Friday, July 29, 2011

(Yolo County) Controversial Crash Tax - Double Taxation?

By Mike Luery

A controversial crash tax is a form of “double taxation”. That’s what a Yolo County Grand Jury is saying about some fire fees for car accidents – and as it turns out the cash coming in is far less than what was promised.

When Woodland Fire trucks come to your assistance at the scene of an accident, you may be paying in more ways than one.

“They’re double dipping us and it’s not okay,” Woodland resident Enid Williams told CBS 13.

Enid Williams calls it double dipping because when homeowners are rescued from a wreck, they are charged up to $2500 for the cleanup – if they are found to be at fault. The insurance company gets the bill – but the claim is really against the homeowner. It’s double taxation, the Yolo County Grand Jury stated, because property owners already pay for emergency services.

“The city of Woodland is allowed to charge twice for the same emergency response by the Woodland Fire Department,” stated Kathleen Stock. The Yolo County Grand Jury Foreperson told CBS 13, “It’s inherently unfair. It essentially puts Woodland homeowners in a bull’s eye.”

Homeowners are the target here – because Woodland doesn’t send bills to renters – and others who lack home insurance. Fairness aside – the fire fees are falling far short of what was promised.

“The revenue estimates were a little bit high,” said Rick Sander, Woodland’s Interim Fire Chief.

Woodland expected to raise at least $167,000 from the crash tax per year, but ended up collecting instead” about $40,000 a year, “stated Art Pimentel. The Woodland Mayor told CBS 13. “It’s a little less than we had anticipated,” he conceded.

Actually it’s a lot less.

“Just looking at what the city projected to yield, compared to what they did yield, it was maybe 20%,” Kathleen Stock stated.

So with disappointing revenues – and dismayed homeowners, the Yolo County Grand Jury is urging Woodland to cancel the fire rescue fees.

“Is it time for us to look at this fee again? Absolutely,” said Woodland Mayor Art Pimentel in answering his own question. Pimentel then raised another one: “Is it time to look at the effectiveness and efficiency of it? Absolutely.”

Woodland resident Enid Williams wants immediate action. “If you’re already paying for something – you’re already paying for it,” Williams told CBS 13.

The Woodland City Council is set to take action on the crash tax on September 6th.

(San Bernardino) Limit donations to stem corruption

Limit donations to stem corruption

By District Attorney Michael A. Ramos
Posted: 07/28/2011 06:20:49 PM PDT

The transcripts of the Grand Jury proceeding in the Colonies settlement prosecution have been unsealed for the media and public to see. Through the testimony of 45 witnesses over a period of four weeks, a story was told of greed and the corrupting influence of money. It is a sad and disappointing tale of government officials who failed the public that they were given the honor to serve. It is a virtual primer on what is wrong with a San Bernardino County government that tolerates unlimited amounts of campaign contributions to those in power or those who want to take power.

But the winds of change are upon us. Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Josie Gonzales has called for multiple reforms affecting board staff. And new Supervisor Janice Rutherford has formed an Ethics Advisory Working Group of distinguished citizens to recommend additional reforms. I applaud and support these efforts. They are consistent with the spirit of the County Reform White Paper I offered last year.

But any county reform effort will be, at best, a half measure if it does not include stringent new laws establishing contribution limits and the means to enforce them. This county can no longer tolerate a candidate's million-dollar war chest nor contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single donor looking for favors.

As stated plainly in a May 21 editorial in The Sun supporting campaign contribution limits: "Illegal or not, it all stinks. And campaign contributions are at the bottom of it, buying all sorts of questionable favors." Limits will not be a panacea that will end all dishonesty in government. But campaign contribution limits must be the heart of any serious reform effort.

Many will oppose. Some argue that disclosure requirements are sufficient protection. But we already have disclosure requirements, and our recent experience tells us all that it is clearly not enough. Others say that limits will simply drive expenditures underground with disguised contributions through PACs. There are strategies to counter this, but just because a problem presents challenges does not mean we should give up our efforts to address it.

Some of the loudest opponents argue that limits on campaign contributions to candidates are unconstitutional, as a violation of the First Amendment. That argument is patently false. The U.S. Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), a unanimous decision, stated, "To the extent that large contributions are given to secure a political quid pro quo from current and potential office holders, the integrity of our system of representative democracy is undermined. Of almost equal concern as the danger of quid pro quo arrangements is the impact of the appearance of corruption stemming from public awareness of opportunities for abuse inherent in a regime of large individual financial contributions. Congress could legitimately conclude that the avoidance of the appearance of improper influence is also critical if confidence in the system of representative government is not to be eroded to a disastrous extent." I submit to you that public confidence in local government has been eroded to a "disastrous extent" in San Bernardino County.

Half measures will no longer work. There are already campaign limits for state offices, for the U.S. House of Representatives, for the U.S. Senate and for president of the United States. We must join over 100 other jurisdictions in California in establishing a comprehensive system of campaign contribution limit laws. Our citizens deserve a loud and bold statement that the corrupting influence of money on our public officials will end. We must declare that decision-making by elected officials will no longer be conducted on a field strewn with the corrupting influence of campaign money, but solely on the field of ideas - the ideas that best serve our citizens.

I call on our Board of Supervisors to direct county counsel to begin drafting a comprehensive set of campaign contribution laws that will help to restore confidence in a county government that will serve our future with integrity and excellence.

Michael A. Ramos is San Bernardino County's district attorney.

Irvine council says its salaries are not as high as grand jury thinks

July 27, 2011 | 4:01 pm

The Irvine City Council is disputing findings by the Orange County Grand Jury that its members are among the highest paid countywide.

A county compensation study concluded that Irvine has the highest annual compensated City Council members, with a base pay of $21,120 and benefits of $26,976.

But the council has drafted a letter saying the findings are flawed, the Daily Pilot reported.

The letter states that "the Grand Jury erroneously added together the annual salary of each member of the City Council and the annual salary of those who also serve, in a separate and distinct capacity, as members of the Board of Directors of the Orange County Great Park Corporation."

The annual salary figure for Irvine City Council members should be $10,560, the letter said.

The grand jury study also found that public disclosure of municipal compensation ranges from "good to nonexistent," and that employment contracts are not found on the majority of city websites.

The council disagreed on both counts, saying the city's compensation Web page posts elected officials' and management employees' salaries and benefits, and the city manager's contract.

San Bernardino County: Airport board rebuts civil grand jury report

10:22 PM PDT on Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Press-Enterprise

Officials with the San Bernardino International Airport Authority spent nearly three hours Wednesday dismissing what they called errors in a civil grand jury report. Officials defended the price paid for used aviation equipment and refuted claims that the airport developer's federal ban from aviation would affect airport operations.

The report criticized the management of the airport's construction costs that have grown from an original estimate of $45 million to $142.5 million since 2007 and the important role businessman Scot Spencer has played in leading that development.

Spencer was sentenced to federal prison in the early 1990s for bankruptcy fraud related to hiding payments he received for managing a revived Braniff Airlines. He later was banned from aviation in 2005 for operating an unlicensed charter airline at San Bernardino airport. He attended Wednesday's meeting but didn't make a presentation.

The civil grand jury took two years to investigate the airport's operations after receiving a complaint of "irregularities." It hired an independent auditor, Harvey M. Rose Associates from San Francisco, for $75,840 to conduct a performance audit of the airport. The firm's final report became public June 30 when the civil grand jury was published. The San Bernardino International Airport Authority has until Aug. 30 to officially reply to the grand jury report's recommendations and claims.

The grand jury report raised serious concerns about Spencer's aviation ban and stated that the "plain language understanding" of the 2005 ruling meant what he was doing at the airport was in direct violation of that ban.

A legal opinion from a Washington, D.C. lawyer with experience with the Federal Aviation Administration was presented as evidence at Wednesday's meeting that the report was wrong in its assertion. Don Rogers, executive director of the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, also cited a July 24 story in The Press-Enterprise that quoted a Department of Transportation spokesman who said the federal agency didn't think Spencer's current activities at the airport violated its ban.

After a lengthy discussion of Spencer's aviation ban, authority member and Colton Councilman Vincent Yzaguirre said he hoped to move on and focus on what they could learn from the report as far as improvements rather than focus on Spencer.

"The credibility of this airport has everything to do with an airline signing on the bottom line," he said, adding that Colton had hired Harvey M. Rose before to audit his city's departments before and the results were sometimes sobering.

"We should look at the credibility of every individual who comes into the airport to do business," he said. Asked afterward if that included the airport cutting ties with Spencer, he said he believed the airport needed to go in a different direction.

Officials defended their purchase of used aviation equipment from Spencer for $4.06 million. He had bought the equipment from American Airlines when that company renovated its terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Rogers acknowledged that airport staff inspected the equipment only after the authority members had already approved buying it.

At that time, the deal was dependent on a signed equipment purchase agreement. That was never drafted or signed, despite authority approval asking for such an agreement. On Wednesday, Rogers said that was because airport leaders, including him and airport attorney Tim Sabo, decided instead to include the equipment payments in Spencer's development agreement to build the terminal. Rogers said after the meeting that the change was made at the advice of legal counsel.

Aviation industry consultants were brought in this week by airport officials to appraise the equipment they bought and compare it to what it would have cost the airport to buy the equipment new.

Len Barone, with aviation consulting firm Faithful Gould, said he worked nonstop for a few days appraising the equipment, based on a list supplied by the airport. The firm had also worked on the American Airlines terminal renovation project at JFK.

Barone said he never saw any of the equipment so he couldn't judge its condition. He also said the firm was not directed to consider the equipment's useable life or resale value.

Comparing the list of used equipment the airport agreed to buy versus appraisals his firm received from other equipment suppliers for the cost of new jet bridges, baggage carousels and terminal seats, he said the airport saved $4.84 million.

TranSystems, an airport contractor since 2007, was brought in to refute the grand jury's contention that the slope of the air bridges would exceed standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

They were also asked to state that extended walkways connecting the jet bridges to the terminal were not added for fire-prevention purposes. However, the grand jury report doesn't make that claim. Instead, the report says that was a reason given by airport employees for adding the walkways and auditors questioned the explanation.

Reach Kimberly Pierceall at 951-368-9552 or

Rancho responds to Grand Jury report, agrees to implement changes


RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA – The city will adjust its employee compensation information on its website to be more consistent with a model developed by the Orange County Grand Jury.

In June, the Grand Jury released a report analyzing all 34 Orange County cities and their efforts to provide information about public employee compensation. The report focused only on employees with a base salary of $100,000 or more.

The Grand Jury looked at city websites and assigned a letter grade based on content, clarity and accessibility. Rancho was given a grade of D, D, and A, respectively, with no city in the county receiving a grade higher than a B in the first two categories.
City staff said the low grades were likely due to a difference in perspective on how the information should appear on the website; the Grand Jury report indicates salary postings "appear to be intended for either job applicants or existing city employees," whereas they should be intended for the general public.

The report provided a model for cities to follow in determining total compensation and what information should be listed on its website. City staff is expected to post the completed information on its website as defined by the county.

The Grand Jury report also details seven principal findings based on a study of all cities in the county. According to the staff report, only two apply to Rancho:
•Public disclosure of municipal compensation levels is widely inconsistent, ranging from good to non-existent; and There is currently no disclosure of written employment contracts on the majority of cities' websites.

The city is required to respond to the Grand Jury about the report's findings. In its response, the city will partially agree with the first finding as they were "faced with a lack of consistent 'universal' criteria for measuring and disclosing compensation information." Staff also noted that any criteria for city websites were developed after the city had posted its information.

The council agreed with the second finding, and will post its written employment contract for the City Manager on its website. The city voted unanimously on Wednesday evening to implement the changes.

"I think this City Council has always prided itself in openness and transparency," Mayor Tony Beall said.

According to the Grand Jury report, Rancho Santa Margarita had the lowest number of $100,000 city employee positions per 10,000 residents compared to all other cities in the county.
Contact the writer: 949-454-7343 or

Monday, July 25, 2011

(San Bernardino) Report blasts airport deals

Purchases of used equipment cited
Josh Dulaney, Staff Writer
Posted: 07/23/2011 07:10:41 AM PDT

SAN BERNARDINO - Hasty decision-making and slack financial oversight led airport officials to spend millions on used equipment when new equipment could have been bought at a cheaper price, according to a Grand Jury report.

The San Bernardino International Airport Authority in 2007 awarded a $4.1 million contract with a 10percent contingency to developer Scot Spencer - who served time in federal prison for bankruptcy fraud - for the purchase of used jet bridges and other equipment, the San Bernardino County Grand Jury report said.

In a blistering critique of how the airport authority is handling the transformation of the former Norton Air Force Base into a civilian airport, the Grand Jury said airport officials didn't adequately assess the airport's equipment needs nor did they inspect the equipment before they bought it.

The process used to buy the big-ticket items has "raised several questions regarding whether the purchases were `advantageous' to the authority" the report said.

"Further, SBIAA management did not consider or analyze the long-term costs of purchasing used equipment versus the alternative of purchasing new equipment prior to proceeding with the acquisition," the report said.

The SBIAA, a joint-powers authority composed of the county of San Bernardino and the cities of San Bernardino, Colton, Loma Linda and Highland, is responsible for redeveloping the aviation portion of the former air base.

The Grand Jury report said that between January 2006 and January 2011, the cost of the terminal project grew from $22 million to more than $100 million, with costs still rising.

Airport officials vehemently disagree with the Grand Jury's findings about the used equipment purchases.

"We knew the price of new products, of new jet bridges and new seats," said Mayor Pat Morris, who is the authority's board president. "We priced it out. We got this (at) a dime on a dollar."

Morris said in the authority's formal rebuttal to the report that the airport authority will show that it saved "one-half, if not more, in terms of value shopping for this product. And they're beautiful. Instead of a million dollars per gate we got them at $100,000 each."

Still, the report said airport management rushed to accept an offer from Spencer's Norton Development Co. to buy, ship and refurbish used aviation equipment from American Airlines and fixed-base operations equipment from Blue's Aviation.

Blue's Aviation was contracted by the authority to manage fixed-based operations at the airport until the company was sold in 2007 to Spencer's SBD Aircraft Services, the airport's master tenant at the time, the report says.

According to the Grand Jury, a July 3, 2007, staff report that was "quickly" prepared for a special meeting of the airport authority stated that "the reason for this special opportunity relates to the timely closing of a major terminal in New York coincidental to our needs in San Bernardino.

"The seller of that equipment is anxious to have the equipment removed from the New York facility so that their demolition and remodel of that facility can begin. They are under some pressure to sell quickly."

It appeared that pressure was put on the airport authority to make a decision quickly, according to the Grand Jury.

The Grand Jury report said the equipment bought by the airport authority - including 11 jet bridges, 10 ground power units, five baggage carousels and gate seating - was previously installed at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

"We also looked for opportunities to buy used products because we knew we couldn't afford some of the new stuff on the market and it turned out that American Airlines was redoing (its terminal at JFK in New York City)," Morris said. "...And they had seats, and jet bridges and baggage claim areas that were available to us. Scot brought that to us as an opportunity."

The report said Donald L. Rogers, the interim executive director of the airport, did not execute a purchase contract, but instead relied on two letters from Spencer in 2008 "as the basis of the agreement."

Rogers said the letters simply spelled out what equipment would be purchased and at what cost, and the airport used a third-party fund-control firm to oversee the purchases.

"The same process we use we use for all the equipment at the airport," Rogers said.

The price breakdown for some of the equipment, according to the letters:

$1.2 million for the five baggage carousel systems

$808,134 for six refurbished jet bridges

$599,550 for five un-refurbished jet bridges

$273,000 for 820 seats, plus an extra 132 upholstered shells for replacement inventory

Concerning the seats, the cost of which included transport, refurbishment and storage, the Grand Jury report said that by the airport's own accounting, it could have bought new ones for $115,000, or almost half of what it cost compared to what was paid through the arrangement with Norton Development.

Also, the used equipment, specifically the jet bridges, is likely to have a shortened lifespan, compared to modern equipment that could have been purchased new, according to the Grand Jury report.

Needed in the first place?

The used jet bridges range in age from 20 to 36 years old, according to the Grand Jury, which cited one manufacturer as saying bridges generally have a lifespan of 20 years but could be extended with proper maintenance.

Yet the Grand Jury questioned if the jet bridges needed to be purchased in the first place, citing an airport study that found the equipment would not be necessary for the first 15 years of the terminal's operation.

The Grand Jury said mobile stairways are used at multiple airports in the West, including Burbank and Long Beach, and had mobile stairways been used instead of jet bridges, the airport "could have saved several million dollars that was instead paid to the contractor."

The report went on to note that the failure to come up with a purchase agreement "has left SBIAA with little, if any, contractual protections and Norton Development with little to no legal obligation and no official list of equipment, condition, or purchase price for which it can be held accountable."

To date, more than $4.3 million has been spent on the equipment, according to the Grand Jury report.

The staff report submitted by Rogers to the airport board on July 3, 2007, said staff had done enough work to ensure the equipment costs were low compared to any available alternatives.

But the Grand Jury says airport management did not provide the airport board or the Grand Jury's audit team with documentation other than a spreadsheet attached to a Norton Development invoice that neither lists all equipment costs nor has supporting information from a manufacturer or distributor.

According to the Grand Jury, the staff report said that the manufacturers were contacted to verify the condition of the equipment as operable prior to delivery to San Bernardino, but the report doesn't say who contacted the manufacturers nor does it provide information on the condition of the jet bridges beyond that they are "operable."

"Now they take us to task on this,..." Morris said. "They allege that we didn't visit our products. We did. We sent a team of three people to New York to look at the product."

The Grand Jury said airport management did not look at the equipment until three weeks after the airport authority authorized an acquisition agreement.

Airport officials said the equipment was inspected by airport representatives before any money was spent.

"This is where you got to be very careful about the words," Rogers said. "Not prior to the authorization; subsequent to the authorization, before the expenditure was made."

Among several recommendations, the Grand Jury said the airport authority should hire an independent auditing firm to look into airport equipment purchases and costs.

Read more:

Jepsen: Yuba City was unaware of severe problems at animal shelter

July 24, 2011 11:24:00 PM
By Nancy Pasternack/Appeal-Democrat

To read the grand jury report and subsequent response letters from Yuba City, Sutter County and Sheriff Paul Parker, go to

Yuba City officials were not aware of the severity of problems at the Sutter County Animal Shelter until results of a grand jury report were released in April, according to City Manager Steve Jepsen.

"Yuba City has had little interaction with the county on operational or facility issues related to Animal Control Services," reads Jepsen's official letter of response to the scathing report.

However, records of correspondence and official minutes from animal shelter-related meetings reflect several detailed exchanges between the two entities dating back to August 2008 about the overcrowded shelter and proposals to build a new one.

Roughly 70 percent of animals brought to the shelter each year come from Yuba City, which contracts with the county for animal control services.

The grand jury report described inhumane and life-threatening conditions at the Second Street shelter as well as a lack of clear policy protocols and oversight.

According to Jepsen's response letter, a 2007 study of the shelter and the possible need for a new shelter had been commissioned by the city — but taken over by the county. The resulting document, he claims, was the first clue that he and other public officials had about the need for a new shelter.

"The operational needs and conditions at the Sutter County Animal Control facility were not specifically known to Yuba City," according to Jepsen's letter. "Even the completed Citygate report did not address the depth of critical needs noted in the Grand Jury Report."

At the county's request, Jepsen and other officials from Yuba City, as well as from Live Oak, took a tour of the shelter in February 2010.

Live Oak, like Yuba City, has a contract with the county for animal control services.

The official minutes of shelter-related meetings involving the three entities during the last two years include detailed discussions about a new shelter plan that ultimately was rejected by the city.

During a July 10, 2009, meeting attended by Mayor John Dukes, as well as an architect certified to design animal shelters in California and representatives from the county and Live Oak, the group discussed the minimum number of days that animals must be held before being euthanized according to law.

Yuba City officials, according to the minutes, took issue with the size of the proposed new shelter they ultimately rejected.

Contact reporter Nancy Pasternack at 749-4781.

Isleton fires back at (Sacramento) grand jury over marijuana farm

July 25, 2011

By Sam Stanton

Isleton's planned marijuana farm may be dead, but officials from the Delta hamlet are alive and kicking, and they are not bowing to the findings of a recent grand jury probe of their town.

In a 52-page response to the Sacramento County grand jury investigation, Isleton officials say the panel's report on the planned marijuana project was filled with errors, ignored important facts and needlessly cost the cash-strapped town $100,000 to defend itself.

"Despite hearing testimony from twenty witnesses, the grand jury's eleven page report contains more than fifteen material errors of fact," the report from Isleton City Attorney Dave Larsen and other city officials states.

The town rejected findings that it had failed to exercise due diligence before approving the project, which would have allowed construction of a massive medical marijuana farm on the north end of town and provided large monthly payments to the city of Isleton.
The response also flatly rejects the grand jury finding that Larsen was being paid by both the city and the project founders, Delta Allied Growers, in an arrangement that was a conflict of interest.

Larsen, one of only two people who weren't offered immunity by the grand jury during its probe, is paid $150 an hour for services provided to the city, but during the approval process for the marijuana farm was being paid $250 an hour, partly by Delta Allied, to help draft documents for the project. Larsen and Isleton officials have said such an arrangement is typical for many cities and was not a conflict but an attempt to save Isleton costs.

"There was no conflict of interest," the response from Isleton states. "The city attorney did not receive 'additional compensation' from Allied."

Delta Allied pulled the plug on the project despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on it after federal officials threatened prosecution earlier this year.

Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully also began a probe of the planned marijuana farm that quickly became a source of frustration for city officials who said they could not win any cooperation from Scully's office.

They chafed at the fact that every city official was summoned to the Sacramento Superior Courthouse to sit in the hallways waiting to meet with the grand jury, and their disdain for the grand jury's recommendations is evident in the responses provided about whether or not they intend to implement them.

"This recommendation will not be implemented because it is not warranted," one typical response states.

The city notes that federal and state laws conflict over medical marijuana, and that officials were open about seeking input on how best to proceed.

Isleton's response to the grand jury probe leaves little doubt that city officials believe they have been subjected to a pointless investigation that, so far, has resulted in no charges being filed against anyone.

"Isleton alone has incurred costs of over $100,000 to no avail, because the report fails to accomplish its stated purpose, and adds almost nothing of value concerning how Isleton conducts its business," the city response states.

Posted by Nathaniel Miller

Read more:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

It is time for the (Humboldt County) department head and his complicit legal adviser to go

Bob Morris/For The Times-Standard
Posted: 07/21/2011 02:40:20 AM PDT

The recently released Grand Jury report is another in a long list that highlights and documents the irregularities and non-professional actions that emanate quite regularly from the Community Development Services Department. This report (available on the Grand Jury website) is a stinging rebuke of the leadership of the department. It lists at least 20 different legal codes that were pushed to a point that blurred the line as to whether they were legally broken or merely “proactively interpreted.”

In addition to the items in the Grand Jury Report, many other questionable departmental actions have come to light. Since many of these occurred over a lengthy time period, I will summarize a few of the more egregious actions that have been promoted by this department and overtly facilitated by county counsel:

* Recommending to this board, not once, but three times to submit to the state a faulty and non-complying County Housing Element. Three times the Board of Supervisors have followed the department's recommendation and three times this document was rejected by the state. With each rejection, this board's public credibility has been diminished.

* Turning an update of the County's General Plan into a monstrous rewrite of the General Plan in a 12-year odyssey that has, to date, outlived every elected supervisor and planning commission member originally associated with its genesis. This rewrite is far from finished, it has polarized the community, it has cost untold millions and is careening the county down a road certain to lead to nothing but litigation and the expenditure of more increasingly scarce public resources.

* Has taken an attitude of “if you don't like it, then sue me” over its creative interpretation of many existing laws, ordinances, rules and regulations. Such actions range from new interpretations of the Subdivision Map Act language and patent parcel law, to translations of the Williamson Act unique only to Humboldt County, to the ill-fated “no houses allowed on TPZ land” debacle that the Board of Supervisors was embarrassingly drawn into. These “creative interpretations” have cost the county millions, and the average citizen has no idea of why these monies were spent and what public benefits were to be derived from their expenditure.

* Manipulated the public comment process to a degree that at least 11 public and quasi-public entities consisting of city councils, chambers of commerce groups and community services districts have officially stated that their input was either not solicited or not meaningfully considered. This demonstrative discontent with the Community Development Services Department's handling of the public comment process is not what the public process was intended to accomplish. In fact, it is just the opposite.

The question that is now percolating throughout the county is -- since the Grand Jury has documented and legitimized the concerns that many grassroots groups have been voicing, how can the top elected officials of our county continue to turn a blind eye to actions such as these? Is it fair to the tax payer to pay in excess of $150,000/year for this type of departmental leadership? It is time for the department head and his complicit legal adviser to go. The citizens of the county deserve better!

Bob Morris resides in Blocksburg.

Truckee Fire accepts grand jury criticism, aims to move ahead

By Jason Shueh
Sierra Sun

TRUCKEE, Calif. — The town fire board could not have been more calm on Tuesday night.

The cool demeanor persisted throughout the Truckee Fire Protection District meeting despite public discussion of harsh criticisms by a recent Nevada County Grand Jury report that described the 2010 board as ill-educated and found the past fire chief to have engaged in contractual violations and financial misconduct.

Directors discussed and accepted the report — which has been disputed by former Fire Chief Bryce Keller and 2010 board member Joe Straub — in an effort, they said, to foster transparency.

The board also plans to gather public feedback to incorporate into the draft of a written response to the grand jury, which is due by Sept. 19.

Chair Ron Perea and Vice Chair Bob Snyder, who were on the 2010 board, said the findings are not about the past, but should be used as tools for improvement.

“I'm sorry it had to happen that way, I really am, but we have a new board now and we've got some recommendations,” Snyder said. “I think we should move forward.”

As part of its annual report released June 21, the grand jury found the 2010 Truckee Fire board was ill-educated and lacked fiscal responsibility and that Keller — who became chief in 2006 — had violated his contract by entering into a rental agreement for a condominium to house ambulance crews at Squaw Valley; entering into a contract for public relations services with Truckee-based Switchback PR + Marketing, Inc.; and contracting outside legal counsel.

Keller — who was put on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave in June 2010 and later retired in December — was also found by the jury to have instilled fear among staff. The report stating that interviewed staff reported they had been intimidated by Keller, with one employee fearing termination for questioning the former fire chief's actions.

During the night, board members agreed the incidents in question and findings by the jury were largely due to a culture of administration rather than to anything intentional or nefarious by previous board members or Keller.

“I think a lot of the board's actions were due to just trust,” Perea said. “We trusted in the chief who we had and he really didn't feel we needed to micromanage (district finances). It has been a big learning process for us and we did learn.”

Squaw Valley Fire Department Chief Pete Bansen said while he agreed with the jury report, it shouldn't be used to blame former or previous board members.

“I don't think it's a reflection on the old board,” he said. “I think it's a reflection of the culture that was in place at the time, and it's certainly not a reflection on the staff.”

Defending Keller, Snyder said operations in the district were conducted informally during his tenure, and Keller had served the district with dedication.

“If things didn't go the way they did, I think that he would still have been one of the better chiefs we've had,” Snyder said.

A new perspective
Truckee resident and local attorney Jim Porter — an involved advocate of the investigation and critic of both Keller and the board in 2010 — congratulated the board in its drive to push onward.

“I think the grand jury got it right. I think that's the bad news. The good news is that we have a new board with a new direction and we're going to take this as an opportunity to look back and see how we're going to make changes,” Porter said.

The board's administrative problems were real, significant and should have been realized by the board before staff were compelled to make them known, said Porter, who added that progressive moves have since been made to remedy the situation.

New board members agreed.

“There are some people in the community who have mistakenly gotten the impression lately that there is an ongoing problem at the fire department and there is not. Truckee fire runs pretty much like a well-oiled machine,” said board member Paul Wilford.

Wilford used the term “mission drift” to describe the culture that led to conflicts in staff communication and financial disputes.

“Somehow there was a curve in the road and there were divergent interests involved,” he said.

Director Victor Hernandez said the implementation of the grand jury's recommendations — including board training, an improved financial policy to ensure higher accountability, improved staff communication policy and procedures and a better communication policy toward district constituents — is already under way, with exception of an updated financial policy that will require time to install.

“I really think that whole document needs to be looked at, I want to make sure board members know exactly what their role is,” he said.

Civil grand jury plays vital watchdog role in Ventura County

Group seeks to expose government waste, shortcomings
By Anna Bitong

Serving as ombudsmen over the entire county, a new civil grand jury goes to work every July with a promise to make sure that those who make the law do not break the law.

Whether ferreting out waste or exposing corruption, the group of 19 civic-minded citizens plays a vital oversight role in serving the public.

The grand jury is responsible for investigating public agencies, governing boards, personnel commissions and school districts based on public complaints and the grand jury’s own inquiries. This past year, grand jury investigations ranged from office bullying by county employees to seat-belt safety on schoolbuses to inmate suicides at the county jail.

“They’re the civil watchdog of the county,” said Leroy Smith, county counsel, who gives legal advice to the grand jury.

Members of the 2011-12 grand jury were selected and sworn in during a ceremony earlier this month.

In a random drawing at the Ventura courthouse, 38 nominees chosen by Superior Court judges were pared down to 19, the number selected every year. Six women and 13 men comprise the group. To qualify, potential jury candidates must be U.S. citizens, 18 and over and “of ordinary intelligence and good character,” according to official requirements.

Nine of the 38 nominees were pulled from the 2011-12 grand jury. Up to 10 holdovers are allowed. Grand jurists can return an unlimited number of times but can serve no more than two consecutive 12-month terms.

Jury applicants fill out a brief questionnaire and are chosen from various demographic groups based on sex, age, race and income.

“It’s not legally required, but it’s our policy (to include a wide demographic),” Smith said.

Selected panelists are paid $25 for each day served. Most civil grand jurors are retired and work full-time hours or more for the court, said Bob Peskay, outgoing foreman.

Some cite altruistic reasons for joining.

“Some people say, ‘I feel we have a great system and I want to contribute’ or ‘I want to give something back,’” Peskay said.

Peskay, a retired estate planner from Moorpark who was on the jury last year, said the panel received about 60 to 70 complaints last year. Of those, 25 cases were investigated and 11 reports were filed. If a claim is not substantiated or does not result in a recommendation for change, no report is made.

“We do reports to educate the public, correct a wrong or save money and make things more efficient,” said current foreman David Gale.

To open an investigation, at least 12 of the 19 jurors must vote to go forward.

If a complaint is within the jury’s jurisdiction of Ventura County and appears credible, one of the small-group committees of jurors will screen the case and create a preliminary report to present to the entire panel, Peskay said.

Gale, a Camarillo resident serving his second term, said the jury rarely meets resistance to accessing public records.

“Most public officials are very cooperative,” said the 69-year-old, a retired water treatment supervisor who worked for the city of Ventura for almost three years and for the city of Los Angeles for 30 years.

Peskay also said his panels have had easy access to government records and complete access to jails and hospitals.

“We have no direction. Nobody tells us what to do,” he said.

Gale said his jury service has been “a real educational process.”

“There are more good things in the county than bad things,” he said.

Elected officials are required to give written responses to the jury’s recommendations in the final report within 60 days; everyone else is given 90 days.

Two days after a report is delivered, the report is made public.

Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks said the jury often provides the spark for a path to change.

“They can be invaluable to pointing out issues that otherwise would not be investigated and that need the light of day,” Parks said.

She said she appreciates the jury’s work, particularly when they investigate agencies where there is no in-depth review of protocol and practices. She cited a report by the 2006-07 grand jury on the Triunfo Sanitation District as a “push” for needed change.

Among its recommendations, the report called for an all-elected board of supervisors. At the time, two of the five directors were chosen by voters.

TSD’s board oversees water and sanitation services for homes and businesses in Oak Park, North Ranch, Bell Canyon, Lake Sherwood and parts of Thousand Oaks.

“They brought democracy to that corner of Ventura County,” Parks said.

And a 2009 grand jury report looked into reducing the number of mentally ill inmates in prisons, a cause Parks said is “near and dear” to her.

“They need to be in a facility for treatment,” she said.

It’s important to recognize the difference between a criminal grand jury and a civil grand jury, Smith said.

A criminal grand jury is asked by the district attorney to decide if there is enough evidence to go to trial in a particular case. If sufficient evidence is found, the jury may issue an indictment.

The civil investigative body has four primary responsibilities: providing civil government oversight, which permits it to audit government records and expenses and requires it to inspect the conditions of jails and other detention centers; reviewing citizen complaints; considering allegations of misconduct against public officials that may lead to trial; and issuing reports identifying problems and suggesting a resolution.

The two are completely independent.

Friday, July 22, 2011

SLO County to review sanitation district books

July 22, 2011

John Wallace

The San Luis Obispo County auditor-controller will evaluate two new employment contracts for engineering and administrative services at the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District as part of a review of the district’s financial records. [TimesPressRecorder]

The review was spurred by a grand jury report that concluded there is a conflict of interest existing between John Wallace, the administrator of the South County wastewater treatment plant, and his engineering firm.

During the 2009/2010 fiscal year, the report says, Wallace and the Wallace Group received $836,000 for administrative and engineering services. At a similar size plant in Paso Robles, those costs ran under $200,000 during the same period.

Jurors recommended that the County auditor review the district’s financial records. In addition, the grand jury asked the district board to consider hiring independent management and that it evaluate and compare organizational and operational alternatives for the district.

The board rejected the suggestion and opted instead to bifurcate Wallace’s contract into two separate documents — a single contract for administrative services and another for engineering work.

Gere Sibbach, county auditor-controller, said his office is planning to begin a review of the district’s records on Aug. 1, which he expects to complete before the end of the year. At that time, Sibbach will send copies to the Sanitation District directors, grand jury and Board of Supervisors.

The district provides sewer services to about 38,000 customers in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and the unincorporated town of Oceano.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

(Mendocino County) Medical pot dispensary ordinance discussion planned

By TIFFANY REVELLE The Daily Journal
Posted: 07/21/2011 12:00:07 AM PDT

The idea of forming an ad-hoc committee to prepare an ordinance governing medical marijuana dispensaries will go before the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, according to County Counsel Jeanine Nadel.

The Mendocino County grand jury recommended the board should adopt such an ordinance, spurring the discussion forward after work on a draft ordinance stopped. A board-appointed committee considered a draft Nadel prepared in October 2009, then directed her to stop work on it, according to the grand jury.

"The courts have made it very clear that counties have the ability to regulate (medical marijuana) dispensaries, or to determine if dispensaries should be able to exist," Nadel said.

Nadel estimates that 10 such dispensaries exist in Mendocino County, and said if the board votes to form an ad-hoc, it would have to address the question of how -- or whether -- to bring them into compliance with an ordinance.

The grand jury's April 20 report recommending a dispensary ordinance says "any number of dispensaries can be established anywhere in the county with merely the acquisition of a business license," and the public safety impacts of dispensaries on neighbors and surrounding communities aren't currently addressed.

The grand jury recommends that any ordinance to govern dispensaries should allow a 60-day grace period for existing dispensaries to come into compliance, address mobile dispensaries, address neighborhood safety, address the production and sale of medical marijuana food projects and paraphernalia, establish fee and penalties that cover the costs of regulation and enforcement, address transportation of medical marijuana within Mendocino County, define a mature female marijuana plant and establish a minimum age limit for those who can enter a dispensary.

The grand jury also recommends that the Board of Supervisors stop new dispensaries from being formed until such an ordinance is passed, and define dispensaries and collectives.

Additionally, the grand jury says "an undetermined number" of dispensaries exist in Mendocino County. Two dispensaries recently opened up in the Mendocino township, both within 1,000 feet of "areas frequented by school-aged children," according to the grand jury's report.

"The licensing of (medical marijuana dispensaries) raises the issue of whether, by enacting an ordinance, the county of Mendocino would have liability for and be complicit in violating federal marijuana laws," the grand jury states. "This is a concern that has been raised in many of the counties that have either passed or are considering an ordinance."

The grand jury additionally recommends that "members of the (Board of Supervisors) who may have in the past, or may be currently involved in the production of (medical marijuana), recuse themselves from any vote on this matter."

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Water district responds to (Kern County) Grand Jury report

Wednesday, Jul 20 2011 11:57 AM

By Carin Enovijas, News Editor
The Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District has issued a response to the Kern County Grand Jury report issued after an investigation into the district’s past usage of State Water Payment (SWP) fund for general expenses.

The SWP fund is restricted to the purchase of SWP water and credits from property taxes levied by the district. Any surplus funds remaining after contracted SWP payments are made should have been held in reserve and applied towards a reduction of the subsequent year’s property taxes.

According to the Grand Jury report, the district’s general manager, John Martin, identified and corrected what the board previously described as an “accounting error” when he took over the position in 2009. The “corrective actions placed financial strain on the district resulting in layoffs of district personnel,” according to the report.

Martin estimated that the correction cost the district approximately $1.5 million annually in lost tax revenues.

“This district has received the Grand Jury report and we agree with its findings,” states Martin’s official response. “As stated in the report, corrective action on this issue was already taken by the Board of Directors and management in 2009 and the district’s practices since that time have been in full compliance with statutory law and the California Constitution.

Martin goes on to say that the district has been “responsive to the citizen who brought the compliant and to the Grand Jury by providing all information… we did not conceal any information from anybody.”

The district’s response to the Grand Jury focuses mainly on recommendations that the board develop a program to strengthen its financial reserves, and re-evaluate its policies regarding the use of legal counsel.

Martin said the board has adopted a financial reserves policy, which “sets forth a reasonable approach to accumulate reserves over time.”

“Progress will be slow at first, as the district still has some debt maturing in 2014 and 2016 after which time progress will improve,”

Martin explains in the letter. “Management and the board will also consider future adjustments to rates to keep the funding plan on track.”

In response to the Grand Jury’s recommendation that the board review policy and consider increasing use of legal counsel, Martin said management will recommend a policy for the board’s consideration within the next 90 days.

“Current management has utilized legal counsel more, as our legal bills will attest,” Martin said. “Legal counsel reviews all agendas, draft resolutions and board meeting materials prior to each board meeting.

Legal counsel is often consulted in regards to the district’s watermaster duties for the three adjudicated groundwater basins in the district.”

Finally, the Grand Jury urged the district to adopt a program to educate and inform area residents of the functions and benefits of the district.

“This is a common problem for special districts,” Martin said.

While the district is an active participant in a variety of municipal councils and inter-organizational committees, Martin said there is still opportunity to improve its outreach efforts.

“Over the next year the district’s web page will be completely revamped,” Martin responded. “It will be more user-friendly. We will post all of our watermaster documents, governing documents, water rates, meeting schedules, agenda, etc, to keep the community informed of our services and activities.”

SAN BERNARDINO: Airplane's value as loan collateral questioned

09:07 AM PDT on Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Press-Enterprise

A civil grand jury is urging San Bernardino International Airport officials to double-check a questionable legal settlement with the airport's developer in order to recoup nearly $1 million in taxpayer's money.

The report also questioned the value of the plane put up as security for most of the settlement, based on FAA title records.

According to the grand jury report, Scot Spencer sold the plane to himself twice for $1 million each time.

The aircraft, a 1973 Boeing 727-227, is considered worthless by the San Bernardino County assessor, but others place its value somewhat higher.

(A 1973 Boeing 727-227 is considered worthless by the San Bernardino County assessor. Airport officials accepted it as collateral for a $550,000 loan in a legal settlement).

An aircraft appraiser said it could be worth anywhere from scrap value to a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Airport officials accepted it as collateral for a $550,000 loan to Spencer that was part of a legal settlement.

The difference in price has led the San Bernardino County civil grand jury to suggest the plane's value may have been artificially inflated and that the legal settlement it's tied to is questionable.

According to the grand jury report, "given the age, model and history of the aircraft, it is highly probable that the sales transaction was inflated by the seller and buyer."

Potentially at stake is $990,000 of taxpayer funds used to settle a dispute over an airport hangar rental.

The plane was used to secure a $550,000 loan that the airport gave Spencer as part of a tenant-dispute settlement. Airport officials admitted to mistakenly leasing the same hangar space at the same time to a company affiliated with Spencer and another tenant in 2008.

From the date when the lease was signed to when the settlement was reached, 48 days elapsed.

Spencer said his company lost a lease deal with Unique Aviation that wanted to lease the Boeing 727 to the Democratic National Committee. Unique Aviation is an investor in other Spencer companies.

A lease with the DNC was never provided to the airport or the grand jury.

Just nine days after the airport and Spencer agreed to make the plane collateral for the loan, the aircraft was transferred off the books of SBD Aircraft Services LLC to subsidiary SBD Aircraft Services Inc. for $1 million, both companies Spencer manages.

A clause in the settlement agreement states that SBD Aircraft Services Inc. only has to repay the loan with proceeds from the sale or lease of the aircraft, if that happens.

Fred Klein, president of Aviation Specialists Group Inc., aircraft appraisers, said that he didn't need to see the plane to know that it was worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars, at most, and more likely is worth far less, describing it as an "economically obsolete" aircraft because of the amount of fuel that model of plane uses.

Spencer disagreed with characterizations that the plane was worthless.

The civil grand jury has recommended that the airport hire an independent auditor to look at the warranties made by Spencer in the settlement agreement to assure that all the statements are true.

If not, the grand jury report urges the airport to demand full repayment of the settlement.

One such representation and warranty in the settlement is that Spencer's SBD Aircraft sent a cancellation letter to the Democratic National Committee around July 24, 2008 -- implying that there was a lease deal to cancel.

The DNC has said previously that it had no contract with either Unique Aviation or Spencer's SBD Aircraft.

The plane's history is detailed in the grand jury report when it was first sold by American Airlines to a company affiliated with Spencer in 2002 for an unstated amount.

Spencer said his company paid cash for the plane. He couldn't say how much was paid.

"I don't know. I don't recall what the price was in 2002," he said.

In 2004, his company used the plane as collateral to secure a line of credit for $125,000.

He wouldn't say how his companies reached a $1 million figure in 2005 when the plane was first sold by his company, KCP Leasing, to another company managed by him, SBD Aircraft Services LLC.

He said the airport never asked the value of the aircraft before signing the settlement agreement and agreeing to the $550,000 loan.

Spencer said he has also never placed a value on the plane.

"Never have and I'm not going to now," he said.

Spencer said he has heard of planes equivalent to his selling for about $1.6 million recently.

"If we put it on the market, we'd certainly put it on the market for north of $1 million," he said.

Of the 13 aircraft originally bought from American Airlines, Spencer has sold 10. He said some were sold for more than $1 million each.

Reach Kimberly Pierceall at 951-368-9552 or

GUEST COLUMN: Complaint to the (El Dorado) Grand Jury

Last month, the South Lake Tahoe City Council boasted that it is going to spend $4 million a year on roads for the next five years. Unfor tunately, that $4 million promise, which is probably only half of what needs to be spent to do the job properly, is just an empty promise that history tells us will soon be forgotten.

The reality is that the City Council has not only enough money to fix our roads — history also tells us there has been a clear pattern and practice of raiding funds from road re pairs and maintenance in or der to prop up redevelopment failures and to reward special interest groups. These actions have been going on for 15 years and it has resulted in an astronomical unfunded liability of somewhere between $150-250 million in crumbling roads, broken drain age pipes and dangerous pot holes. The only success in this area has been for a few individuals who re ward their supporters with money and favors, so they can continue to get themselves re-elected to office.

Jim Marino, an engineer with the city, told the council in 2009 that it would take $5.2 million a year for 25 to 30 years, just to get the streets back up to par. The City Council responded by doing nothing, resulting in more unfunded liabilities as well as ever more runoff polluting our beaches and creating further loss of lake clarity. Meanwhile, the city budget does not even recognize these unfunded liabilities.

On May 31, I sent a letter to the South Lake Ta hoe City Attorney, Patrick Enright, to inform him that I had discovered that sometime around 2002, someone transferred about $7 million from the general fund, without the knowledge or consent of the City Council. I explained that my research had indicated that those funds were deposited to the Redevel opment Agency, again without the knowledge or con sent of the City Council. I then told the city attorney that it appears the purpose of this raid on the general fund was to cover the financial failures of the Redevelopment Agency and the Park Avenue development.

To my astonishment, the city attorney sent me a “loan agreement,” dated March 16, 2004, which was about two years after the unauthorized transfer of the $7 million. This agreement, signed by then-May or Tom Davis, asserts that the $7,007,000 is a “loan” and that it is to be paid back with TOT funds. Since the TOT funds had already been allocated to the general fund, I could not understand how such a loan could be legal. It also struck me as suspicious that the city attorney would proffer a backdated document, especially since the El Dorado Grand Jury had previously admonished the City Council about backdated documents.

It's now been more than five years since the $400-plus-million convention center-retail-hotel complex broke ground. It is now a crumbling pile of concrete, rust and graffiti. Not only has the current City Council failed to address this problem, it appointed the guy responsible for this crater as our new mayor.

The real reason that this 12-acre crater can't be fixed is because the city never required a performance bond. In fact, then-Mayor Hal Cole, who also served as the Redevelopment Agency board chairman, not only let the developer off the hook for the performance bond, Mr. Cole signed the contract first, even though the contract specified the developer must sign first. Why Mr. Cole suspended the performance bond and signed first remains a mystery and is a matter that should still be investigated by the Grand Jury.

Worst of all, on July 10, 2006, Mayor Hal Cole told the public, “The developer is assuming all the risk.”

Given that the city ended up with an enormous crater and no funds to fix it, Mayor Cole's comment was not only false and deceptive, his re-appointment as mayor has created an unacceptable level of mistrust in our City Council.

As a result of these and other disturbing findings of financial wrongdoing, the reckless accumulation of monstrous unfunded liabilities, the disgraceful pollution of our beaches and lake, as well as the on going deception of the public about our crumbling roads, I have filed a formal complaint with the El Dorado County Grand Jury. After 15 years of shameful failures and abuses, it is time to either hold the city council legally responsible for its dishonest and incompetent performance or dissolve this costly and corrupt pretense of a city government.

— Steve Kubby is a South Lake Tahoe resident.

(San Bernardino) Felon profits from SBIA

Agency happy with results
Josh Dulaney, Staff Writer
Posted: 07/17/2011 11:04:20 PM PDT

SAN BERNARDINO - A developer who was banned from the aviation industry has received millions of dollars for projects at San Bernardino International Airport, according to a Grand Jury report.
Scot Spencer, a convicted felon who has served time in federal prison for bankruptcy fraud, by January received payments of $7.4 million in developer fees and reimbursements for work on a corporate jet facility and a passenger terminal, according to the San Bernardino County Grand Jury report.

The initial cost estimate for the two projects was roughly $43 million, but the airport had spent more than $125 million on the projects through January, the report says.

According to San Francisco-based Harvey M. Rose Associates, which performed the audit on which the Grand Jury relied heavily for its report, Spencer "had limited experience in capital project airport development prior to being selected for these functions on a sole-source basis."

But with a sparkling terminal, four passenger gates and ticketing stations, Spencer said he has accomplished the mission he was given.

"As far as our performance on this project, I think the results speak for themselves," Spencer said. "For whatever reason, the auditors chose to ignore the information that was given to them or just declined to accept the documents to look at."

Concerning the $7.4 million in payments to Spencer's companies, the audit found that $1.9 million was in developer fees.

Spencer said more than $4 million was in reimbursement money for purchasing and refurbishing equipment at the airport.

He said the remainder was reimbursement for other costs he covered, including utilities and permits.

Airport officials have said Spencer's developer fee is cheaper than what others would have charged, and they say it is Spencer's networking ability in the aviation industry that has helped bring the likes of Boeing Co. to the airport.

"And they are here because of his connections," said Donald L. Rogers, the interim executive director of the airport.

Spencer said the cost of the airport projects, compared with similar ones throughout the country, is "within reason."

One of his companies, Norton Development Co., was chosen to develop the terminal without a bid process, something airport executives have said is routine for contractors hired to deliver a professional service.

The company is required to collect bids from contractors doing work at the terminal, and contractors are paid through a third party instead of having Spencer's firm write the checks, airport officials said.

Banned from aviation

In May 1996, Spencer was sentenced to 51 months in prison and three years of supervised release. His appeal was denied in October the following year.

According to the appellate judge's decision, Spencer in early 1992 used an advertising agency to hide payments made to him by Braniff International Airlines while the carrier was in bankruptcy protection.

Braniff was required to, but did not, report to the bankruptcy court that its expenses included payments to Spencer.

The Grand Jury report says that in 2005, Spencer was found guilty of operating as an indirect air carrier without the authority of the U.S. Department of Transportation and was fined $1 million, which remains unpaid.

An administrative-law judge wrote a default judgment against Spencer "to permanently cease and desist from further marketing or other involvement in air transportation operations so that he is banned from the aviation industry."

But Spencer, whose history at the airport dates back to 2003 as manager of a leasing and services company that leased storage space for Boeing 727 aircraft, manages multiple companies that do business with the airport, including Norton Development, which worked out the 2007 deal to build the terminal.

The agreement called for Norton Development to assume responsibility for construction work, then sell the terminal to the airport upon its completion.

The deal included a 1.35 percent development fee.

Norton Development also owns the Million Air corporate jet facility, and Spencer's business interests at the airport include SBD Aircraft Services, which holds a lease on the airport's hangar complex, and Norton Aircraft Maintenance Services, which performs repair work on jet aircraft.

'Serious questions'

The civil Grand Jury took to task the San Bernardino International Airport Authority - a joint-powers authority composed of San Bernardino County and the cities of San Bernardino, Colton, Loma Linda and Highland - for its increasingly complex relationship with Spencer.

"The evolution of these sole- source relationships between SBIAA and Mr. Spencer, and the growth in the involvement of the companies he manages, raises serious questions," the report says. "Further, Mr. Spencer's activities at SBIAA are in direct violation of the DOT order, which states he should be `banned from the aviation industry."'

"Is it embarrassing? Hell yes," said Josie Gonzales, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors, and member of the authority board.

Gonzales said it is the board's job to make sure "that Mr. Spencer is either performing to the letter of the contract that we have with him, and if he is not, it's our job to get him the hell out."

But Spencer believes the scope of the aviation industry ban is actually narrow.

"The DOT order, which, if you read the whole language of the order, doesn't just say `banned from the aviation industry' ... that refers to the sale of airline tickets and the marketing of airline products," Spencer said.

He said he has appealed the order.

"None of the activities that we're involved in at the airport are in contradiction to that order, because they are outside the statutory authority of what the DOT was referring to in that order," Spencer said.

Airport officials suggested that the Department of Transportation overreached in its decision to ban Spencer from the aviation industry, saying its authority does not cover corporate jet facilities or maintenance and leasing operations.

"We all agreed that the limitation on the aviation industry ban was very limited in scope and did not include all these ground operations," Rogers said.

The auditor disagreed with Rogers, and said in the Grand Jury report: "This interpretation runs counter to a plain- language understanding of the judge's order and is not documented in any fashion. We therefore reject the Interim Executive Director's interpretation and assertion regarding the court's intent."

Outside opinion

The Grand Jury has called for the airport authority to review its current contracts for construction services and airport operations with the companies Spencer manages, and to identify modifications "that may be necessary to protect" the airport from "potential future risk."

Although the airport authority board's legal team has said Spencer's involvement in the airport is not an issue, Gonzales has made repeated calls for input from an outside legal firm.

"In all honesty, we have not gone to an outside legal source and gotten a legal opinion that then we can hang our hat on and say, `Based on this ... legal opinion, we have proceeded,"' she said. "We intend to do that. I don't have a reason for why we've not done that."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

San Ramon dismisses (Contra Costa) grand jury report

By Sophia Kazmi
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 07/15/2011 03:57:49 PM PDT
Updated: 07/15/2011 05:52:50 PM PDT

SAN RAMON -- Despite grand jury recommendations to consider reducing its City Council salaries or benefits, San Ramon has no plans to make changes.

The city stated as much in a letter, approved Tuesday, responding to Contra Costa Civil grand jury findings.

The grand jury, found that San Ramon, with a population of about 72,000, compensated its entire council $163,190, which is well above the county average of $77,895.

Only Richmond, with a population of about 100,000 and seven council members, compensated elected officials more, with $267,139.

The other cities that are above the average are Antioch ($112,591), Brentwood ($91,998), Concord ($128,262), Hercules ($93,691), Martinez ($131,326) and San Pablo ($100,961)

The grand jury recommended San Ramon should look at considering reducing council salaries. The city paid its council members $47,935 in salaries and meeting fees for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, which is above the $39,377 average.

The city response is that the jury's suggestion is unreasonable.

"Suggesting that agencies reduce salaries to the average of the County not only ignores the differences in agency size and operations, but ignores that statistical reality that unless all agency salaries are identical, there will always be agencies above and below the average," the council's letter said.

Other jury recommendations were for San Ramon to consider an annual public review of elected official
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compensation, which the city said is unnecessary because a publicly approved ordinance guides council compensation.

The grand jury also recommended the city look at whether paying health care insurance and pensions for council members is appropriate.

The city responded that the suggestions were unwarranted because it implies paying benefits is inappropriate and the city says there is no law or historical precedent to suggest that is the case.

The letter was approved at the San Ramon Council meeting Tuesday night, where council members defended their compensation. Vice Mayor Scott Perkins said he estimates he works about a 1,000 hours a year doing city work.

Mayor Abram Wilson said that the city has a AAA credit bond rating, a healthy budget reserve fund and a high quality of life. Residents are shocked to learn how little he makes, he said.

"It's a full-time job, if it's done correctly," he said.

Contact Sophia Kazmi at 925-847-2122. Follow her at

Friday, July 15, 2011

San Bernardino airport officials take another swing at Grand Jury report

JOSH DULANEY, Staff Writer
Posted: 07/13/2011 10:40:04 PM PDT

SAN BERNARDINO - Airport officials Wednesday continued to push back against a scathing Grand Jury report that casts doubts on whether they are properly managing the transformation of the former Norton Air Force Base.

"During the process of our review (of the report), we located significant factual errors," said Donald L. Rogers, interim executive director of the airport, at a meeting of the San Bernardino International Airport Authority board. The SBIAA - a joint powers authority composed of the county of San Bernardino and the cities of San Bernardino, Colton, Loma Linda and Highland - is responsible for redeveloping the aviation portion of the former air base.

The San Bernardino County Grand Jury says in its report the airport has engaged in questionable practices related to finances, construction management and how it awards developer contracts.

In response, the airport authority board says that during its next few meetings, it will correct what it believes are errors throughout the report.

Those meetings will lead up to an official response to be drafted by Aug. 30.

"There are clarifications that should, we feel, be made throughout this process," said Mike Burrows, the airport's assistant director. At Wednesday's meeting, Burrows gave a presentation outlining the SBIAA's initial reactions to the report, among which are:

Although the report included a performance audit by San Francisco-based Harvey M. Rose no tests of performance "were ever conducted, nor were any measurable comparisons presented as to management performance or as to financial comparisons."

The audit states the opinion of its authors without providing substantiated information.

There are multiple errors and misstatements that need to be corrected.

Among the supposed errors tackled first, the SBIAA says the audit is wrong about the airport's terminal design being altered by a developer's aggressive passenger projections and "assertions of prospective air carrier requirements."

Burrows said the decision to start the terminal renovation project was in 2006.

He also said work was based on a master plan prepared by HNTB, an airport consulting firm, that predicted more than 2 million passengers would go through San Bernardino International Airport by 2023.

A June 2006 workshop presentation to the SBIAA and its sister agency, the Inland Valley Development Agency, which oversees redevelopment of the non-aviation portion of the former air base, included the interim use of the terminal, with a $100million investment, and a future mid-field terminal with an investment of $341million, Burrows said.

He said that after the workshop, direction was given by the SBIAA board to consider renovating the outdated terminal.

Burrows then disputed the audit's finding that the airport has "poor budgetary controls."

He outlined a series of steps he said the airport takes to ensure proper handling of funds and payments to contractors, including the use of a fund control firm to oversee the inspection of work, and to disburse payments only after the proper signatures are obtained for detailed reports of work and transfer documents.

Burrows said future workshops will address purchases and costs and how the airport selected contractors.

The airport also will address its relationship with Scot Spencer, a convicted felon who has served time in federal prison for bankruptcy fraud. The audit found the airport entered into several contracts with Spencer, whom the U.S. Department of Transportation fined $1million and banned from the aviation industry.

Josie Gonzales, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors and a member of the SBIAA board, said the Grand Jury report is an obstacle course that must be navigated in front of the public.She called for the SBIAA board's official response to be drafted as quickly as possible, even before Aug. 30, and said there needs to be extensive documentation of errors in the Grand Jury report.

"I want there to be very clearly an outline of all of the errors that can be corrected, through documentation (and) evidence, that then will establish once and for all what the situation is," Gonzales said.


Oakland Building Services department subject of scathing Alameda grand jury report

By Cecily Burt
Oakland Tribune
Posted: 07/14/2011 12:00:00 AM PDT

The Alameda County grand jury has published a scathing review of Oakland's Building Services division, and its conclusions likely will spark a thorough overhaul of the department responsible for handling inspections and code violations for blight and illegal construction.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said the grand jury's findings are a top priority and one of the first things that incoming City Administrator Deanna Santana will take up.

The panel concluded that significant improvement is needed in several areas, including the abatement process; policies, procedures and training; information, communication and data management; due process (notices, liens, fees and fines); contracting; and appeals.

The civil grand jury elected to investigate Oakland's Building Services, which is a division of the Community and Economic Development Agency, after receiving numerous complaints from property owners about excessive and arbitrary fees and liens, and abusive and retaliatory treatment by inspectors, among other things.

Similar complaints were the catalyst for a grand jury investigation 11 years ago, but the recommendations from that panel -- that liens be used as a last resort and that inspectors focus on code violations to those that threaten life, health and safety -- were ignored, the 2011 grand jury noted. Conditions have grown worse since then, it said.

"The Grand Jury is appalled by the actions of the city of Oakland's Building Services Division and its impact on property owners of Oakland. "... The division's practices and its treatment of property owners appear to be a direct reflection of poor management, lack of leadership, and ambiguous policies and procedures," it wrote in its final report, released June 28.

The panel interviewed property owners and current and former city employees. It subpoenaed about 50 property files that had code violations and requested documents from property owners.

It also compared Oakland's laws and procedures regarding blight abatement and property code violations with those in San Jose and San Francisco. The panel found those cities' rules and procedures more neutral and fair to property owners.

The panel noted "an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation toward property owners" by Oakland inspectors and supervisors, and it suggested that the city re-evaluate the policy of giving inspectors law enforcement authority. The grand jury also criticized the speed with which inspectors declared properties blighted and slapped prospective liens on properties.

The final report included several examples in which liens were recorded before issuing an abatement notice and before the property owner had a chance to respond or appeal the blight abatement order. The liens ranged from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars and often had no relation to the actual costs of unpaid fines or abatement work.

The conclusions were no surprise to Michelle Cassens, a property inspector whose unhappy experience with the department started after she and her husband, Gwillym Martin, in March 2008 bought a West Oakland Victorian duplex built around 1888.

Cassens said she was cited for constructing an illegal second downstairs unit and ordered to remove it, despite records that show the unit has been part of the house for more than 100 years.

From May to September 2009, the couple tried to appeal the case, but each request was discarded or denied, Cassens said.

On Aug. 3, 2009, former Building Services Manager Antoinette Renwick issued a demolition order for their house and gave them two weeks to get out. A $50,000 lien was placed on their property.

Since then, Cassens has made it her mission to expose fraud and abuse by Oakland's building inspection department. She created the AuditOaklandCEDA blog and sent letters to 2,000 property owners she identified through public records as having had a prospective lien placed on their property. She urged them to file a written complaint with the grand jury.

Cassens also discovered that Renwick had taken out a $50,000 loan from a contractor who landed the majority of hauling and demolition business from the city's inspectors. The contractor, it turns out, is Renwick's relative. Cassens reported it to the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Renwick resigned Oct. 15. The panel concurred that the department's contracting policies were flawed and the access granted the contractor contributed to an "appearance of impropriety."

Cassens said she feels vindicated by the grand jury's report, but her nightmare is not over. She's had to hire an attorney; the nest egg she and Martin hoped to spend on their home is gone.

Andrew Vincent also was embroiled in a battle with Building Services over a fence he didn't build and a concrete basement that does not exist in his North Oakland fourplex. Vincent, an electrical contractor, said he was victimized by an overzealous building inspector after he complained that flooding in his yard was caused by a neighbor's unpermitted construction.

Vincent said he tried to appeal his case through normal channels but was denied that opportunity. He was forced to sue the city to have $48,000 worth of liens removed. That effort, he said, has cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars that he will never get back.

Vincent said the biggest problem is the lack of due process afforded Oakland property owners. It's nearly impossible to file an appeal, and the few that are scheduled are a "kangaroo court," he said.

"The Oakland Municipal Code is quite clear, that your appeal is to be heard by someone who is not employed by the city," he said. "Appeals are filed, but denied by someone in the department."

In a statement, the city concurred with much of the grand jury's analysis, especially as it involves the city's code enforcement for blight.

Quan said the department is understaffed, undertrained and in need of a computer system that can track every action, citation, appeal and correspondence with property owners.

"That's one of the things (new City Administrator) Deanna (Santana) and I need to take on as soon as she starts," she said. "They need consistency. I don't think it's corrupt at this point; at least not at this point. "... I haven't had a chance to look at it."

Quan said the department has begun to limit liens and make a better effort to notify property owners. However, she does think that liens, if used judiciously, can be effective for getting rid of truly nuisance properties, such as the Hillcrest Motel.

"We have to make sure they are reviewed, and there is no possibility of corruption," she said.

Contact Cecily Burt at 510-208-6441. Follow her at

(San Ramon) City Council Defends Its Compensation

City Council on Tuesday talked about how to respond to a grand jury report that suggested San Ramon reconsider how much it pays elected officials.

By James T. Ott and Jennifer Wadsworth

July 13, 2011

The mayor says he's sick of talking about it.

But it keeps coming up and likely will remain an issue as we approach the Nov. 8 City Council election: Does San Ramon overpay its elected leaders?

The five council members in question don't think so.

But a Contra Costa County Grand Jury study found that the $163,190 San Ramon pays its elected leaders annually is more than twice the average of 19 nearby cities. That includes health care, pension, car allowance and other compensation.

The report suggests that San Ramon consider reducing that amount in light of the troubled economy and to bring it closer in line with what other cities pay.

The grand jury also questions whether it's justifiable to give council members health-care and pension benefits in the first place.

Mayor H. Abram Wilson and council members on Tuesday discussed how to respond to those findings. Basically, the council disagrees with the grand jury's conclusions. All of them.

So they voted unanimously to send a letter — signed by Wilson — to convey that message. And to say that the entire study was done wrong.

The letter says the grand jury was wrong to compare San Ramon's city council pay to other cities. As long as the city complies with state law – which it does – the only other context should be what predecessors on the council made, the mayor says.

Plus, the grand jury didn't consider differences in the way each city is managed, the letter continues. San Ramon is well-run, boasts an AAA credit rating, headquarters some of the biggest corporations in the nation and isn't as financially bad off as other cities in the region, the letter notes.

If anything, given the amount of work they put in, San Ramon's elected leaders are underpaid, Wilson said. It's a sentiment echoed by Councilman Dave Hudson and some other council members.

Each council member makes just over $15,500 in gross wages and an additional $800 in pension contributions, according to the city's 2010 salary report. And the mayor took home a $17,800 salary plus $900 in pension benefits last year.

What's unknown is how much the city shells out for their health-care costs because the city refuses to disclose that, citing patient privacy laws.

"My wife wants to know who in their right mind would do what we do for what we get paid," Wilson said. "When we know we're doing something correctly, we stand up for our rights. And that's what we're doing."

Martinez replies to grand jury vehicle maintenance report

By Lisa P. White
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 07/12/2011 02:16:57 PM PDT
Updated: 07/12/2011 02:16:57 PM PDT

MARTINEZ -- Martinez will buy a software system to track vehicle maintenance costs and reduce the number of vehicles employees are allowed to take home in response to a recent report from the Contra Costa County civil grand jury.

The grand jury reviewed the way Contra Costa County and the 19 cities in the county manage the upkeep and use of the fleets of vehicles assigned to police, public works and other departments.

In the report, the grand jury recommended that Martinez consider consolidating its vehicle maintenance facility with the county's, review its practices for purchasing spare auto parts and evaluate the need for city workers to have full-time autos.

In the official response to the grand jury the City Council approved last week, Martinez agreed with two of the report's findings, but rejected others.

Pittsburg and Martinez are the only cities that lease their vehicle maintenance facilities, commonly known as a corporation yard. Martinez pays $18,000 per year for the downtown property where it stores and repairs vehicles and heavy equipment.

Although city leaders have been looking for a place to move the corporation yard for several years, plans to purchase a property on Howe Road fell through last year, as did a proposal to share the school district's corporation yard.

The grand jury recommended that the Martinez council and the county board of supervisors, "explore the feasibility of consolidating their maintenance facilities and maintenance management systems."

The city staff flatly rejected that suggestion. Martinez services about 128 pieces of equipment, including police cars and lawn mowers, at its Berrellesa Street facility, according to the city.

The city staff said the county facility, which is located about six miles from downtown, is inconvenient and too full to accommodate the city's vehicles.

"There's only two full-time employees that do what I would consider an exceptional job keeping our vehicles and other equipment in top condition, and we have very little down time," Public Works Director Dave Scola told the council.

In its report, the grand jury pointed out that Martinez is the only city in the county that does not use a computer program to keep track of vehicle maintenance costs. Such software can track purchase price, repairs, gas mileage and parts used as well as flag dates for smog checks and other routine maintenance services for each vehicle, according to Martinez Public Works Superintendent Bob Cellini, who oversees the city's fleet.

Scola said the city has budgeted $25,000 to buy a software system this year.

The report criticized Martinez and other cities for allowing its staff to take vehicles home, a practice the grand jury said "results in significant taxpayer expense." Currently, five Martinez police officers and four public works employees take vehicles home. Scola said the city will cut that number in half this fiscal year.

The grand jury reviewed the spare parts inventories kept by the county and each city. According to the report, the grand jury used the total spare parts inventory value each city reported on the survey to determine the "per vehicle" value. The reported $20,000 value of the inventory in Martinez amounts to $465 per vehicle, well above the $206 per vehicle average of 11 other government entities.

However, the city staff said the grand jury's methodology was flawed. The $20,000 parts inventory in Martinez is for the entire fleet of 128 pieces of equipment the city owns -- including police cars, dump trucks, riding mowers, city vehicles, a street sweeper -- not just vehicles, according to the city's response.

Counting only cars, pickup trucks, SUVs and vans, the per vehicle value of the inventory falls to about $200, the city says.

Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at

(Plumas County) Grand jury report takes school district to task

Mona Hill
Staff Writer

The 2010-11 Plumas County grand jury devoted the bulk of its 16-page report to investigative findings and recommendations for the Plumas County Board of Education and Plumas Unified School District. A copy of the report is available as a supplement in this week’s paper.

The 15-member civil panel reviews various aspects of county government to ensure accountability or in response to citizens’ complaints.

In addition to schools, this year’s jury selected the probation department, sheriff’s office and county projects funded with federal stimulus money.

District reserve

The district targeted a reserve 45 percent of general fund expenses, as suggested by School Services of California following a financial review of the district in 2009-10, at a time when it seemed possible the district might fall out of basic aid status.

Each year, the state sets a per student revenue amount. The formula incorporates grade level and average daily attendance to arrive at a minimum per student funding figure that each school district receives, known as the revenue limit.

When a district’s property tax income falls below that level, the state tops the district’s revenue to meet the revenue limit.

In Plumas County, property tax revenues exceed the revenue limit amount set by the state, a condition known as basic aid.

In several contentious school board meetings, parents, teachers and concerned community members have complained about a lack of remedial, advanced placement and elective classes, as well as not enough sections of required classes to meet students’ needs. They maintain the money is for current students and challenge the amount of the reserve.

Superintendent Glenn Harris contends the district is in danger of becoming a revenue limit district because of falling tax revenues and enrollment.

In response to questions from board members at their January 2011 meeting, the district’s auditor said while the reserve is higher than any other district’s, the district faces different challenges and that it was a prudent reserve.

The grand jury undertook to determine whether the 45 percent target for the district’s financial reserves was appropriate.

The grand jury concluded the fiscal picture is complicated, grim and that “signs point to maintaining the current budget courses.”

District expulsion and suspension policies

The jury investigated a written complaint that alleged an illegal, improper, dishonest, inefficient and unfair application of policy.

Jurors met with school officials and attended the Dec. 14, 2010, school board meeting where Marian Liddell addressed the board regarding the expulsion of her grandson following an incident in September 2010, as reported in the Dec. 22, 2010, edition of the newspaper.

The grand jury found “school officials did not have a full understanding of the procedures or the purpose of the ‘Zero Tolerance’ ruling.” It also found that district action did not comply with code guidelines and time frames: Liddell was not advised of a hearing even though sheriff’s office deputies were present and the student, with good grades and high test scores, was suspended until the December 2010 board meeting despite the incident being a first offense.

The jury also found this particular case was not an isolated incident. Based on jurors’ conversations with community members and a review of board meeting records, the jury found the district did not comply with time frames set by its own policies, which are adopted from Education Code.

School safety policy reform

Grand jurors also investigated district policy following the April 20, 2010, lockdown at the Quincy Elementary School campus, also reported by this paper.

Two students reported seeing a man with a gun in the school’s entryway. Principal Bruce Williams was at the district office and when attempts to reach him by telephone failed, the school secretary drove to the district office to inform him of the situation.

Williams and Harris went to the campus and ordered all Quincy schools into lockdown, then notified law enforcement officials after a significant delay.

Jurors concluded, given the procedural improvements in place as of Dec. 10, 2010, school officials had acted to improve school safety.

Atmosphere of intolerance

According to the grand jury report, “Examples of intolerance were directly observed by Grand Jury members from interviews, local media, and testimony at public school board meetings.”

Examples cited in the report include the so-called “hate truck” and teachers who felt they worked “in an environment of intimidation, harassment, and retribution if there was any questioning or dissent.”

In addition, teachers felt concerns about students were not addressed by administration. “They reported instances of intimidation of principals to be quiet when parents show up at meetings, and to discourage parents from attending meetings.”

Jurors received reports from witnesses regarding intimidation. According to the report, dissenting teachers received unwarranted poor reviews, underwent evaluations two to three times a week, were placed in uncomfortable positions or given excessive assignments or demands without guidelines to define a “bad teacher.”

The report also said, “Students with behavioral problems were denied behavioral consultations because they were too expensive.”

Federal law requires testing for “students whose behavior affects their learning and the learning of other students to a marked degree or over a period of time.”

The report was critical of the district’s response to the “hate truck” and concluded the public perceives board policy as controversial.

Recommendations included a suggestion the district follow through on its mission statement with regard to tolerance.

In addition, “Hate language should not be visible on school property or from school property.”

Jurors suggested an ongoing program of tolerance schoolwide, as well as specific guidelines and communication of the district’s teacher performance expectations.

Harris, who was on vacation as of press time, commented by email, “PUSD is appreciative of the Grand Jury’s time and effort. PUSD has implemented training dealing with workplace diversity issues. All administrative and supervisory employees have completed this training during 2010/2011.”