Saturday, July 7, 2012

(Marin Co) Many agree: Watchdog needed to monitor 'fiefdom' at Marin Civic Center

By Nels Johnson - Marin Independent Journal

Marin Civic Center officials should heed the civil grand jury and create an independent watchdog to oversee the work of the Board of Supervisors, according to most of those responding to an Independent Journal call for comment.

Though several readers subscribed to the view of Supervisor Susan Adams that the jury's proposal for an "office of independent legislative and budget analysis" sounded like "another layer of government," most responding to the newspaper's opinion inquiry embraced the plan as critical in an era when faith in elected leaders is at a low ebb.

In a recent report, the Marin County Civil Grand Jury concluded the county board "lacks careful analysis of alternatives that might make it possible for the county to really do more, with less," and urged officials to establish an independent watchdog office that could help avert failures such as the county's $30 million computer debacle, its "enriched" but underfunded pension program that requires taxpayers to pick up the tab, or the abrupt collapse of George Lucas' Grady Ranch project.

The panel felt so strongly about the matter it suggested citizens pursue a ballot initiative establishing a Civic Center watchdog if supervisors fail to act.

Sheriff-Coroner Bob Doyle, among those who believes an independent watchdog agency overseeing supervisors is unnecessary, said it's up to the electorate to watchdog local government.

"If elected officials aren't doing the job, don't vote for us," he said.
Deke Welch of San Rafael also was skeptical, noting voters abolished the county's elected "independent critic of auditor-controller ... in favor of a pussycat (appointed finance director) for the supervisors." Welch added: "In the richest, best educated, most politically sophisticated county in America, the voters sometimes act like dopes. Now the grand jury proposes yet another layer of government. Sorry, I am just not buying."

But far more among the several score of residents weighing in with an opinion agreed with the jury that such an office could be the answer to a more transparent, efficient government, spur public engagement in county affairs, foster understanding of issues, challenge officials to justify decisions, increase trust and ensure effective administration.

Several questioned the need for funding such an office, saying it could be handled by volunteers — or the grand jury itself.

Here is a sample of what residents said:

• Sean Svendsen, Ross: "The reason we need it is because the supervisors are ignoring objective mathematical facts in favor of powerful lobbyists like public employee unions who they fear will back a different candidate if they don't go along with the status quo."

• Linda Dunlap, Strawberry: "The performance of the board in fiscal matters has been terrible over a long period of time. We don't seem to have any common sense perspective. The risks taken have been way out of line. I can't believe the money wasted. I am galled at the lack of representation of normal working people in favor of personal agendas. ... They can't do simple things. Look at the recent loss of jobs due to the Lucas decision."

• Mary Premo, Mill Valley: "Something is needed to provide a check on the reasonableness and efficiency with which the county Board of Supervisors et al spend our taxpayer money. If this is too big or too complex a task for the 12-month duration civil grand jury to take on, then a longer-termed entity should be considered, preferably volunteer. ... Big 'elephant in the room' is the outrageous 'slush fund' that the individual supervisors dole out to 'their favorite cause' — without timely public disclosure or discussion, basis for rationale, and even a post-mortem as to how our taxpayer dollars are utilized."

• Dr. Lloyd Gross, Muir Beach: "Yes, we need an oversight committee and no, we need not fund it. It can be staffed by the talented county volunteers without additional cost."

• Chuck Porteous, Novato: "For too long our Board of Supervisors has run the equivalent of a fiefdom. ... As long as the office doesn't add a layer of government, the creation of an (independent analyst) office would provide some degree of guidance when it comes to large expenditures, something history proves this county government needs."

• Michael Lotito, San Rafael: "Since the unions have substantial control of who gets elected through political contributions and given the fact Marin is a one-party county, there is little competition among competing ideas even though there may be many candidates. Therefore, another mechanism for review is necessary ... there needs to be an objective oversight of government."

• Joyce Britt, Mill Valley: "I believed the county made an unwise choice in repealing the elected treasurer position. I believe he was the one who exposed the credit card abuses by some of the supervisors and the computer fiasco among other things. It is so obvious that this county needs independent review. The county government is run like a good old boy's club, with supervisors instructing staff to be their gofers. ... The competence issue looms large as one would expect since no one is ever fired. ... The very fact that the supervisors ... actually promote the illusion that this is a well run county with no fiscal problems is reason enough to get outside and independent review."

• Kay Corlett, San Rafael: "This was discussed by the 2008-09 grand jury though no report was made. We had serious concerns about the county's pension problems and the mismanagement evident there, also we were critical of the supes' 'discretionary funds.' Who handed out those plums?"

• Sandra Macleod White, Sausalito: "As a former (2010-2011) member of the Marin County Civil Grand Jury — I would just like to point out that it is the responsibility of the grand jury to be the 'watchdog agency' of all governmental services."

• Jack Clapper, Mill Valley: "The supervisors' slush fund and their self-congratulatory press releases are indications that the board is not competent to make difficult decisions."

• Steve Fabes, Sausalito: "The track record of our supervisors is a disaster and yet they claim to be the best we have. ... Of course we need someone to back-stop their decisions."

• Chris Valentino, Novato: "I truly believe that our county leaders lack the expertise, grit and fortitude to be faithful stewards over our public funds," he said, noting "their never-ending use of consultants."

• Greg Seal, Novato: "Politicians appear tone deaf when it comes to listening to the county. ... The expected solution of appropriate accountability at the 'election box' appears to be broken. Special interests pour money into elections, many times overriding the electorate's true will. ... Government appears to be broken and leadership is missing."

• Richurd Somers, San Anselmo: "We are very close to the courts deciding that Deloitte was not at fault in the Board of Supervisors' computer fiasco. ... Then we have the Grady Ranch fiasco; the bicycle/hiking path for the Mercedes crowd, and the supervisors' unregulated slush fund. ... Let us not forget the move by (the late) Hal Brown to get rid of secret ballots... ."

• Guy Palmer, Mill Valley: "The biggest problem I see with the county government is the pensions these people get."

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