Thursday, April 30, 2015
STOCKTON — The city’s Municipal Utilities Department drew broad criticism Wednesday over numerous job vacancies, potential pipe failures and levee settling at Stockton’s water treatment plant in a report released by the San Joaquin County Grand Jury.
Stockton officials declined immediate comment on the 18-page report.
“We just received it,” city spokeswoman Connie Cochran said. “We’re in the process of reviewing it. We’ll be providing our response within the 90-day time frame provided by the grand jury.”
The report delves deeply into city water services that are operated by the Municipal Utilities Department, or MUD.
According to the grand jury, its investigation was prompted by a complaint received last September alleging mismanagement of the department’s assets and failures to comply with safety regulations and to address infrastructure problems.
The report delves into three areas of concern: The city’s Delta Water Treatment Plant and intake and pump station facility at Eight Mile Road; overall safety and infrastructure issues; and working conditions for MUD employees.
The $220 million Delta Water Treatment Plant marked the largest public works project in Stockton’s history when it opened three years ago.
According to the grand jury, changes in ground elevation at the facility’s intake pump station raise concerns over employee safety. Additionally, the grand jury said, the water-treatment plant was shut down for about four months in 2014 because of low staffing levels.
As for the overall safety and infrastructure issues, the grand jury says corrosive hydrogen sulfide has been building up in sewer lines and has gone untreated for more than two years. Among the effects of this was the collapse of a 36-inch sewer pipeline under a community garden, persistent resident complaints over odors and worries over possible health consequences for MUD workers.
The grand jury report blames Stockton’s recently concluded bankruptcy for accelerating staff turnover, which cost the department technical expertise and top management, and resulted in pay cuts and low employee morale.
MUD employees have been open about their frustration in recent weeks. Numerous MUD employees turned out at two City Council meetings in the past month, staging an informational picket at the first and addressing Stockton officials at the second.
In all, the grand jury made eight findings and recommendations. Among its recommendations are that needed facilities repairs be made by September; that MUD officials address the council on the hydrogen sulfide issue, also by September; and that the department prioritize the filling of vacant technical positions.
The City Council is required to respond to each of the grand jury’s findings and recommendations within 90 days.
April 30, 2015
By Roger Phillips
A Humboldt County grand jury report released Wednesday found the multi-million dollar Headwaters Fund isn’t being managed well enough by the county to fulfill its long-term purpose, hasn’t undergone reviews mandated by its charter, and should be turned over to a nonprofit to prevent further erosion.
Both the fund and its charter were created by the Humboldt Board of Supervisors in 2002, after Humboldt County was given $22 million dollars by the state and federal government as compensation for the sale to the Bureau of Land Management of what would become the 7,500-acre Headwaters Forest Reserve. Supervisors voted to sock away $18 million of that payment in what would become the Headwaters Fund.
“I represent a district that lost a tremendous amount of jobs with the loss of PALCO (Pacific Lumber Company),” county 2nd District Supervisor and board Chairwoman Estelle Fennell told the Times-Standard on Thursday. “I have copy of the original check for $12 million from the state that says in the description, ‘For jobs and job training for displaced workers.’ I think that’s what most people saw the purpose of the fund to be. It was to really make up for the loss of jobs for handing over this large tract of old growth forest to the Bureau of Land Management.”
But according to the grand jury report, the fund’s investment portfolio isn’t living up its charter, which pledges to “keep the funds working in the community in perpetuity.”
The grand jury report states that the fund’s balance has dropped 20 percent from its 2009 peak of about $20,790,000 to its 2013-2014 fiscal year ending balance of about $16,540,000.
“The Humboldt County Grand Jury finds the current Headwaters Fund investment portfolio, managed and invested by the Humboldt County Treasurer to be inconsistent with the charter’s mandated ‘in perpetuity,’” the report states.
The report states that this is partially due to the Board of Supervisors’ decision to amend the fund’s charter in February 2014 to allow the county treasurer to invest up to $10 million of the fund outside the county’s investment pool — the amount of revenue collected by the county’s various agencies.
Fennell said that this was done as returns from Headwaters Fund investments into the county’s investment pool were poor.
“When you hand it over to the treasurer, he can then put it in through outside investment streams that might bring back a greater return,” she said. “... The strategy was, let’s try to get something more from this money, but not to gamble off it.”
The grand jury argues that this safe investment approach only protects the fixed dollar amount of the fund, but does not allow the fund’s balance to keep pace with inflation and increases in the cost of living.
“The consequence will be over time an erosion of the funds ability to serve its original purpose,” the report states.
County Treasurer John Bartholomew said he was advised by the County Counsel’s Office not to speak about the report until he files the required formal response.
Another investment the report criticizes is $2 million being used for large infrastructure projects over an eight-year period with no mechanism for replenishing the invested funds.
Because of these reasons, the report recommends that the board transfer management of the fund’s investment portfolio from the county treasurer to the nonprofit Humboldt Area Foundation.
“Humboldt Area Foundation, even with the economic downturn of 2008-2009, has over the last ten years been able to achieve a 6.7 percent return on over $90 million in investments,” the report states.
Fennell said that should the board consider this change, it would be a more risky approach.
“It may bring you greater dividends, but it also entails more risk,” she said. “That’s why we went with the idea of giving it to the treasurer.”
The report argues that as the fund manager, the treasurer “must take a reasonable amount of risk” in order to be able to make future investments and acquire the money needed to do so.
A call to the Humboldt Area Foundation was not returned.
Though the Headwaters Fund charter mandates that the charter undergo review every three years and that the public be given a chance to input in the drafting of that review, the grand jury found that such reviews have not taken place since the charter’s creation in 2002.
“Representatives of the Headwaters Fund Board verified that no such written documents existed,” the report states.
Fennell said that is a “key issue” brought up in the report.
“I’d definitely welcome a charter review,” she said.
A call to the Headwaters Fund Board was not returned.
April 29, 2015
By Will Huston
Blog note: This opinion piece cites a grand jury report.
Why did Mayor Ed Lee and seven supervisors put Mel Murphy in charge of San Francisco’s waterfront? The problem is not just one bad apple but a rotting tree: the politically juiced Port Commission populated entirely by mayoral appointees, some of whose chief qualification appears to be their campaign contributions and political connections to the mayors who nominated them and the supervisors who approved them.
Murphy, who gave $23,050 in political contributions to the campaign committees backing Lee and most of the supervisors who approved his appointment, has now become the symbol of a broken Port Commission that must be fixed before more damage is done to our waterfront and public trust.
When Lee nominated Murphy in March 2013 to fill one of the five seats on the powerful Port Commission, it was a startling choice. Not only did Murphy have zero maritime, recreation or environmental background and no other relevant experience, but he had already been caught red-handed violating city building laws and election rules. Supervisor John Avalos, one of the four supervisors who voted against confirming Murphy, said then, “We need people who are going to follow the rules and follow the letter of the law. I do not believe Mel Murphy has done that.”
And that was before Murphy’s illegally propped-up house came crashing down a Twin Peaks hillside, leading to a lengthy investigation and lawsuit by the city attorney that has exposed Murphy as a serial violator of the law and the public trust. Embarassingly, as of today, Murphy still sits on the Port Commission.
But the bigger issue is this: Why was Murphy appointed in the first place and how can we keep our waterfront from ever being Mel Murphyed again? In June, the civil grand jury documented in great detail what troubles the Port in its report, “Port of San Francisco: Caught Between Public Trust and Private Dollars.” The grand jury conducted a six-month examination into the deeply rooted problems that led to a Port Commission so out-of-touch that it unanimously approved the 8 Washington St. luxury high-rises (that was rejected by 67 percent of voters), the America’s Cup fiasco (that cost The City and Port millions instead of bringing in a promised $1.4 billion), and the Warriors arena at Piers 30-32 and condo towers (that were abandoned for lack of public support).
The grand jury’s No. 1 recommendation was to reform the Port Commission and cut the cord that has allowed the Mayor’s Office and development interests to have “strongly influenced” every major land use and real estate decision affecting the waterfront. It recommended a ballot measure be put before voters and our state legislators sponsor enabling legislation to balance the appointment of Port Commissioners between the supervisors and the mayor. In a response letter from Lee, the grand jury’s chief recommendation was deemed “unnecessary and there appears to be no perceivable benefit” and it was summarily dismissed.
The only way to ensure we don’t get Mel Murphyed again is to replace a body that was designed to oversee a shipping-focused Port that no longer exists with a 21st Century Waterfront Protection Commission, whose mission is the stewardship of a precious asset to keep it vibrant and open to all. Not only should we reformulate the Port Commission, but we should also crack down on Murphy-style cronyism by prohibiting all city commissioners from fundraising or donating money to the campaigns of the people who appoint them, just as we already do with our city Ethics and Elections commissions.
Right before he voted to approve Murphy’s appointment, Supervisor Mark Farrell — who received $500 from Murphy for his re-election campaign a few months later — said, “I understand there have been some past issues but, as was pointed out, none of us is perfect. I think we are lucky to have Mr. Murphy serve in our city.” If Mel Murphy’s sliding house leads San Francisco to finally fix its broken Port Commission, prevent a wall of high-rises from blocking the Bay, and protect our waterfront for future generations to enjoy, perhaps we will be lucky after all.
April 28, 2015
Opinion by Jon Golinger, an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach
The Ventura County Grand Jury released a report on Monday asking that Port Hueneme police publicize the criteria necessary for producing police reports as well as the kind of information and reports that are available to the public.
The recommendation comes after someone reported that they had requested a police report from Port Hueneme police and had failed to receive one, officials said.
The grand jury then looked into how Port Hueneme police handle requests for information. The jury reviewed the department’s written policies and procedures and looked online to compare the policies of the Port Hueneme Police Department with those of other departments.
The grand jury found that Port Hueneme police follow state law on the issue as well as their own internal policies in determining whether a police report should be generated.
They also found that Port Hueneme police have a process in place for those wanting call for service reports, police reports and other information. But the process is not well publicized nor easily available to the public, the grand jury found.
The grand jury recommended that police update their website with information on how requests for records and reports as well as other necessary forms are handled, including requests for information or record forms.
The grand jury’s complete report can be found at www.ventura.org/grand-jury under fiscal year 2014-2015.
April 27, 2015
Ventura County Star