juries endowed with, and just how effective are their reports at prompting change in government agencies?

To answer these questions, the Sun decided to follow up with three previously published reports to see what changes, if any, had occurred.

Toothless bulldogs or unsung heroes?

California is one of just a handful of states that boast grand juries at the county level. Jurors are typically volunteers, each serving year-long terms and spending about 20 hours a week or more conducting interviews and working on reports.

Under California Penal Code, civil grand juries have virtually no enforcement power. The juries issue reports and the agencies under investigation are required by law to respond within a specific time period. In responding to the reports, the agencies can choose to either agree or disagree with the findings and accompanying recommendations.

“The responses are limited: [The agencies] can agree with the recommendation and do it. They can say, ‘That’s already been done,’ which is what we love. Or they can disagree, but then they have to state why. And they can also ask for more time to respond,” said Jerry Lewi, the public relations chairperson for the California Grand Jurors Association. He’s also director of Ventura County’s Grand Jurors Association chapter.

If an agency disagrees, Lewi said, another Grand Jury can always follow up with the issue at a later date.

“The power of the grand jury is to get the public’s attention,” he said. “It’s analogous to the press’ impugned authority to make things happen.”

So should grand juries have more power?

“No. As members, we don’t have the expertise to [enforce policies],” he said. “It would be very difficult and very awkward to put that authority into a grand jury.

“It’s the jobs of the people elected to get the job done,” he added. “And if you don’t like what they’re doing, throw them out.”

A city revitalized

The citizens of Guadalupe didn’t quite throw their elected officials out, but they did eventually elect some new ones, following a series of grand jury reports calling the city’s government dysfunctional.

The 2002-03 Grand Jury criticized city leadership in its report Guadalupe—A City in Turmoil and Transition. The report focused on procurement problems, dysfunction on the City Council, and poor relations between the City Council and city administrator.

The city was in the hot seat again in 2005-06 when that year’s grand jury wrote another report, Guadalupe … Again. This report listed criticisms such as an expensive city-funded barbecue that hadn’t been approved by the City Council, an unqualified department director, and a City Council whose “[members were] more interested in embarrassing the other side than in running the city properly.”

The latest report, however, indicates a complete 180-degree turn in city leadership.

“How often can a grand jury write a report [that] congratulates and gives public recognition to the advances made by a city administration?” the 2007-08 Grand Jury wrote in its report, Guadalupe—Yet Again.

“The City of Guadalupe has a long way to go to be the city it wants to be. However, the attitude of the government officials and the citizens that the jurors interviewed was positive, optimistic, and confident that Guadalupe could become a major tourist and residential attraction on the Central Coast of California,” the report said.

So what changed?

“You become the butt of many jokes when you’re frequently in the spotlight in a negative way,” Mayor Lupe Alvarez said of the city’s past problems.

“We’ve worked really hard for the betterment of the community,” he continued. “I get a lot of credit, but the credit also needs to go to the entire council.”

The new council, he said, is completely focused on doing what’s right for Guadalupe. For that, the city can thank the grand jury reports and its voters.

The grand jury reports gave citizens the information they needed to elect more qualified individuals, Alvarez said. As a result, the current City Council is composed of a retired fire fighter, a retired postmaster, a teacher, and two businessmen.

“That brings a new level of commitment and respect for the position you hold,” Alvarez said. “And it sets the entire tone for the city and staff.”

The council is also working to make the city’s department head positions more fiscally attractive. But this can be a real challenge, considering other bigger cities can offer bigger salaries with better benefits.

“When you can’t afford to pay the going rate of a department head, it can reflect on the qualifications of the applicants,” Alvarez said.

The secret lives of cemeteries

But what if the agency mentioned in the report isn’t led by elected officials?

Take, for instance, special districts, such as the Goleta and Santa Maria cemetery districts. (For the record, water districts are usually led by elected officials, whereas cemetery district leaders are commonly appointed by county supervisors. That’s the case in Santa Barbara County.)

In 2006, the Grand Jury released a report, titled Water and Cemetery Districts: Do Special Districts Need Watching?, after receiving complaints from the public concerning the Goleta Cemetery District.

The grand jury found that the district’s board egregiously mishandled the then general manager’s retirement by allowing him to cash out $70,000 worth of sick leave (equivalent to a full year’s salary). According to the report, the board also used upwards of $8,000 in taxpayer and cemetery client funds to buy the manager a Rolex watch as a retirement gift.

Read up on the jury
To contact the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury or read its reports, visit
Interviews with board members, the general manager, and other people revealed some problems in the district’s inner workings: The board never questioned the general manager and therefore became over-dependent on him when making decisions. Governing decisions were found to be made “on whim,” with little to no criteria or facts. Also, board members seemed to have a “profound misunderstanding of [their] responsibilities.”

These findings motivated the jury to look into the management of other special districts in the area, only to find that some of them—especially those with appointed members—were plagued by similar problems.

Another big problem: public apathy. The report also found that a lack of public concern over special districts led to a dangerous lack of oversight. But Santa Barbara County special districts aren’t the only ones with this problem.

“I like to call [special districts] hidden government,” Grand Jurors Association’s Lewi said. “Very few people understand or know what they are and what they do.

“I always tell grand jury members, ‘If you’re looking for something to do, Mr. Grand Juror, go look at what’s going on in the special districts in your area,’” he added. “[Special districts] are very fertile ground for grand juries.”

The Santa Barbara County special district report made a slew of recommendations, such as mandated ethics training under AB 1234 for board members and general managers, and better compliance with the Brown Act. It also called on county supervisors to attend at least two meetings a year, and said all the districts should have written management policies and working fax numbers and e-mail addresses (some of the 10 districts contacted didn’t).

Responses and follow-ups were generally positive with most of the districts. By 2007, all of them were in compliance with

AB 1234 and most of them had websites.

In 2008, however, a new grand jury report criticized the governance of the Santa Maria Cemetery District. This report focused specifically on a controversy surrounding the Angel of Hope memorial, which was established in the cemetery without a written contract between the board and a local church.

“As a result,” the report said, “controversy, bickering, allegations of professional and fiscal impropriety, as well as financial hemorrhaging, have ensued.”

The report called on the board to compose “without delay” a memorandum of understanding with the church regarding the memorial.

Since the report was filed, the district has created an MOU. The district also has a new general manager and certified public accountant, and the board of trustees has expanded from three to five members—four of which were appointed after the Angel of Hope controversy.

When asked how much the grand jury report motivated the changes, 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno said: “It really didn’t, because we were [working on making changes] before the grand jury got involved.”

Centeno said his office had been getting complaints from the public before the report was released.

“I felt it was defective from the onset,” he said. “When you have only three people on the board, two of them can barely say hello to each other without violating the Brown Act.”

Centeno went on to say that he thinks grand jury reports are essential in the government process. But that doesn’t mean they should have enforcement powers.

“I think it would be extremely cumbersome for the Grand Jury to look at all the reports and demand change,” he said. “Those changes have fiscal attachments to most of them ... it would really, really cripple the county government and create an extreme tax burden on our taxpayers.”

For example, he explained, what happens if voters say no to certain initiatives designed to channel money toward fixing a problem in government?

“Where are we then?” he asked.

Money, money, money

Sometimes the agencies under invest-igation want to comply with the grand jury’s recommendations, but they just don’t have the funds to do so. Such is the case—to an extent—with Santa Barbara County Child Welfare Services.

CWS has been the focus of several reports over the years, all criticizing the department for breeding an air of mistrust, high turnover rates, and ineffectually providing services.

Some of these issues were touched on in the 2007-08 Grand Jury report Child Welfare Services: A System of Care That Lacks Stability. The jury listed what it believed to be key faults in the system. There appeared to be a lack of consistency and continuity of individuals responsible for children in foster care. The report noticed an increasing turnover rate among social workers, as well as poor communication between the department and childcare providers. Youth emancipated from the foster care system lacked the basic skills to live self-sufficiently.

The report recommended the department create a more streamlined system that decreased the number of social workers interacting with an individual child. Other recommendations included expanding services for emancipated youth, investigating and mitigating the causes behind high turnover rates, and improving communication with the foster care community.

In her response to the grand jury, Social Services Department Director Kathy Gallagher said the recommendation to streamline the system needed further analysis. CWS cases, she explained, are often very complex, and each process—intake, family reunification, adoption, etc.—requires a social worker with that expertise.

“[The system] is much like a bureaucracy,” she later told the Sun. “To have a person who is an expert in every stage, and has all the required knowledge, it’s impossible. It’s not realistic. We know from trying in the past.”

As for increasing services to former wards of the department, Gallagher said it’s something she implements to the best of her ability. Many of the programs available to foster youth are state funded. They were also some of the first programs to hit the chopping block when the California economy started to nosedive.

“In the meantime, some economic stimulus money came down, and we were able to direct a portion of that money for our summer youth program,” Gallagher said.

The summer youth program is designed to help emancipated foster youth find jobs, and provides them with training to live more self-sufficient lives.

“We haven’t been able to expand the housing program, but it’s still a priority,” Gallagher added.

But there isn’t much money out there for housing.

And what about the high turnover rates and claims of poor communication?

Again, Gallagher said, it’s complicated.

“Our turnover rates are not inconsistent with other counties,” she said.

Partly, the figures can be attributed to normal causes, such as promotion or maternity leave. But some of the turnover is due to the nature of the job.

“Being a social worker is extremely demanding and stressful,” she said. “Some people get into it and after a couple years they realize it wasn’t the job they expected it to be, or you’re just burned out and you want to move on.”

Currently, the department has 15 vacancies, but Gallagher said she’s unable to fill those positions because they’re just not in the budget.

The claims of poor communication, she continued, most likely stem from the department’s “very stringent confidentiality clause.”

In other words, social workers can’t discuss much with the public.

“I can understand why that could make it look like we’re being evasive or unhelpful,” she said. “But we’re trying to protect the child.”

At the statewide level, Gallagher said, she’s part of a minority of officials in favor of relaxing the confidentiality clauses surrounding social work.

“I think there are ways of [protecting the children] without zipping our lips and not doing anything,” she said, adding that a few “adventurous legislators” have tried submitting bills with that purpose. But so far nothing has stuck.

Until one does, she encourages members of the public with concerns to contact the department directly.

“It’s perfectly OK to call the supervisor or ask for the manager,” she said. “In Santa Barbara County, we’re absolutely committed to working collaboratively with everyone who’s involved with the child.”

But she stressed that the department’s goal is always to do what’s best for the child, not for the adults involved in the case, including social workers.

News Editor Amy Asman works with foster children. Contact her at

Friday, August 6, 2010

Irvine: Grand jury misled the public about Great Park


IRVINE – A recent report critical of the Great Park's long-term financial prospects was "seriously flawed," Irvine officials argue in a written response to grand jury findings that city leaders claim misled the public.

In a detailed draft response to grand jury findings that questioned a key source of Great Park funding and pointed to potential conflicts of interest among the elected leaders overseeing the park project, Irvine officials accused the watchdog agency of crafting a report that is "inaccurate and misleading."

"Regrettably, the Grand Jury's lack of understanding of the facts and California redevelopment law, its selective reading of documents provided to them by the city and the (redevelopment) agency, and its unfortunate use of insinuation and sarcasm, compromised the value of the Grand Jury report and had the effect of misleading the public," city officials said in Irvine's written response.

Faced with the complexity of the Great Park plan, the grand jury chose to focus on plans to raise the more than $1 billion needed to construct the park, rather than the more than $100 million spent on the project so far.

In its June report titled "Financing the Great Park: Now You See It, Now You Don't," the grand jury focused much of its attention on the Irvine Redevelopment Agency's ability to pay back a $134 million Great Park loan, as well as the fact that the five-member Irvine City Council also oversees both the city redevelopment agency and the Great Park Board of Directors.

The grand jury report didn't point to any specific wrongdoing by Great Park or city leaders, but did question whether there was "adequate transparency and candor by Irvine city officials in keeping taxpayers informed of the full consequences of the park financing structure," a passage that drew a sharply worded reaction from city officials.

"We have involved interested parties from the entire county through an open, public and inclusive process," Irvine officials wrote in their response. "The grand jury, however, revealed the tone and tactics it intended to employ by speculating – and then simply leaving hanging in the air – that city officials have kept taxpayers in the dark about the financing structure for the Orange County Great Park."

The city response signals that Irvine leaders will not be adopting any of the grand jury's five recommendations, which include:

•Having the Irvine Redevelopment Agency commit to repaying the $134 million Great Park loan. The city argues that the agency already has every intention of repaying the loan.

•Revising the redevelopment agencies' revenue projections to take into account economic turmoil. The city argues that they already analyze economic factors and adjust accordingly.

•Informing residents that new taxes or increases in existing taxes will be needed for Great Park construction. City officials deny this is the case, arguing that tax increment funds drawn from private development, as well as federal stimulus funds, shouldn't be considered new taxes.

•Making the boards of the Great Park Corporation, the Irvine City Council and the Irvine Redevelopment Agency independent of one another. City officials argue that such an arrangement is common in California, and does not represent a conflict of interest.

The Irvine City Council on Tuesday will discuss whether to officially sign off on the city response and send it on to the grand jury.

"I think our commitment is to move forward with the Great Park project in the best possible transparency," Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang said. "Right now we are constructing the park, so I think time will tell, and all this effort that is being invested in achieving the biggest public works project in the country will be realized. That is our dream. That is our plan."

Councilwoman Christina Shea said that while she hadn't had a chance to see the city response, she was concerned that the council majority would ignore the grand jury findings.

"They have raised some very definitive concerns, serious concerns, and to just brush it off or imply that they are seniors who should be playing shuffleboard is unfair," Shea said.

This is the second time the Great Park has come under grand jury scrutiny.

A grand jury investigation in 2006 accused Irvine leaders of betraying the public's trust by assuming control of the Great Park, suggesting the county sue to regain some authority. The recommendation was ignored by both city and county leaders.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7939 or

Monday, August 2, 2010

Victor Garcia: Tulare Joint Union High School District to respond to Grand Jury report

Tulare Joint Union High School District's board of trustees meeting is 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Items on the agenda include a response to the Tulare County Grand Jury Report and review of 2009-10 attendance data.

The high school district office is at 426 North Blackstone St.

Tulare Western High School students who haven't enrolled and their parents should to go to the Tulare Western cafeteria 8:30 a.m. Aug. 12 to begin the registration process.

Documents needed are a copy of the student's transcript, proof of residence and proof of current immunization. For more information call 686-8751.

Tulare schools begin Aug. 12.

College of the Sequoias is trying to connect students to the campus through Welcome Week, Aug. 16 through Aug. 20.

COS will provide a variety of activities around campus to help students get connected with services and activities the college provides.

# Reporter Victor Garcia is always looking for education story ideas. If you have an idea, contact him at 735-3272 or He can also be followed on Twitter at

SLO County codes ‘speak’ debated

Planning Department rejects jury report that language is ‘impossible to understand’
By Bob Cuddy |

Homeowners who want to build an addition or otherwise work on their property have no call to be perplexed by county planning regulations, because those rules are written in a way that is “clear and not subject to misinterpretation,” the county Planning and Building Department says.

The department made the comment in response to the civil grand jury, whose report in June called county planning regulations “inordinately complicated, difficult, conflicting and almost impossible to understand by the public.”

The Board of Supervisors last week briefly considered both the grand jury report and the county response. The board pulled the item from its agenda so planners could further tweak their comments.

The focus of the grand jury complaint was actually the Subdivision Review Board, a group of planners and others created in the 1990s to take pressure off the overworked county Planning Commission by handling lesser matters.

But the grand jury suggested that the faceless SRB has been deciding land-use matters that should go to the Planning Commission, whose five members are appointed by the elected supervisors and thus are more accountable.

“The potential exists for decisions made by the SRB to be influenced by the Planning Department,” the grand jury wrote.

The Planning Department rejected# that accusation as well, noting that the SRB consists of not only planners, but also representatives of other agencies, such as the Department of Public Works.

The grand jury’s comments on language echoed a complaint voiced frequently by members of the public who go to the county to get permits to install wiring, add a porch or do other projects at their homes.

But applicants are not the only ones who can become confused, the grand jury wrote; the county’s planning language is so bewildering at times that individual planners can draw different conclusions.

Former Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie echoed those remarks.

“They go out of their way to write those policies in a way that is indecipherable, so that it can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways,” she said.

County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who asked that the grand jury item be withdrawn from consideration last week, said he understands the criticism, confusion and “general frustration” but added that the Planning Department has been working to make things understandable to the general public.

He said the county has created “plain language” brochures explaining the planning process and holds pre-application conferences with applicants.

Gibson said he disagrees that county ordinances contradict one another, as the grand jury wrote. He said the grand jury was displaying an “incomplete understanding” of the Subdivision Review Board.

“I trust the general professionalism of our planners,” Gibson added. He noted that those who disagree with an SRB decision can appeal it to the Board of Supervisors.

The county is not bound to comply with civil grand jury recommendations but must by law respond to them.

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