Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sonoma County libraries won't install filters to block porn


Published: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 10:59 p.m.

For Ellie Muelrath, the case for putting Internet filters in Sonoma County's libraries was made vivid last December.

With three children in tow, she was looking for Upton Sinclair's “The Jungle” when her stepdaughter, then 12, glimpsed one of the public computer screens at the main library in downtown Santa Rosa.

“She whispered, ‘Oh my God, that guy was looking at porn,' ” Muelrath said.

Such experiences inspired the Sonoma County grand jury to again push the library to use Internet filters in its annual report released this summer. The grand jury also recommended reorganizing the layout of the computers to make them less visible to passersby in the downtown branch.

But both the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Sonoma County Library Commission are declining to follow the grand jury's recommendations.

On Wednesday, supervisors sidestepped the issue, saying that library policy is governed by a seven-member library commission.

Last month, the commission wrote a lengthy response outlining practical and philosophical flaws with using software to limit where people may go online and with rearranging computers.

No library patron should be subjected to objectionable material, the response said. But it also said no one viewing things on the Internet should be subject to the censorship from a computer program that decides what is appropriate.

Software filters are costly, ineffective and rife with troubling questions about where the line gets drawn, the statement said. Sexual images offend many, but what about violence or even extreme political views, asked Julia Freis, a local attorney and a member of the commission.

“When you start censoring, it is a slippery slope,” she said. “We don't really want to be in the position of censoring. It's against the library's mission.”

The library said it prefers to respond to the people who cause problems.

Library officials said they are vigilant against violations of the computer user agreement that calls on patrons to “avoid viewing material that might be considered objectionable to other library users.”

If someone complains, a librarian shows the suspected offender the terms of the agreement and reminds them they are in a public place.

Another infraction can result in a day-long suspension. Typically, though, many are so embarrassed they quickly leave.

“Very rarely do they ever come back,” said library director Sandy Cooper.

Since starting a log last September, the library system has recorded 45 incidents of patrons suspected of viewing pornography on library computers. Muelrath, of Santa Rosa, was one of those filing a complaint.

The Petaluma branch recorded the most problems, with 15, followed by central Santa Rosa with 12 incidents and Sebastopol with four.

Those are low numbers considering that more than 150 computers spread over 11 branches are probably in use for 90 percent of the time that the libraries are open, said Doug Cisney, interim branch manager of the downtown library.

Members of the grand jury could not be reached Wednesday. In their report, they said that the library is rightly concerned about First Amendment issues, but is putting those worries above even more pressing matters.

Library policymakers “seem to be more concerned with preserving the right to access these images by consenting adults than protecting our minor children,” the report said.

In one incident in March, an adult was found looking at pornography on a computer reserved for children at the Cloverdale branch.

Cooper said the man was stopped from continuing. There was no report of children accessing pornography.

The library also declined to rearrange computers to make them less visible to others. Not only would that entail great expense, it would make it easier for people to view pornography, the commission wrote.

Freis said she didn't expect any further action by the library commission, but the issue may return again. The 2008-09 grand jury also delved into the matter of library filters.

Muelrath, for one, would be happy for the issue to get more attention. An avid reader, she now reserves books online to avoid exposing her three daughters to a repeat performance. Pornography should be filtered at the library, she said.

“It should not be somewhere where children can view it,” she said. “It's a public place.”

You can contact Staff Writer Sam Scott at 521-5431 or at

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

S.B. County responds to grand jury criticism

10:00 PM PDT on Monday, September 20, 2010

The Press-Enterprise

A San Bernardino County grand jury mischaracterized many of the budget numbers used in a June report detailing the growth in Board of Supervisors staff, according to the county's official response released last week.

The 2009-2010 grand jury reported that the supervisors' staffs have grown significantly in recent years and three-quarters of the money from the board's priority needs budget has gone toward salaries and not special projects.

The county is required by law to provide an official response to the annual grand jury report. In comments approved last week, the county disagreed with half of the grand jury's 12 findings on the board's discretionary budget.

"I think there was probably some disappointment that there was some misunderstanding on the grand jury's part," county spokesman David Wert said Monday.

Most of the findings the county disagreed with were because of how the grand jury characterized budget numbers, Wert said.

For example, the grand jury found that the board transferred $2.67 million from their priority needs budgets to fund additional staffing.

The priority needs budgets are accounts that individual supervisors -- with board approval -- can tap for projects within their respective districts.

But the county partially disagreed, saying that was the total budgeted for a transfer and not the actual amount spent on salaries. The actual amount was 11 percent less, the county said in its response.

"This was the result of salary savings attributable to positions that the Board left vacant in order to reduce costs," the county said.

The grand jury recommended transferring the remaining balance from the board's priority needs budget to the general fund to help offset a financial shortfall. In its response, the county said that the money was transferred prior to the release of the final grand jury report.

In another finding, the grand jury said the number of staff for the supervisors increased 63.5 percent between fiscal 2003-2004 and 2009-2010.

The county said the board's staff did increase but only by 40 percent.

Reach Duane W. Gang at 951-368-9547 or

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sonoma County Counsel: Court order needed to dock Smith's pay

Fourth District Supervisor Kendall Smith's travel overpayments can't be deducted from her payroll checks without a court order, according to a legal opinion from the Sonoma County Counsel's Office.

The Mendocino County grand jury questioned the overpayments again this year after Smith called the since-changed county policy on travel reimbursement confusing and denied she was overpaid for business travel between Fort Bragg and Ukiah in responses to two prior grand jury reports.

"The gist is that I do not have the legal authority to withhold payroll from someone's payroll check without a judgment of some kind," Mendocino County Auditor-Controller Meredith Ford said of the Sonoma County legal opinion.

Ford asked for a legal opinion after District Attorney Meredith Lintott ordered her to deduct the $3,087 Ford's office determined Smith was overpaid for travel reimbursements between January 2005 and November 2006.

Smith allegedly claimed reimbursement for business trips between her Fort Bragg home and Ukiah during that time, "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 (in Ukiah)," according to a letter Lintott wrote in 2008 to Smith's former attorney in the matter.

Proposing a way to recover the money without going to court, Lintott ordered Ford Aug. 6 to dock the amount from Smith's pay. Ford said she wasn't sure she had the authority to do that and asked Mendocino County Counsel Jeanine Nadel for an opinion.

Citing a conflict of interest, Nadel forwarded the request to Sonoma County.

The legal opinion, penned by Sonoma Chief Deputy County Counsel Sheryl L. Bratton, says neither the current Mendocino County travel reimbursement policy nor the state law Lintott cites as authority to dock Smith's pay allow the "unilateral imposition of a penalty through the offsetting of wages that are otherwise due to a board member.

"As a result, it would be necessary to initiate some type of administrative proceeding or hearing (e.g. court order) prior to taking such action."

Bratton writes that she also found no authority for Ford to "unilaterally make payroll deductions," or for Lintott to order Ford to do so without Smith's permission.

Lintott said the state law section she cited as authority, Assembly Bill 1234, became law in January 2006, when Smith was claiming the travel reimbursements based on a "per diem" calculation.

The law was supposed to "prevent abuse of travel policies," according to Lintott.

There have been no lawsuits filed and no case judgments to interpret the law and guide its application since then, according to Lintott, making ambiguous the definition and means of collecting "restitution" - cited as a remedy for falsifying expense reports under the law.

Lintott maintains there is no evidence that Smith meant to defraud the county, but wrote in a Thursday press statement, "Smith's conduct occurred at the same time the legislature was working to prevent such abuses."

Lintott also notes former District Attorney Norm Vroman knew about the overpayments but took no action.

She said the grand jury can sue Smith for the money, as can the county, but "this is not something we can take to court and win."

Lintott added, "Clearly this is an outrage to citizens because there is a sense that she (Smith) took advantage of a policy that was not written well."

Tiffany Revelle can be reached at, or at 468-3523.

Humboldt Supes to look at grand jury responses to accounting standards report

Donna Tam/The Times-Standard
Posted: 09/19/2010 01:23:56 AM PDT

With the bleak fiscal situation that has hit municipalities throughout the state in recent years, the Humboldt County grand jury is questioning whether the county's accounting practices are contributing to this county's budget woes.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will discuss the county's official response to the grand jury report regarding the matter Tuesday. The report, included in a final report released at the end of June, scrutinizes a few of the county's bigger departments, but also said the county needs to change its accounting practices systemwide.

”There exists a deteriorating trend in the county's financial situation, affecting the general fund and the budgets of all departments, and causing or threatening to cause reductions in services to the public,” the report said.

The county has compiled responses from each of its appointed department heads, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office and the Humboldt County Probation Department.

According to the staff report from the County Administrative Office, the office will implement any new standards the board of supervisors deems appropriate. For the other recommendations, the staff report said some have been partially implemented and others could not be implemented “at this time because it is not warranted.”

Recommendations from the report also included forming an audit committee that would track grant awards, expenditures and claims and revenues and hire an independent auditor to monitor the progress of recommendations.

A second set of responses addressed another report regarding the Victim-Witness Program.

In other matters, the board will also receive an annual report from the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission, and is set to approve two matters related to airport construction projects, and the purchase of equipment related to the emergency Tsunami sirens.

To read the full grand jury report, visit For the complete meeting agenda and supporting documents, visit



What: Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting

Where: Supervisors Chamber, first floor, Humboldt County Courthouse, 825 Fifth St.

When: 9 a.m. Tuesday

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Marin County finance move boosts safety facility

Nels Johnson
Posted: 09/14/2010 04:06:22 PM PDT
Updated: 09/14/2010 04:06:22 PM PDT

A program that will refinance existing county of Marin debt while adding to it in order to provide money for a public safety building or other public works projects was authorized by county supervisors Tuesday.

Under a "certificates of participation" deal that does not require voter approval because it will be paid for with existing revenue, officials intend to exploit favorable interest rates by refinancing $18 million in certificates already issued, then issue more over a longer time frame, boosting the debt to about $60 million - while remaining within a $3 million annual debt service target required by county fiscal policy.

The moves, after setting aside money for reserves and providing $300,000 to financial and legal consultants, will provide the county with a net $38 million. The money, in addition to $30 million already in the bank, could be used in a lease-back arrangement to pay for the first phase of a $100 million public safety building on a "preferred site" near the Marin Civic Center, although officials stressed the financial arrangement had nothing to do with selecting a specific site for the controversial facility.

County Administrator Matthew Hymel said the money can be used "for any capital improvement" and need not necessarily be allocated for the safety building, wherever it is located. Several alternative sites are under study.

"We are able to take advantage of interest rates," pay off some old certificates while refinancing others maturing in 2023 and issuing more in a package due in 2040, Hymel said. "With the advantage of the highest available credit rating and historically low interest rates, we are refinancing existing debt and issuing new 30-year debt to address our long-term capital needs," he said.

Hymel noted that the county's financial books are in excellent shape, with a recent audit providing a clean bill of health. In addition, the county's "triple A" credit rating was reaffirmed by Standard & Poor's this month, he said.

The financial arrangement included a detailed prospectus giving an overview of the county's fiscal status, noting that revenues of $361 million were predicted by the 2009-10 budget, $44 million less than actually collected, and $2 million less than projected this fiscal year. Total expenses in 2009-10, proposed at $386 million, came in about $13 million above that - and less than the $383 million proposed this year.

County supervisors had little comment on the refinance scheme, which came up for discussion near the end of a long agenda that was delayed by a parade of speakers concerned with a variety of other issues.

Contact Nels Johnson via e-mail at

Monday, September 13, 2010

San Mateo County responds to grand jury over indigent care

September 13, 2010, 03:30 AM By Michelle Durand Daily Journal Staff

The civil grand jury’s recommendations that San Mateo County adjust just how much care it provides indigent patients without a medical need, illegal aliens and those earning more than the federal poverty level received a mixed reaction from county officials who dispute some of its findings and say solutions are underway.

The county is already looking at how it allocates revenue to departments like the Health System, which may decrease the general fund subsidy needed to maintain the current level of service, County Manager David Boesch wrote in a response letter to the grand jury.

The state requires counties to provide care to the poor and uninsured but the guidelines are broad, particularly when it comes to the undocumented population. San Mateo County provides more than the minimum, leaving local funds to make up the difference and creating a larger eligibility pool. Approximately 76,000 patients were treated at least once during 2008 at either the San Mateo Medical Center or its clinics, according to data used in the jury’s report.

The ongoing economic downturn has skyrocketed health care demands, adding to the county’s indigent care rolls. Federal health care reform will expand coverage in 2014 and likely reduce the number of uninsured residents needed the county’s safety net. Until then, though, the grand jury in its June 24 report suggested the county goes above and beyond what is legally mandated. While nice, the extra help is ballooning the county’s structural deficit, the jury concluded. Specifically, the jury recommended the county, prior to the 2011-2012 budget cycle, eliminate those services not mandated or fully funded by the state or federal government, such as aid for undocumented people, treatment of indigent patients without a medical need and those services dropped by Medi-Cal coverage in 2009. The jury also recommended lowering the medically indigent income level from $44,100, which is 200 percent of the federal and state mandated level of $22,050.

Boesch wrote that the county partially agrees with the recommendations and is trying to work with state and federal legislators to maximize funding potential. The county is also identifying non-essential services and those that the county overmatches.

One example of efficiency efforts, according to Boesch, is the medical center’s reduction of the new primary care patient waiting list.

As of June 1, the waiting list was approximately 5,000. As of Aug. 2, efforts to reduce the waiting list have brought it down to 2,216 with an overall wait time of 113 days.

Another example is a two-year grant for the Seamless Care Initiative to increase efficiency in all the hospital’s clinics.

But while Boesch, on behalf of the county, accepted the recommendations, he did disagree with some of the jury’s findings. Although the jury knocked the county for having a medically indigent income level at 200 percent of the poverty level, Boesch argues that there are no specific statewide minimum or maximum levels. Each county sets its own eligibility criteria and San Mateo County must look at its “very high” local cost of living.

San Mateo County is also not among the 16 counties in California that offer medical care to those without a need, he said.

However, the Health Plan San Mateo — a separate entity from the county — determined it was less expensive to continue providing services cut by Medi-Cal to prevent more costly care in the future. For example, podiatry services now may spare a diabetic patient more expensive services at a later date.

Civil grand jury reports carry no legal weight but recipients are required to respond in writing within 60 days. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to accept the response at is Tuesday morning meeting.

The Board of Supervisors meets 9 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 14 in Board Chambers, 400 County Government Center, Redwood City.

Michelle Durand can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Grand Jury Suggests Changes for Tulare Co. Jail

By: Ashley Ritchie

The 2010 Tulare County Grand Jury report is pointing fingers at the Tulare County Jail.

"We're not perfect in any way. We do make mistakes. So if they find issues and we can correct them, we will correct them," Lieutenant Wayne White, Tulare County Sheriff's Department, said.

And that's exactly what White says the jail intends to do after the Grand Jury found three areas that need improvement including privacy for por per inmates, or inmates who represent themselves legally, adequate access to healthcare and allowing inmates to share jackets and possibly infect one another.

"We did not have an infestation of disease. But there were some health concerns that if there was lice or something a disease could be spread," White said.

The report claims sick inmates aren't treated soon enough and medications aren't monitored properly.

"We have addressed that and only a supervising sergeant can go into a medical room and release the meds," White said.

"It's really going to depend on health and human services agency and what type of doctors they may be able to have available to these inmates," Sergeant Chris Douglass, Tulare County Sheriff's Department, said.

Another complaint the jury made is inmates don't have enough privacy in the law library.

"Right now the issue is while they're on the telephone; if they speak too loudly people might be able to hear," Douglass said.

Jail officials say they're working to reconstruct the room and make it more private.

But it is tough to keep up with all the rights inmates have.

"It's a compliance issue for us, things that we have to provide and it's a variety of different things that range from phone calls and yard time and food and clothing and temperatures of foods and things of that nature," Douglass said.

And they say the criticism is constructive.

"It's actually a good way of checks and balances. If we are out of compliance we need to know about it," Douglass said.

Jail officials say one thing they're looking at is reaching out to the public to find specialized doctors so inmates can have better health care.

But county supervisors say it's not because they haven't tried, but because it's hard to find doctors willing to work with the inmate population.

Jail officials say there is an "inmate welfare fund" they use to pay for anything that benefits inmates.

But they did not use that money to pay for new sweatshirts.

Lake County Grand Jury oversees organizations

By Glenn Trumble
Updated: 09/10/2010 07:27:07 PM PDT

Why does Frank Rivero want civilian oversight of the sheriff's department?

We presently have a group of 19 concerned citizens who literally volunteer their time and effort in overseeing the various groups, departments and organizations that serve Lake County and its residents.

This group investigates the sheriff's department, county jail, juvenile detention center, Lakeport police, Clearlake police, all the county's fire departments, the water departments throughout the county, Cache Creek dam, the senior centers, as well as all county human service departments.

This group keeps records of oversights from year-to-year so a malpractice is not apt to continue in any department investigated. There is always a follow-up investigation.

This group takes confidential complaints from concerned citizens as well as public employees that witness acts of malfeasance and misbehavior or suspect the same.

This group is known as The Lake County Civil Grand Jury.

Frank Rivero's implication is that the grand jury is not doing its job.

The yearly Grand Jury reports are on file. Take a look and you will see a very diligent investigative group, not one that's looking to white-wash any explicit facts.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Board, officials respond to Siskiyou County Grand Jury

By David Smith
GateHouse News Service
Posted Sep 10, 2010 @ 09:29 AM
Yreka, Calif. —

With reports from the Grand Jury comes the responsibility for government entities to respond to the findings and recommendations, which the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors undertook at its recent meeting.
The board of supervisors, the county administrative officer (CAO) and the Department of Public Health and Community Development were all responsible for providing responses, with Grand Jury findings ranging from inadequacy of mental health patient procedures to county expenditures exceeding revenues.
5150/Mental Health Stabilization facility
The board concurred with the Grand Jury that there should be meetings held to establish a stronger collaboration between agencies handling 5150 cases. 5150 refers to the involuntary confinement of an individual suspected of having a mental disorder who may present a danger to others or to him/herself.
The Grand Jury also suggested that the county explore ways to fund and manage a facility for 5150 and detoxification purposes. The board, in responding, stated that other counties’ programs have been explored, but that the “population requiring detoxification/stabilization is too small to justify a dedicated (private or public) facility” in Siskiyou County.
The board also states that the county is not financially capable of building or staffing a specialized facility of the type described.
Probation offices in
different buildings
The board also states that financial restrictions are keeping the county from finishing the juvenile correctional facility in order to consolidate probation offices, which the Grand Jury recommend be done to cut down on ineffeciency and costs.
Jail overcrowding and housing control protection
The Grand Jury recommended that the board approve financial support for programs that decrease the number of repeat offenders as well as fund the construction of a protection measure for the housing control center. Again, the board cites a lack of funds as the reason for not fully pursuing the recommendations, although it is noted that two supervisors sit on the Jail Re-entry Committee and the sheriff has been apprised of grant opportunities.
County executive authority and responsibility for issues
“There is no single executive line of authority in Siskiyou County,” the Grand Jury report reads, with a recommendation that the board establish “clear, expert executive lines of authority under the policy direction and control of the Board of Supervisors.”
The lines of authority already exist, according to the board, which in its response states that it is responsible for approval of an annual budget and the establishment of local law and policy. There are also a number of elected officials who are accountable to the public and are not under control of the board.
CAO Brian McDermott concurred, stating that he is not aware of any system where a board of supervisors or CAO has the capacity to remove elected officials.
The findings of the Grand Jury with respect to executive authority center on the issue of the Tennant water system project, which was an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act-funded project to bring a water facility to the community of Tennant. The project was dropped when environmental and procedural issues arose.
With Auditor-Controller Leanna Dancer retiring from her post after the Tennant issue, the Grand Jury alleged in its report that county officers and administrators tried to “use the Grand Jury as a buffer when blame for the failures should be directed at them individually.”
The board states that because Dancer was an elected official, letters about her conduct were sent directly to the Grand Jury, the representative of the electors.
Expenditures exceeding revenues
The board concurred with the Grand Jury’s finding, stating that staffing levels have been reduced and departments have been combined, along with the hiring of consultants to review workflow.
Office of Emergency Services
The Grand Jury reported that it found deficiencies with the inventory and security systems in the OES warehouse, as well as the response efficiency of having one person in control of all aspects of the inventory process.
In response, Director of Public Health and Community Development Terry Barber and Deputy Director of OES Rob Rowley explained that inventory control and security measures have either been implemented or are planned.
“Emergency supplies, equipment storage and distribution appear to be a one-person operation that may be critically vulnerable during an emergency,” the Grand Jury report reads.
Barber and Rowley disagreed in their response, however, citing past instances where emergency response demanded access to OES inventory and the demands were met, also explaining that various county officials are trained in and have access to use of the inventory in the event of an emergency.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

AG says Mendocino County grand jury can get opinion through the county

Ukiah Daily Journal Staff
Updated: 09/06/2010 05:45:30 AM PDT

While the California Attorney General's office says it cannot help the Mendocino County Grand Jury directly with a legal opinion about whether or not DA Meredith Lintott has the option of taking no action on their demand to get Supervisor Kendall Smith to repay travel funds, there are other ways to get an opinion out of them.

That's according to Susan Duncan Lee of the AG's office in San Francisco who says all the grand jury needs to do is ask the Mendocino County Counsel's office to ask the same question, then the AG's office would provide an opinion.

The subject came up when the 2009-2010 grand jury asked the attorney general for a legal opinion when they used their legal authority to demand that the county District Attorney get some $3,000 back from Smith, money the county says she owes in ineligible travel claims she was overpaid.

At the time, DA Meredith Lintott said she had the discretion under the law not to do that. The grand jury wanted to know if she actually had that discretion.

In the meantime, last month Lintott suddenly issued an order to the county Auditor Meredith Ford to start withdrawing payments from Smith's supervisors paychecks until the amount is paid. Ford asked County Counsel Jeanine Nadel for a legal opinion on Lintott's order and Nadel recused herself from giving an opinion and asked the Sonoma County Counsel to weigh in. That opinion is expected sometime this week.

San Benito County Civil grand jury sees benefits in public safety mergers

10:32 AM
By Connor Ramey

Soon, the Hollister Police Department and the San Benito County Sheriff's Office might find themselves under the same title and building - at least the San Benito County Grand Jury hopes so.

To help save both the county and city money but still provide residents the most resources available, the grand jury recommended that the city council and board of supervisors look at the consolidation of the sheriff's office and the police department as well as the fire departments in the area partnering up and contracting out with Calfire.

"I think the reason we took this on was because the budgets are so tight right now and we thought it was the responsible thing to do," Grand Jury Foreman Patrick McKenzie said. "It is a no-brainer issue when you have two separate departments doing the same thing."

The grand jury decided to spend time researching the issue because of the county's money troubles and the possible savings a consolidated police service could bring. The issue was raised earlier this year when the intergovernmental committee, consisting of two board of supervisor members, two city council members, the city manager and the county administrative officer, met and listened to a presentation from Mike Oliver of the benefits consolidation could bring. It also has been brought up quite a bit in the sheriff's race on the November ballot.

The belief is that it would save money and possibly provide more police service.

"Properly deployed, a regional police force could provide the two communities and outlying county areas with more service and protection than they presently enjoy," according to the Grand Jury's report.

Also, McKenzie thinks that it would prevent duplication in enforcement from the two agencies.

But there are still questions that the county and city would need to answer, according to the report. Most important, who would head the new organization and what would be cut? The sheriff is an elected official and the police chief is an appointed one, and both departments employ a total of more than 40 officers or deputies.

The report states that the public should vote for consolidation of the departments. The sheriff's office could move into the current Hollister police building because of its size - saving the county millions of dollars that it plans to use in construction of a new facility.

But Sheriff Curtis Hill doesn't see consolidation coming anytime soon because getting rid of the police department is not in the city council's "heart," he said.

"I've been in this business for a long time and personally, I don't think it will happen," Hill said. 'It's a tough decision for the city."

There is no benefit to the city or the county and it would only cause more issues for the understaffed sheriff's office, he said.

"As for the sheriff's office we have so many other responsibilities (than the police department)," Hill said. "There is a different need."

Hill noted that the police department deals with city enforcement and the sheriff's office handles the unincorporated areas.

"I'm just too seasoned and I have been around too long to get excited about it," Hill said.

The police department wouldn't make a statement until it issues its official response to the Grand Jury, spokesman Sgt. David Westrick said. After the Grand Jury Report was released on July 1, the police department must issue a response within 90 days.

Police service was not the only consolidation issue handled by the grand jury Report.

The grand jury also recommended that the fire departments within the county, including Hollister Fire Department and San Benito Fire, enter into a Joint Powers Agreement with Calfire because the fire departments are minimally staffed.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Meg Whitman's plan to reduce fraud and abuse

Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, September 6, 2010
Meg Whitman wants to create a grand jury to investigate a... Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has long advocated attacking w... Jerry Brown is skeptical of a new bureaucracy.

Meg Whitman has done her best to distance herself from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, succeeding so well that her fellow Republican has declined to endorse a candidate in the governor's race. But they agree on at least one thing - California can dig itself out of its budget hole by cracking down on waste, fraud and abuse in state spending.

Whitman's latest proposal, aired in radio and television ads, is to establish a statewide grand jury, directed from the governor's office, that would investigate and indict those who have fleeced the state treasury of untold billions.

"A key factor accounting for the massive overspending and continuing budget deficits is state government's failure to police itself well," Whitman says on her website. A statewide grand jury, she declares, would supply the "real enforcement mechanism" now lacking in state agencies and county grand juries.

The new law she proposes would install an auditor in her Cabinet who would review state reports and citizen complaints, order investigations into misuse of funds - by state employees, contractors or recipients of benefits - and decide whether a criminal probe was justified.

Issuing indictments

The governor would then summon a California-wide grand jury that could subpoena witnesses and issue indictments. The charges would be turned over to a local district attorney or the attorney general for prosecution.

A fundamental unknown is whether a statewide grand jury would improve the oversight of programs already scrutinized by state investigators and auditors, the attorney general's anti-fraud unit and 58 county grand juries.

"What would it address that can't be addressed under the current system?" asked Scott Thorpe, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association.

He noted that the auditor and grand jury overseer would be California's "only prosecuting authority that wasn't elected by the people," in contrast to the attorney general and county district attorneys.
'A certain naivete'

"I think it's a ridiculous idea. It shows a certain naivete about how government works," said John Van de Kamp, a Democrat who served six years as Los Angeles County district attorney and eight years as attorney general.

The way to attack fraud and wasteful spending, he said, is to beef up investigative staffs that refer criminal cases to the attorney general or local prosecutors under the current system - not to set up a new mechanism to bypass that system.

Whitman spokesman Darrel Ng replied that the persistence of fraud shows that "the current system doesn't work" and that it's time to try something new.

Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco said a state grand jury would have a broader perspective than local prosecutors and would tackle cases that are slipping through the system.

"There is fraud on a statewide level," said Pacheco, a former Republican assemblyman. "People are not concentrating on it, and there is no mechanism to handle it."

In fact, there are anti-fraud mechanisms in state government, though none with the all-encompassing scope that Whitman envisions for a statewide grand jury.

For example, the Department of Health Care Services reviews complaints of Medi-Cal abuses and refers suspected fraud cases to a unit of the attorney general's office. The attorney general can sue or file charges against doctors, hospitals and other providers, convene a county grand jury or refer cases to local prosecutors.

The attorney general's office filed 165 criminal charges against Medi-Cal providers last year, the most in the 32-year history of the fraud unit, and recovered more than $200 million from providers in a recent 12-month period, said Mark Zeiger, the unit chief.

Whitman's campaign is unimpressed. It cites a report by the California Taxpayers Association, a business-funded nonprofit, asserting that state government has wasted $18.9 billion since 2000.
Hard to verify

The figure is hard to verify - it includes, for example, the entire $1.25 billion cost of a state education program that failed to improve test scores, and media reports alleging large-scale fraud in welfare, Medi-Cal and workers' compensation. It also includes such well-documented examples as the $3.4 billion cost overrun on the Bay Bridge eastern span reconstruction that a state audit disclosed in 2004.

It's not clear which of these expenditures would be reined in by a state grand jury. But David Kline, spokesman for the taxpayers association, said he thinks a statewide panel of concerned residents might be "more vigilant than government officials" at policing abuses.

Whitman, who has separately proposed eliminating 40,000 state jobs, insists a statewide grand jury could use existing staff without increasing spending. Her Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jerry Brown, derides that position.

This is "a proposal to root out government waste by creating a new government bureaucracy," said Brown's campaign spokesman, Sterling Clifford.

Brown hasn't spelled out his plan for erasing the $19 billion state deficit, saying only that he would bring all sides together and wouldn't raise taxes without voter approval. Clifford said details will emerge as the campaign unfolds.

Schwarzenegger has maintained since taking office in 2003 that increased attention to waste and fraud would ease the state's budget problems, though he has never endorsed a statewide grand jury.

His prime target has been in-home support services, the rapidly growing program of domestic care for the low-income elderly and disabled.

Declaring that the program suffers from a fraud level as high as 25 percent - a figure also cited by Ng, Whitman's spokesman - Schwarzenegger has imposed new background checks and fingerprint requirements for caregivers and has tried to cut workers' pay and reduce or eliminate services for nearly a third of their clients.

Courts have blocked the wage and service cuts, and a state audit of 24,000 in-home care cases in 2007 found potentially fraudulent overpayments in only 1 percent of them.
More audits

Undaunted, the governor has called for more audits, and is urging the Legislature to approve funding to fingerprint the program's 420,000 recipients.

Schwarzenegger's spokesman, Aaron McLear, says the governor has had "tremendous success" in curbing waste and fraud by increasing access to state records, appointing an inspector general and tightening welfare standards.

Brown, and advocates for workers and recipients of benefits, say Schwarzenegger was never able to document his claims of widespread overspending and fraud in state services.

At last month's state Republican convention, however, Whitman made the same assertions. She said fraud is costing California $8 billion to $10 billion because the state lacks the technology that was her bread and butter as eBay's CEO.

"We're going to put in great systems, we're going to find that waste, fraud and abuse, we're going to convene a grand jury," the candidate said. "And if you rip off the taxpayers of California, we're going to send you to jail."

Chronicle staff writer Joe Garofoli contributed to this report.

E-mail Bob Egelko at

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Port of SLO Harbor commissioners balk at grand jury


Commissioners for the Port San Luis Harbor District fired back at a county civil grand jury report that criticized the district on a number of issues ranging from boat-launch access to conflicts of interest.

The grand jury report, titled “Port San Luis: A Tarnished Jewel,” took aim at the sanding in of a floating dock and mobile hoist pier with water levels often insufficient to float a vessel; an alleged lack of competitive bidding policy for businesses; failure to promote a space used for private events; rudimentary financial records; and potential conflicts of interest in commission votes regarding the San Luis Obispo Yacht Club.

At least one of the commissioners is a member of the yacht club, the grand jury reported.

The commission hasn’t responded to the conflict-of-interest allegations, but Harbormaster Steve McGrath said the commission will discuss the issue at its next meeting.

Commissioners admitted that the report got some things right, such as the need to promote the event space, but contend that other findings were narrow in scope or completely incorrect.

“The district takes exception to the title of the 2010 report, which belies the content of the report itself,” the commission wrote in a letter to the grand jury. “The report belittles the progress made in the last few years in repair and maintenance of the district’s facilities, the openness and accessibility to district records and governance, the enhancements for public access and recreation, and the stabilization of district finances through significant increases in enterprise revenues.”

McGrath told New Times he especially took issue with the claim that the district lacks competitive bidding policies, which he said isn’t accurate. Furthermore, he said, the grand jury focused on revenue the district loses when the sports launch is sanded in, but overlooked the 22 percent jump in overall district revenue—or roughly a quarter-million dollars—over the past three years.

“The content of the report is not what I see on the ground, and the title of the report certainly did not seem to be backed up by the content,” McGrath said. “The commission believes the district is moving in the right direction, and we stand by the statement that we’re better this year than the last, and we’ll be even better next year.”

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Animal Official's Dismissal Causes Stir

Employees Protest Firing of Head of Sonoma County Agency; Troubled Department Has Had Three Directors Since 2006


SANTA ROSA — Sonoma County's animal care and control department is in an uproar over the sudden dismissal of its director, the latest flap for an agency that has an outsize importance in a heavily rural area.

The ruckus began in July when director Amy Cooper was fired. Her supervisor, county agricultural commissioner Cathy Neville, called it a "personnel issue" but said she couldn't elaborate because of labor laws.

Ms. Cooper's dismissal surprised some colleagues and others who worked with the agency on animal-welfare issues. County supervisors have credited Ms. Cooper with turning around a troubled department. During her yearlong tenure, animal-care employees said she lowered the county's euthanasia rate and improved relationships with local animal-welfare groups, such as the Sonoma Humane Society.

In the wake of the firing, Ms. Cooper's former employees protested, partly by taking out a half-page newspaper ad starring a dejected-looking dog. In addition, 28 of the department's 32 employees signed a letter to county supervisors demanding Ms. Cooper's reinstatement.

"We were headed to the Super Bowl, and then our quarterback was let go," said Bob Garcia, a 35-year veteran of the department who is temporarily managing the agency until Ms. Cooper is replaced.

Ms. Cooper, through her attorney Jeremy Fietz, declined to comment. Mr. Fietz said Ms. Cooper was given no explanation for the dismissal, which he said shocked her because she had received only positive feedback.

Ms. Neville declined to comment on why she discharged Ms. Cooper. Ms. Cooper was let go two days before the end of her probationary period, during which she could be sacked at any time for any reason.

Mr. Garcia and Cathy Fenn, the animal shelter's manager, said Ms. Neville told them that she wanted Ms. Cooper to do more outreach and fund-raising.

Ms. Neville said she never said that to Mr. Garcia and Ms. Fenn. She added that Ms. Cooper was "great" with outreach and had started a donation program.

The flap has broad implications for Sonoma County. While animal-care units in urban areas such as San Francisco are mostly identified with controlling cat and dog populations, the Sonoma department also has to deal with the largely agricultural county's large population of livestock and other animals.

"You're dealing with the issues of people's pets, and you're dealing with the animals that impact agriculture," said Jim Leddy, Sonoma's community- and governmental-affairs manager.

Sonoma County's animal care and control agency has battled negative publicity in the past decade, during which it was subject to two grand-jury investigations. The first came in 2004, after a shelter employee adopted an emu, killed it and planned to serve it at a staff barbecue. That investigation resulted in a report recommending that the department hire more staffers and give better training to employees.

In 2006, the animal shelter had to rescind a pit-bull puppy euthanasia policy after local animal groups complained. A grand jury last year also investigated complaints about the department, but determined it was doing a commendable job overall. The grand-jury report recommended the agency add a full-time dispatcher at the center and stop using inmate labor at the shelter, among other things. Shelter officials they have been addressing those issues.

Ms. Cooper, 49 years old, was the agency's third non-interim director since 2006. The Novato resident served as director of an Idaho animal shelter before Ms. Neville hired her last summer.

Once at the agency, employees said, Ms. Cooper reduced the county's euthanasia rate from 43% to 28%, secured donations to build new livestock housing and a dog park, started a newsletter called "Paw Prints," and boosted staff morale. Mr. Garcia called her the "best director" the shelter has ever had.

But some residents still had concerns. "There was still a ways to go" for the agency, said RJ Kamprath, an animal-welfare activist and local gadfly. The 68-year-old Santa Rosa resident said she met with Ms. Cooper four times during her tenure. Ms. Kamprath said she liked Ms. Cooper, but was concerned that she didn't follow up on her own proposal to use the county's spay-and-neuter van to reach outlying, low-income areas. Ms. Kamprath also said it was difficult to obtain information to support the department's statistics.

Mr. Fietz, Ms. Cooper's attorney, said that "given the state of the animal care and control department when Amy was hired," those criticisms "are extraordinarily minor."

On July 12, Ms. Cooper was dismissed. Mr. Fietz said his client isn't seeking to sue the county at this time but remains mystified by her exit. "Her job performance was exemplary," he said.

Department employees quickly reacted, running an ad in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat last month calling for Ms. Cooper's reinstatement.

The chairwoman of Sonoma County's board of supervisors, Valerie Brown, said she and her fellow supervisors also were "not happy" that they were blindsided by the dismissal. Ms. Brown had praised Ms. Cooper's work at an April board meeting and said the supervisors thought the director was doing a superb job.

Still, Ms. Brown said it is unlikely the board would overrule Ms. Neville and reinstate Ms. Cooper because it would set a bad precedent.

In addition, leaders of the agricultural community have praised Ms. Neville for her work as agricultural commissioner.

"She's done a really excellent job trying to connect with the growers," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, a nonprofit marketing group.

Later this month, county supervisors will consider putting animal care under the direction of another agency, such as the sheriff's department, or making it a stand-alone department.

Mr. Fietz said he has had preliminary discussions with county officials about the possibility of Ms. Cooper's return if the animal-care department were moved out of the agricultural commissioner's office.