Monday, January 31, 2011

Grand jury continues interviews with city officials

Comments 22
January 29, 2011 2:00 PM
Brooke Edwards

VICTORVILLE • Two more city officials will be questioned by the grand jury this week, as the county’s citizen investigative group continues its nearly two-year investigation into Victorville’s finances and government practices.

Former councilwoman JoAnn Almond said the grand jury asked her to go to San Bernardino on Monday for questioning, anticipating she’ll be sworn to secrecy regarding the content of the interview as officials have been in the past.

New Councilwoman Angela Valles will also be speaking with the grand jury this week, with concerns over potential violations of the state’s open meetings laws.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ryan McEachron is calling for a rapid close to the lengthy investigation, with the city anxious to get out from under the cloud it’s cast on Victorville’s reputation.

“The document requests have slowed considerably at this time,” Deputy City Manager Doug Robertson said via e-mail. “We are hopeful that this is a sign that they are nearing completion.”

Every member of the former Victorville City Council and many upper-level city staffers have been pulled in for questioning since the investigation began in April 2009. And New York-based forensic auditor Kessler International has taken up its own office at City Hall, with several Victorville employees dedicating most of their time to responding to the firm’s records requests.

McEachron called for that audit in December 2009, hoping to put to rest persistent claims of hand-shake contracts, verbal agreements and other forms of malfeasance that had plagued the city since he joined the council the year before. He asked the grand jury to oversee the audit, to ensure the results would be viewed as independent and to help the cash-strapped city fund the pricey process.

In May 2010, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approved a rare move to fund an extra $195,000 to hire Kessler International. And that summer was the first time the grand jury has ever held over citizen members from a previous year to continue the investigation.

McEachron said he recently asked to meet with the grand jury, to express his concerns at how long the audit was taking and the fact that Kessler’s firm had requested documents related to his original concerns just a few weeks ago.

The mayor said he wasn’t given any specific estimate for when the investigation will wrap up, with the probe having expanded far beyond his original request.

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Brooke Edwards may be reached at (760) 955-5358 or at

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Marin Voice: The time has come for governments to consolidate

By Len Rifkind
Guest op-ed column
Posted: 01/18/2011 02:34:00 AM PST

ACCORDING to a Marin County Civil Grand Jury Report, there are 130 governmental entities in Marin that operate at a cost of $5,422 for each and every resident of our county.

"The Marin County 130" consists of the county government, its Planning Commission, and 57 county advisory boards, 11 municipalities, 19 school districts, one community college district, 33 special districts and seven special-purpose districts.

The challenge now becomes which services are residents willing to pay for and can those services be delivered with equal or greater levels of service for less cost than the present fractured arrangement.

All locally elected officials recognize a new paradigm is required to reorganize the delivery of governmental services in a time of economic challenge that will likely last a decade.

The primary obstruction to making local government more efficient is, of course, the sacred cow of "local control." While I am not advocating a single county-wide local government of all services, I am strongly urging a consolidation of overlapping and duplicative services.

The exact number consolidated is not important, but rather achieving operational efficiency that remains responsive to local concerns.

For example, each of the 11 municipalities in Marin has a finance department, providing bookkeeping and accounting functions similarly subject to the same legal requirements. Why not have a single municipal accounting department staffed with top-flight people whose cost is shared equitably by the 11 municipalities?

Law enforcement and fire protection also present significant opportunities for savings. Consolidation can actually provide residents with better-trained, more-experienced responders who have the opportunity to specialize.

Larkspur and Corte Madera have operated as a consolidated police authority since 1980, and it is a model of success.

Here's how to begin the consolidation process:

• First, elected or appointed officials of the "Marin County 130" need to direct that appropriate operational and fiscal audits are conducted with the idea that maintaining or enhancing services to residents is paramount, not slavish adherence to often times arbitrary local geographic boundaries.

Such shared audit efforts are already occurring, for example, with the Marin County Council of Mayors and City Councilmembers Ad Hoc Committee on Pension and Other Post Employment Benefits Reform, whose purpose is determine through independent third-party analysis the amounts of each municipality's unfunded pension liabilities.

Certainly unfunded pension liabilities nationwide and in Marin threaten to swamp the ability of governmental entities in the near future to function and to maintain services.

• Second, once viable areas of service consolidation are identified, elected officials must achieve consensus on how to implement audit recommendations with the focus remaining on maintaining services. This is when the true test of leadership will occur as there will be tremendous political pressure to maintain the status quo of our present fiefdoms.

Again, I do not advocate a single, large, one-size-fits-all solution, but rather for strategic implementation of consolidation of services where it makes the most fiscal and operational sense.

For example, I think residents are more passionate about preserving local planning control but perhaps not so much about administration, public works, building and recreation departments. For actual consolidation of entities, first responders and school districts present substantial opportunities.

Unfortunately, there is really a short window to proceed before residents will experience a significant drop-off in services that will reduce our collective quality of life. Municipal bankruptcies are on the rise nationwide, as recently occurred in Vallejo. We can expect little or no assistance from the state.

If we want to maintain the level of services to which we in Marin are accustomed, then we need to get to work right now to reorganize our 130 governmental agencies into a more efficient form. Residents of Marin deserve no less.

Larkspur City Councilman Len Rifkind is a lawyer with a practice in Marin.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fresno Co. grand jury issues annual report

By Paula Lloyd / The Fresno Bee

The Fresno County grand jury Tuesday issued its annual report, a compilation of 12 separate investigations into a variety of issues -- from the city of Fresno's handling of the Metropolitan Museum and Granite Park to noise complaints in Parlier.
Separate reports on the 12 investigations were released throughout the past year, but the annual report includes responses on each report from government officials, some being made public for the first time.

One of the reports studied switching law-enforcement protection of county islands from the county sheriff to Fresno police.
The grand jury's report recommends the city and county split the cost of a study by an independent third party to see whether the county would save money by contracting with the city to police county islands.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said she was disappointed that the grand jury did not talk to county island residents about the issue. About 43,000 people live on approximately 5,700 acres of county land within Fresno city limits.

"What this report does not take into account is the will of those residents living in the county islands," Mims wrote. "The overwhelming message I hear from my constituency is that they are not interested in having their police services provided by ... Fresno Police."

Fresno County Supervisor Judy Case -- who was chairwoman when the board's response was written in September -- said "a significant majority" of county island residents want sheriff's deputies to patrol their neighborhoods.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Mims and Case disagreed with the grand jury finding that county island policing has been discussed very little by city and county officials, saying the issue has come up many times in joint meetings.

The issue remains unresolved, but a final decision needs to be reached, Mims said. "This discussion needs to play out for the last time."

Other topics in the 2009-10 report cover the Claremont Custody Center, the Pleasant Valley State Prison, an investigation of a suicide by the Fresno County sheriff's and coroners offices, the Fresno County employees retirement plan, the county's mental health board, the fire protection district and the BMX park in Orange Cove and the Caruthers Unified School District.


Read more:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Imperial Beach considers banning pot dispensaries

TUESDAY, JANUARY 18, 2011 AT 9:36 A.M.

IMPERIAL BEACH — Imperial Beach is considering adopting a permanent ban on medical marijuana dispensaries.

The San Diego County Grand Jury recommended in June that the city allow dispensaries, and the council looked at a range of options. Among them: Limiting the areas they could operate; placing restrictions on them; or banning them outright. A citywide moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries is due to expire this summer.

After Community Development Director Greg Wade cited evidence at a Dec. 15 meeting that crime significantly increases near medical marijuana facilities in other cities, council members said they were “alarmed” and “distressed” over the possibility of dispensaries here.

The staff report cited a 200 percent increase in robberies near dispensaries in Los Angeles.
At least one group, the Imperial Beach Americans for Safe Access, has been actively lobbying against a ban. Medical marijuana advocate Eugene Davidovich said such a move would be “illegal, irrational and an outrage.”

There are no dispensaries in the city, but two are located just outside city limits within a mile of most Imperial Beach residents.

“Any kind of ban on these types of facilities would not ... deny medical marijuana to those who need to obtain it,” Wade said.

City officials worry about the cost of dealing with additional public safety concerns and regulation.

“When you think about just the cost alone of regulating them, I believe our city budget cannot bear the brunt of that,” Councilwoman Lorie Bragg said.

Complicating the matter, state law prohibits dispensaries from being within 500 feet of a residential area, park, school or church, which virtually eliminates every part of the city.

“Deciding what to do on this is a tough one too; you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t as far as litigation goes,” Bragg said. “I would be in favor of a total ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in our community.”

Bragg was joined by Councilman Ed Spriggs in support of a complete ban. Councilman Brian P. Bilbray said while the dispensaries are an undesirable venue “much like an adult bookstore,” he favors zoning for one dispensary in the city to avoid litigation.

Spriggs said allowing dispensaries would be reversing course on strides the city has made in “establishing itself as a wonderful family-oriented beach community.”

Councilman Jim King along with Mayor Jim Janney said they both originally supported the voter-approved measure allowing the city to regulate dispensaries, but have since changed their mind and now want to ban them.

A 1996 voter-approved measure permitted the distribution of marijuana for medicinal purposes in California. Any ban would require a 45 day pubic review process — something city officials hope to complete before the moratorium expires Aug. 18.

(The Grand Jury report may be found here) • (619) 293-1743 • On Twitter @WendyFry.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Calaveras County Grand jury blasts fire department

The Calaveras County grand jury wasn’t slated to issue a report on the Jenny Lind Fire Protection District until this summer, but news stories on the district’s turmoil and complaints from residents led the investigative body to launch an early investigation – and what it discovered doesn’t look good for the fire district.

The investigation led to five findings against the district, including inadequate training for volunteers, staff and command staff; Brown Act violations by the district’s board of directors; and that a hostile work environment exists.

“When they gave us the grand jury report, they told us that this is the first time they’ve ever given an interim report,” said district Director Dennis Petersen. “They saw problems that needed to be fixed right away.”
The district has been embroiled in controversy for months, with firefighters alleging a variety of transgressions on the part of command staff and community members storming board meetings to issue their complaints about conduct from command staff as well as the board itself.

The report stated that staff interviews revealed allegations of physical altercations, sexual harassment and discrimination that had not been properly documented, and recommended that the district adopt a zero-tolerance policy for such offenses, reporting them to law enforcement immediately.

The recommendation added that the entire staff, from volunteers to directors, should receive formal training by an outside consultant on appropriate workplace conduct and enforce and document mandatory training schedules.

On that charge, the district had begun to take positive steps on its own, Petersen said. The board recently hired Crabtree Consulting, a human resources firm, with the goal of conducting trainings and revising district policy.

Petersen added that the firm’s consultant is reviewing the district’s policies and procedures, and will make recommendations for revisions. Updates to the policy and procedures manual were also recommended in the report.

The district is also in the process of appointing a new chief – Interim Chief Steve Buettner has rejected the job on a permanent basis due to his position as a San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputy. Petersen said the committee formed to help select the new chief hoped to have three candidates for the board to interview in time for its February meeting.

Former chief Brian Chavez-Ochoa resigned this summer. The move came just days after a letter of no confidence in him and Battalion Chief Scott Mullen, signed by 11 of the district’s 22 firefighters, was submitted to the board, although Chavez-Ochoa denied any correlation.

He cited the board’s allowance of the letter as an agenda item without proper notice, which he said was a Brown Act violation, as his reason for leaving.

“I will not be a party to what I perceive to be a violation of the law,” Chavez-Ochoa said at the time.

According to the grand jury report, the board has been guilty of Brown Act violations on other occasions.

“Attendance by the grand jury at JLFPD Board meetings revealed unstructured, chaotic shouting matches involving board members, staff and the public. There were Brown Act violations and little adherence to any formal rules of order,” the report reads.

The grand jury recommended that directors be given training in and strictly adhere to the Brown Act, as well as adopt Robert’s Rules of Order for its meetings and conduct them in “an organized, transparent and impartial fashion.”

Petersen acknowledged that the board’s relationship to district residents firefighters had, over the last several chaotic board meetings, become strained.
“I’m hoping that with the grand jury report and hiring a new chief, we’ll be able to build those relationships and get back to the business of fighting fires.”

The report concluded with the finding that there was a public perception that the Jenny Lind firehouse was “no longer a community meeting place where members of the taxpaying public are welcome,” even at board meetings.

The board has been more hesitant to allow events to be held at the firehouse, citing insurance concerns, which has been a sharp point of contention with many neighbors who feel a sense of ownership of the building.

The report had no recommendation on community events in the firehouse, but urged the board to encourage other kinds of community participation, like firehouse tours or fire safety demonstrations. It also suggested that board agendas could be more accessible to the public by posting a large, easily visible sign in front of the station to display meeting times and last-minute changes.

To read the full report, click here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

2010 grand jury report: Jurors call for local trauma center

Report recommends 'trauma director,' in-county center for serious injuries
Herald Salinas Bureau
Posted: 01/11/2011 01:43:10 AM PST
Updated: 01/11/2011 08:33:18 AM PST

For the second year in a row, Monterey County is overdue in establishing its own regional trauma center, according to the county's 2010 civil grand jury report released Monday.

The makeup of the 14-member grand jury was heavily Peninsula-centric, with one member residing in Salinas, one in Gonzales and one in Royal Oaks.

The randomly selected jury received more than 40 complaints — more than half of those coming from the county's prisons and jails. Many were outside the group's jurisdiction, the report said.

"The issues we investigated are those we felt impacted our community as well as those where we felt our efforts may make a difference in the future," the jury's forewoman, Lisa L. Hyman, wrote in her introduction to the report.

But the last grand jury's recommendation to explore opening a trauma center in a county hospital was underscored in this year's report, which urged the county to appoint a "trauma director."

Currently, all Monterey County patients who qualify as major trauma victims are taken to out-of-county centers by helicopter, usually in San Jose or Fresno, at no cost to the county.

CalStar, which provides the medical helicopter service, is a nonprofit with a charitable mission to provide care to low-income patients, and it writes off 60percent of its charges, according to the grand jury's report.

Those costs are made up in insurance premiums and by patients with financial means, the report said.

Medicare only pays "33cents on the dollar," it said.

"Monterey County residents cannot be sure that they will continue to receive the same high-quality level of service they currently receive today," the report said.

Although it did not say that CalStar is struggling financially, the report recommended the county explore "alternative forms of funding" to help cover costs for patients who can't afford to pay.

Of course, helicopter flights aren't the only cost associated with trauma care.

In late 2005, The Herald found that the tab started at $250,000 for a patient "life-flighted" to a San Jose trauma center who underwent surgery and was kept in an intensive care unit for several days.

Regardless of cost, the grand jury found that "people receive better care and have better outcomes from trauma if there is a dedicated trauma center located near where they are injured."

The report summarized the current state of trauma care in the county:

Last year, CalStar flew 293 patients to San Jose or Fresno. About 40percent of the county's trauma patients are injured in car accidents. Assaults such as stabbings and shootings account for nearly 18percent. Salinas, the county's largest city, had the most cases, followed by cities on the Peninsula.

While a trauma center in either or both of these areas would provide "the most expedient care," helicopters would still be needed to transport patients from much of Monterey County's 3,325 square miles.

The grand jurors praised CalStar's professionalism and recommended that its current contract, dating from the early 1990s, be updated because it is "long overdue for review." No specifics on how the contract could be improved were included in the report.

As with last year's report, the 2010 recommendations did not explore or discuss the cost of establishing a trauma center, nor how it would be funded.

After the county's 2009 grand jury determined that Monterey County meets the requirements to have its own trauma center, the county Board of Supervisors responded by saying that the clinical and financial evaluation required "can only be conducted by a hospital that is interested in achieving trauma center designation." The board did not say if any local hospital was interested.

This year's report faulted the county's Emergency Medical Services Agency for not analyzing or reporting trauma data on a regular basis.

The 2010 grand jury recommended that the agency and county supervisors takes steps toward instituting a trauma center by appointing a county trauma director and updating the county's Trauma Care System Plan.

Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sacramento Grand Jury: Budget cuts eroding Public safety

Last Modified: Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011 - 1:42 pm

The Sacramento County grand jury has taken a snapshot of how budget cuts have hurt a wide-range of government programs - and it's not pretty.

Entitled "Sacramento County under Duress: Problems and Opportunities," the report released today highlights how public safety has been eroded through cuts to county and city programs. At the same time, the grand jury praised interim County Administrator Steve Szalay for coming up with a list of reforms to maximize dwindling resources.

Much of the report looks at law enforcement and social services, and concludes: "Public safety has been compromised and the safety net is in tatters." Some of the deepest cuts have happened in the county's Probation Department, Child Protective Services and the county jail, the report noted.

Some highlights:

• The Probation Department has lost almost 40 percent of its staff since 2008, leaving fewer people to supervise adult probationers and juvenile offenders. Only 4 percent of the county's 27,000 probationers are supervised by a probation officer, the report says. Only 20 percent of gang members and sex offenders receive attention from probation officers.

"County budget cuts have devastated the Probation Department. It cannot provide the basic services needed to protect the public," the report says.

• Staff cutbacks at Child Protective Services have meant the agency responds to fewer cases, ignoring "borderline" cases where an obvious risk isn't present. The grand jury, among others, has routinely taken the agency to task for failing to protect foster children.

• Cuts at the main county jail "have had a severe impact," the report says, with almost 140 positions eliminated in two years. People charged or convicted of a felony take up much of the space, leaving little room for those charged or convicted of a misdemeanor. Staffing shortages have led to morale problems and less time for inmates to be out of cells.

The grand jury also found similar impacts due to cuts to emergency dispatch, fire response and Sacramento city police.

Read more:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Grand jury targets binding arbitration for public employees

The Monterey County Herald
Posted: 01/10/2011 05:15:20 PM PST

Public agencies should not abandon their existing retirement programs under the state's Public Employment Retirement System, but should instead rein in practices that are creating severe fiscal issues for CalPers and local governments.

That was the recommendation of the Monterey County grand jury, which released its 122-page report Monday afternoon.

The grand jury suggests that cities and local agencies with public employees should abolish binding arbitration in labor matters, require public votes before retirement benefits are increased, stop offering "golden handshakes" to public employees and prevent the practice of "spiking" employee salaries late in their employment so that workers can receive better retirement benefits.

The grand jury also encouraged local officials to establish a trauma care hospital in Monterey County and to demand better financial review and public participation in efforts to build a desalination project that would create a new water source on the Monterey Peninsula.

For more on the grand jury's findings, see The Herald on Tuesday or go to

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Groups seek Orange County grand jury probe of Santa Ana

SANTA ANA – A coalition of community groups is demanding a grand-jury investigation into what its members describe as a pattern of abuse inside Santa Ana City Hall.

Those alleged abuses include a six-figure severance package given to the former city attorney and a half-million-dollar fee that the mayor expected for his work on a state land deal. The coalition plans to file a formal complaint with the Orange County grand jury by Thursday, listing those and other concerns.

That complaint will bear signatures from half a dozen mostly Latino organizations, headed by the longtime advocacy group Los Amigos. That group counts among its members Alfredo Amezcua, one of the chief political rivals of Mayor Miguel Pulido.

Amezcua, who lost a bid to unseat Pulido last fall, referred questions to other members of the coalition. They said politics played no role in their decision to take their concerns to the grand jury.

"This is not about politics," said Francisco Barragán, commander of the United Mexican-American Veterans Association, one of the coalition's groups. "It's about getting the facts, and moving forward from the facts."

Pulido was not in City Hall on Wednesday and could not immediately be reached for comment. In a prepared statement, City Manager David Ream said: “The city is sensitive to the public’s need for a transparent government. As such, the City Council has always strived to be inclusive and to meet the highest standards of disclosure as required in both local and state laws.”

The community groups' complaint lists four areas of concern, many drawn from news coverage of the past several months:

•The City Council recently approved a severance deal with former City Attorney Joseph Fletcher for more than $330,000, including cashed-out vacation and sick days. Neither Fletcher nor council members have spoken in any detail about the circumstances of his resignation last month, but his contract guarantees him a severance only if the council fires him.

•Pulido has said he expected to receive a "success fee" worth as much as $500,000 for helping bring together investors for a state land deal. The companies involved in that deal, however, have refuted that, saying Pulido was never in line for any money.

•Police Chief Paul Walters recorded an automated "robocall" in the days before the November election challenging Amezcua's campaign claim that he had the support of a member of Congress. Walters said he recorded the call on his off-hours, at home, and only after checking with the city attorney, the city manager and his own personal attorney.

•Five council members received campaign money from developers and real-estate brokers involved in a major redevelopment project. Two of the council members subsequently cast votes on that project; both have said they were not aware that they may have had a conflict of interest, and have returned the money.

"It becomes a pattern of repeated abuses," said Barragán, who helped organize the coalition and led a press conference on Wednesday morning announcing the grand-jury complaint. "What do they say? Where there's smoke, there's fire."

Mary Booker, an administrative assistant with the Orange County grand jury, said she could not speak in any detail about complaints it receives, all of which are considered confidential. The grand jury receives about 50 complaints a year, she said, and intends to "check into each and every one."

The coalition filing the complaint also includes the state League of United Latin American Citizens and its Santa Ana chapter, the Rudy Escalante chapter of the American GI Forum of the United States, MANA de Orange County and the Santa Ana Coalition for Better Government.

The coalition's lead group, Los Amigos, also demanded a grand-jury investigation of Pulido's business dealings last year, a request that Pulido described at the time as politically motivated.

Contact the writer: 714-704-3777 or

Judge may toss lawsuit over Mendocino supe's travel expenses

Mendocino Supervisor Kendall Smith spent $3,067 on hotel rooms in 2005


Published: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 1:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 7:54 p.m.

A lawsuit aimed at forcing a Mendocino County supervisor to repay $3,087 in travel expenses appeared unlikely to be upheld following a hearing in small claims court Wednesday night.

Mendocino County Superior Court Judge John Behnke took the issue under submission but said he was inclined to dismiss the case brought against Supervisor Kendall Smith by Anderson Valley Advertiser publisher Bruce Anderson.

Anderson, as have three grand juries, said Smith wrongfully claimed mileage between her Fort Bragg home and Ukiah when she actually spent nights in Ukiah. He was asking that the money be reimbursed to the county.

Smith said using mileage funds for lodging was a standard practice at the time and that she had been advised by her predecessor and the clerk of the board that it was acceptable. Coast supervisors must drive more than an hour each way on a winding road to reach the county offices, and Smith said she would stay overnight when she conducted county business in Ukiah two days in a row.

But it appears the underlying allegations that have dogged Smith for almost four years won't be resolved in court.

“I sincerely doubt I have jurisdiction,” Behnke said. The judge said either the district attorney or county counsel have jurisdiction when allegations of false claims are made against government officials.

Former District Attorney Meredith Lintott already has declined to prosecute Smith, saying there was no evidence she intended to defraud the county.

Behnke also noted that the incidents that gave rise to the lawsuit occurred in 2005 and 2006, likely placing them outside the statute of limitations.

Behnke dismissed outright the allegations against Smith's co-plaintiff, Auditor-Controller Meredith Ford, saying she could not be sued for decisions made in good faith in her official capacity.

The issue of mileage reimbursement was first raised in the 2006-07 Mendocino County Grand Jury report.

Two subsequent grand juries also raised the issue and urged Lintott to demand a reimbursement. She initially declined but last year ordered Ford to garnish Smith's wages.

Ford sought legal advice from the County Counsel's Office, which referred the issue to the Sonoma County Counsel's Office.

The Sonoma County Counsel's Office said that Lintott did not have the authority to order the garnishing without a court judgment.

There's been a “scrupulous passing of the buck,” Anderson told Behnke, while explaining why he had not filed a claim until late last year.

Smith called the allegations against her “untimely and unproven.”

Grand jury findings “should not be taken as fact,” she told the judge. She said the $3,087 figures was an estimate made by the grand jury and had not been substantiated.

More than a dozen spectators, many of them members and former members of county grand juries, packed into the small courtroom where the lawsuit was heard. The grand jury members declined to comment.

Mendocino Small claims court hears Smith travel expense case

By TIFFANY REVELLE The Daily Journal
Updated: 01/05/2011 11:59:05 PM PST

A small claims case against 4th District Supervisor Kendall Smith regarding $3,087 she was overpaid for travel costs wasn't resolved Wednesday night in Room A of the Mendocino County Superior Court, but it doesn't look good for plaintiff Bruce Anderson.

Judge John Behnke said he would either deem that he didn't have jurisdiction to order Smith to repay the amount, saying the criteria for a "whistle-blower" lawsuit weren't met, or he would deny Anderson's claim.

"If there is some misuse of public funds, the DA ... is supposed to investigate and exercise their discretion. If there's a whistle-blower type circumstance, that is when there are facts that aren't known -- they're not in the public domain -- and a whistle-blower comes forward with that information; then a private person can put itself in place of the county or the governmental entity and proceed," Behnke said. "I really don't see that as having happened here, so I sincerely doubt that I have jurisdiction."

He called the case a "false claims case" several times, and said under state law governing false claims, the court doesn't have jurisdiction over an elected official.

Anderson, who is the publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, brought the taxpayer lawsuit against Smith in hopes that the court would order her to pay $3,087 back to the county that she was overpaid in travel reimbursement claims.

"In 2006, the grand jury found that Supervisor Smith billed the county for travel untraveled.

Three successive grand juries found the same thing," Anderson said during his opening comments.

He referred to travel reimbursement Smith claimed for what the county's civil grand jury called "fictitious commute miles" between her Fort Bragg home and Ukiah between January 2005 and November 2006, when she was staying with friends or renting a room in Ukiah and not actually traveling.

He told the court Smith said in 2008 that "she would be open to negotiation to repay the money."

Anderson recounted the grand jury's findings and events in 2010, including former Mendocino County District Attorney Meredith Lintott ordering county Auditor-Controller Meredith Ford to dock Smith's pay for the amount.

Ford, who calculated the amount Smith was overpaid at the grand jury's behest, was included in Anderson's claim.

"She should have recovered the money when she was first requested to in 2010," Anderson argued.

Behnke said Ford wasn't a "proper defendant" for a false claim, which he said would allege a government official took money under false pretenses.

Behnke said Ford acted within the scope of her employment with the county when she asked for a legal opinion instead of complying with Lintott's order. County Counsel Jeanine Nadel claimed a conflict of interest and forwarded Ford's request to the Sonoma County Counsel's Office. That office issued a Sept. 19 opinion that Lintott and Ford didn't have the authority to dock Smith's pay without a court order.

Smith's response to grand juries previously was that the county's travel reimbursement policy at the time was confusing, and that she claimed the travel expenses based on a "per-diem" calculation she thought was acceptable because two other supervisors used it.

Smith submitted a written response and read it aloud to the court Wednesday night. In the response, Smith said she based her claims on a travel reimbursement established in 2002 that allowed her to claim a mileage rate instead of being compensated for any overnight lodging.

"The policy states, Supervisors with meetings back-to-back may elect to stay overnight rather than drive back and forth and will be reimbursed not to exceed the mileage rate that would have been charged for travel,'" Smith read.

She said when a new policy was established in 2007, "the reimbursement filing was identical, as the amount claimed was to be the mileage rate in both scenarios."

Smith also said the grand jury's findings "do not have the force of law and should not be taken as fact," and noted Anderson's claim came six years after the reimbursements in question.

Behnke asked Anderson if the $3,087 in question was claimed before 2007, and Anderson said the grand jury calculated that amount in 2006.

"Four grand juries have gone over the same fuzzy claims, in which Supervisor Smith blames policy, grand jury system -- everybody but herself -- for basically billing the taxpayers for travel that the grand jury ... established she did not travel," he said.

Behnke said the district attorney can prosecute the matter criminally or civilly, and said he didn't know why Lintott hadn't done so. In prior responses, Lintott held there was no evidence that Smith meant to defraud the county.

After Behnke took the matter under advisement, Anderson said outside the courtroom that he plans to wait for the judge's written ruling, and may bring the matter to newly elected District Attorney C. David Eyster.

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

Monday, January 3, 2011

Want to make a Difference? Volunteer for the Sacramento County Grand Jury

By Robert Lewis
Published: Monday, Jan. 3, 2011 - 9:49 am

Tired of reading about government waste and malfeasance?

Then do something about it.

That's the message from the Sacramento County Grand Jury. The grand jury -- a body of citizens empaneled to investigate complaints of government waste or abuse -- is accepting applications for the 2011-12 term. With ongoing budget problems, that oversight is more important than ever, said Don Prange, the current grand jury's foreman.

"You've sat back home and said 'If I could only do something to affect a change,'" Prange said. Well you can, and you should, he added.

Prange is currently serving for the fourth time on the grand jury. He keeps coming back because it's a great way to benefit the community, Prange said.

The grand jury is a body of 19 county residents who have in the past spent their year-long sting looking at issues, such as the deaths of children under the oversight of the Child Protective Services Department and wasteful spending at the library. The grand jury can also hear criminal complaints and issue indictments.

The deadline to apply for the 2011-12 term is Feb. 4. For more information, including application, instructions visit the grand jury's website at You can also call the grand jury's coordinator Rebecca Castaneda at (916) 874-7578.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

New attitudes would help bicycling's golden age

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pull up at any busy intersection where bikes and cars meet, and it's often a free-for-all. Pedalers shoot through red lights and blow stop signs. Drivers honk, shout and swerve into bike lanes. It's clear that the city's official encouragement of bicycling has not be accompanied by sufficient respect for the law, by cyclists or motorists.

A civil grand jury report found that police avoid bike-versus-car disputes because of San Francisco's mixed-up feelings: We want more people to ride but don't want to crack down on bike-messenger riding habits. Barely 1 percent of the 204,673 traffic citations written last year went to cyclists for violations such as running lights, riding on sidewalks and "salmoning" or pedaling the wrong direction on a one-way street. Neither drivers nor riders are protected by this no-rules environment.

Along with enforcement, there needs to be education. Riders are allowed the full use of driving lanes, the same as any vehicle, though few drivers can stem their impatience at a dawdling rider taking up the full road. The city's network of lanes and suggested riding streets is little known, one side-effect of an obstructionist lawsuit that delayed bike lane work for four years until this year. The learning curve has barely begun.

Unless more is done in these areas, the grand jury warned, "serious mistrust, conflict, and misunderstandings" will continue to be the rule and undermine a promising program. The word has to get out about both personal rights, restrictions and travel options.

Such attitude and behaviorial changes are essential to establishing what should be a golden age of bike riding in San Francisco. Ridership is up over 50 percent in four years. White paint is going down on 31 more miles of bike lanes on top of 48 miles already striped. A regional system will soon roll out 500 rental bikes across the city.

The surge is fueled by a generational change in a city where young people flock to live in the South of Market, Hayes Valley and Mission neighborhoods, all flat areas where bike riding makes sense. But the city's also a car-clogged place dotted with steep hills, narrow streets and distant neighborhoods where riding is less of an option.

In encouraging more riding - as a 190-page official bike plan does - the city needs to be better prepared. It has begun a five-year, $25 million program bringing more lanes, parking spots and other traffic changes. But there are missing ingredients: law enforcement and public awareness.

But there's no question that bike riding has taken hold and bloomed. Riding to work, while about 3 percent of the total commute, is rising year by the year. The city has a bike-riding goal of 20 percent of the transportation-to-work pool in 10 years.

This target may sound high, but it's easy to see understand why riders and city officials are in agreement. Bikes are cheap, enviro-friendly and healthy. They don't need a vast infrastructure such as fleets of Muni buses, costly freeways or armies of workers to run things. In a city facing a $400 million deficit, bike riding is a nearly free transit option, one that will grow if Muni service is depleted further.

One example of a bike-influenced thoroughfare is Valencia Street, redone recently to add bike lanes amid little protest in a neighborhood filled with cycling shops, young people and flat pavement. The bike traffic feeds into Market Street, which has become a test lab for bike riding, ranging from pot-holed plain-Jane sections to green-painted bike-only lanes alongside Muni tracks. The city is due to remake Market in the next few years with a plan that will be a major test of bike riding's appeal and promise.

Market is already one of the busiest bike-riding pathways in the country, according to Andy Thornley, program director for the Bicycle Coalition. His group has grown from 5,000 members to 12,000 in five years, making the organization a political force via election endorsements and courting of City Hall decision-makers.

On its website, the bike group offers its own futuristic image of San Francisco that includes crosstown bike lanes, a waterfront bridge and even a conveyor-belt-style lift that hauls bikers up steep hills.

Cycling's rising popularity doesn't make it immune to opposition. Other cities, notably New York, have faced revolt and taken out bike lanes where neighbors, drivers and merchants objected. No such rebellion has happened here, perhaps because an expansion of bike programs was held up by legal delays and is only now rolling out.

Bond Yee, the director of sustainable streets for the Municipal Transportation Agency, suggested another reason. The city's famously drawn-out policymaking, built around hearings and lengthy comment periods, has accommodated most objections. "We're getting very little negative pushback," Yee said.

San Francisco clearly wants to accommodate bike riding in a major way. But it must be accompanied by a recognition that bicyclists must follow the rules - and San Francisco police should be willing to enforce them.

This article appeared on page E - 10 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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Editorial: DA, FBI and grand jury must probe Hercules dealings

MediaNews editorial
Posted: 12/25/2010 09:00:00 PM PST
Updated: 12/27/2010 08:57:23 AM PST

THE LONG overdue cleanup of the fiscally and ethically challenged Hercules city government has begun. But the announcement last week of the imminent departure of the nepotistic city manager who pushed $3 million in no-bid contracts for a business headed by his young daughters will not be nearly enough to remove the stench from City Hall.

The Contra Costa district attorney, the county grand jury and the FBI need to carefully review the city's insider dealing under the tenure of outgoing City Manager Nelson Oliva, whom we hope will finally be out for good on Jan. 9. And the city must bring in financial experts to determine the full extent of Hercules fiscal woes.

As for leadership, City Attorney Mick Cabral, who publicly excused Oliva's behavior, must go next. And Mayor Ed Balico should submit his resignation immediately. If he doesn't, he should be recalled along with council members Joanne Ward and Don Kuehne, as we said about two weeks ago when we took the very unusual step of calling for removal of elected officials from office.

We wish we sensed that the City Council's termination of Oliva marked an ethical awakening by Balico, Ward and Kuehne; instead, we only see politically opportune bowing to public pressure in hopes that it will subside. Worse, when it comes to Balico, we continue to learn more about his attempts to leverage his political position for personal gain.

The entire episode has been an embarrassment for one of the fastest-growing cities in the East Bay, a community that holds great promise but has been hampered by leaders out for their own financial or political benefit.

For example, over the past three years, Oliva has recommended, and the council has approved, the no-bid service contracts for the firm he once owned, the firm for which two of his daughters until recently served as CEO and chief financial officer. The firm, in turn, instigated the awarding of questionable redevelopment agency loans to one of its own employees and to city workers, including Oliva's administrative assistant, who, a month later, was appointed to the board of directors of the Oliva family firm.

City Council members knew about the nepotism for more than a year, yet did nothing. As Election Day neared this year and public pressure mounted, Oliva went out on medical leave, and the council brought in an interim replacement, Charlie Long, a no-nonsense financial expert and former city manager. Long was to stay eight months and to start cleaning up the mess.

He moved quickly, slashing the city contract with the Oliva family firm and exposing the city's severe financial condition. Meanwhile, voters booted out two council members who were up for re-election this year. (The terms of Balico, Ward and Kuehne last until 2012.) Then, after Election Day but before new members were installed, the City Council abruptly fired Long and, amazingly, brought back Oliva.

The reasoning was ridiculous, but basically came down to claims that Long was moving too fast, acting on his own and making too much information public. In other words, he was embarrassing the council by candidly discussing the city's finances and trying to fix the problem.

Worse, Long later revealed in a letter to the council, Balico was complaining that publicity about the city's finances was hurting his ability to market his personal waste-to-energy business to other cities. It turns out that Balico had joined in that business with Oliva's mentor, former City Manager Mike Sakamoto.

Sakamoto was also under contract to the city of Hercules both directly and indirectly through the Oliva family firm. In other words, Balico, on the one hand, solicited Sakamoto to join the efforts of his personal waste-to-energy firm and, on the other hand, had approved contracts from which Sakamoto benefitted. The conflict was morally and ethically wrong; authorities must determine if it crossed a legal line.

As for Ward and Kuehne, there's no indication they have financially benefitted. But their support of the retention of Oliva for so long, their participation in the firing of Long and their public silence on the ethical breaches in City Hall indicate they were most concerned about their political futures, that they lack the moral leadership essential for public office. We keep looking for signs to the contrary and have yet to see them. The two either need to speak up now and convince the community that they have ethical backbones, or they need to go as well.

Hercules deserves leaders who will look out for the residents, not for themselves.

Victorville Mayor calls for closure in grand jury, SEC, USCIS probes

Federal, county investigations cost Victorville $300,000
December 25, 2010 1:43 PM

VICTORVILLE • The cost and strain of responding to lengthy investigations by two federal and one county agency has newly seated Mayor Ryan McEachron calling for an end to the inquiries — though he first requested the forensic audit by the San Bernardino County Grand Jury.

The cost of responding has topped $300,000 in staff time and attorney fees, city officials estimated.

“I think that the forensic auditor has requested as much documentation as he possibly can,” McEachron said, with New York-based firm Kessler International at work since May investigating the city’s books through a special $195,000 appropriation by the county Board of Supervisors. “If he has found some wrongdoing, then it needs to be put out there. If people have done something criminally wrong they need to be brought to justice. And if he hasn’t, then we need to know that, too. Either way I think the investigation needs to come to an end and a report needs to be issued.”

McEachron said his request for a forensic audit called for the investigator to look at very specific things he’d heard concerns about since taking office in 2008.

“I asked them to look at contracts that the city had in place and was there anything wrong with those,” McEachron said, “as well as to look at payroll, which was put under IT, and was there anything done wrong there, such people getting paychecks that shouldn’t have been getting paychecks.”

Now McEachron said it appears the auditor has expanded the inquiry to include “everything under the sun” — though he believes the saying “no news is good news” likely applies here.

“The fact that no indictments have been issued, nothing has come out that there has been any criminal wrongdoing, makes me cautiously optimistic,” the mayor said. “...Stealing of taxpayer money is a big deal, so you just don’t let someone that’s done that sit around.”

McEachron is also anxious for the Security and Exchange Commission to wrap up its months-long investigation into the city’s bond issuances.

Victorville is also waiting to hear back from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on an appeal filed last month against the federal agency’s decision to terminate its EB-5 Regional Center program.

Brooke Edwards may be reached at (760) 955-5358 or at