Tuesday, March 29, 2016

[Marin County] Marin watchdog flunks 64 public agencies on website transparency

Most public agencies in Marin fail to provide adequate websites, and 20 entities overseen by county officials do not maintain a website at all, according to a public information “transparency” probe by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury.
The jury audited 126 agencies, special districts and joint powers authorities and found “serious deficiencies” in the quantity and quality of online information provided — if at all.
Some 27 agencies lacked websites, and of 99 agencies with sites, 65 did not satisfy the grand jury’s website transparency criteria. Of those with sites, “a majority of the agencies were out of compliance” with state codes requiring the posting of annual pay for officials and employees, the jury reported.
A half-dozen agencies including the Novato Fire Protection District got top website scores from the grand jury. “It’s about content, and ease of use, not flashy appearance,” Novato Fire Chief Mark Heine said. “Since I became fire chief two years ago, we’ve had a strong commitment to transparency and public information, and I think the jury recognized that.”
About half the agencies contacted in advance by the jury improved their sites as a result, but even then, only 34 agencies received what the jury regarded as an adequate “B-” or better grade. The county government at the Civic Center got a “C-.” Sixty-four Marin agencies and entities were deemed public information web failures with an “F.”
“Increasing transparency ... makes it easier to understand where tax dollars go,” the jury said. “Residents should be able to easily find the description of services provided, the names and contact information of board members and management, the budget, agendas and minutes of meetings, and other information” including employee pay, the jury said in its “Web Transparency Report Card: Bringing Marin County’s Local Government to Light.”
Jurors awarded a top “A+” website information grade to six agencies. The top scores went to Corte Madera and Sausalito as well as the Novato Fire Protection District, the Novato Sanitary District, Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District and the Bolinas Community Public Utility District.
“We try to get out as much information as we can,” said Sandeep Karkal, general manager of the Novato Sanitary District. The district site is informative but “not glitzy or glamorous,” he said.
Grades of “A-” were given to Larkspur, Mill Valley and Tiburon. San Rafael got a “B” and Ross got a “C” while other cities scored “B-.”
Other “A-” grades went to the Novato Unified School District, Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District, Marin Resource Conservation District, Sausalito-Marin City Sanitary District and Tamalpais Community Services District.
The list of 64 agencies flunked by the jury was dominated by neighborhood service areas, small school and joint power authorities and financing entities — but also included larger agencies such as the San Rafael city schools, where top officials were unavailable for comment Friday.
Other “F” grades went to Reed Union School District, Shoreline Unified School District, the county Open Space District, the Marin Major Crimes Task Force and the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District.
County administrators said the jury erred in putting the county fire department on the failure list, noting it is not a special district. In any event, “We will continue to cooperate and collaborate with the grand jury on the recommendations and are looking at improvements from the standpoint of county government as a whole,” county Fire Chief Jason Weber said.
Agencies with poor scores included Tamalpais High School District, “D-”; Marin County Healthcare District, “D-”; Ross School District, “D-”; Marin Community College District, “C-”; Kentfield School District, “C-”; Central Marin Police Authority, “C-”; Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit “C-” and Marin Clean Energy, “C-”. The jury asked all agencies to improve their scores to a “B-” or better.
Checklist criteria on which websites were graded included information about mission statements, budgets, board meetings, elected and appointed officials, administrators, audits, contracts and other public records, as well as agency-specific criteria that varied depending on the type of agency or district.
The jury’s web test ran into an early hurdle: “There was no single comprehensive list of agencies in Marin County,” with a welter of organization lists jurors called “inconsistent, incomplete and or out of date.” The list the jury eventually developed was incomplete as well, as it overlooked two high-profile, big budget agencies — the Transportation Authority of Marin and the Marin County Office of Education. The jury did note that regional agencies such as the Golden Gate Bridge district were intentionally excluded.
The jury said that even small districts can create a handy website at minimal cost with easily available software tools that allow a “non-tech savvy person to manage website content easily.” It listed several website vendors and price ranges.
The jury found that county officials oversee 28 special districts and four joint powers agencies, including 20 that do not have websites. The county told the jury that while it will improve some website listings, “providing and maintaining duplicative information regarding each district, special district, community service area, flood control zone, permanent road division, joint powers agreement ... does not appear the best way to provide straightforward information to our residents.”
Many of these are “best described as financing mechanisms rather than agencies,” the county added.
“We disagree with the county’s approach,” the jury said. “It is unreasonable to ask citizens to become experts in sleuthing to find information.”
The panel suggested a web page for each small district, financial authority or joint powers entity that describes its role and provides links to information found elsewhere on the county website.
Common website deficiencies, the jury said, include failure to enable text searches of budget and audit documents, dated meeting schedules and archives, incomplete board member data, failure to list actual pay figures, failure to display vendor contracts, and failure to explain how to get more information.
Supervisor Steve Kinsey, president of the county board, credited the jury for its “interest in better Internet access to governmental information,” and added he especially appreciated the self-audit checklist the panel developed.
“Our views diverge at the fine-grained level they recommend for individual financial structures like community service areas or road improvement districts,” he said. “If constituents have questions that reach that depth, a single call to their district supervisor can connect them with appropriate staff to help.”
“We certainly share the grand jury’s goal of transparency,” said Assistant County Administrator Daniel Eilerman. “Last year, for example, we launched marincountyca.opengov.com to provide our residents access to our spending information on a 24/7 basis.”
Eilerman said some jury recommendations already have been put to work. The Department of Finance is developing a single website with summary descriptions that will link to special district budget information, he added.
March 27, 2016
Marin Independent Journal
By Nels Johnson

[Tulare County] Tulare hospital responds of Grand Jury

Late Thursday night, the Tulare Local Healthcare District responded to the Tulare County Grand Jury’s report released Thursday. The report was highly critical of the hospital and its handling of its $85 million in general obligation bonds.
The statement indicates the board takes the report seriously and will investigate further.
The statement:
“The Tulare Local Health Care District Board of Directors takes seriously the findings of the Tulare County Grand Jury’s preliminary report and investigation into the expenditure of the proceeds of the previous hospital bond. Our Board will conduct a thorough investigation and prepare a formal response to the report. It is important to note that the concerns raised by the Grand Jury pre-date our management agreement with HCCA (Healthcare Conglomerate Associates), which has completely turned around the hospital’s finances, finished construction of the outside of the tower and is developing a plan to complete the project and provide our community with the state of the art hospital it deserves.”
In its report titled “Tower of Shame,” the Grand Jury accused the hospital of not being forthright with how the bond money was spent. The report said the hospital withheld information from the bond oversight committee, and still has not fully explained why the tower under construction has not been completed.
Tulare District voters passed a $85 million bond measure in 2005, but today construction is at a virtual standstill and the project is less than two-thirds completed. The hospital, which says it has exhausted all of the $85 million, has indicated it will seek voter approval of another $55 million in bonds to complete the tower.
March 26, 2016
The Porterville Recorder
By Gina Kim

[Tulare County] Grand Jury blasts Tulare hospital

In a scathing report, the Tulare County Grand Jury recommended that the Tulare Local Healthcare District fully disclose how it spent $85 million in bond money on the never-completed expansion of Tulare Regional Medical Center.
Issuance of the bond money began in 2007, but 700 change orders and more than 5,000 requests for information made during construction elevated the costs of the expansion by more than $17.5 million.
And even before construction began on the new, 107,000-square-foot hospital tower, district officials were made aware that the total cost of the project likely would exceed $120 million — much more than the $85 million in general obligation bonds that voters in the healthcare district approved in 2005.
Despite knowing the available funds would be insufficient to cover the project’s full cost, the county Grand Jury members say hospital officials opted to move forward with the construction.
 “It appears that [hospital officials] either intentionally or unintentionally failed to comprehend the issue of the cost differential between the $85 million in bond authorization and the total project cost estimated to be well in excess of $100 Million,” states the report posted Thursday on the Grand Jury’s website.
“TLHCD attempted to justify their position by unsupported estimates of reserves and projection of future revenues,” it continues.
The hospital responded Thursday night.
“The Tulare Local Health Care District Board of Directors takes seriously the findings of the Tulare County Grand Jury’s preliminary report and investigation into the expenditure of the proceeds of the previous hospital bond,” according to a written statement. “Our Board will conduct a thorough investigation and prepare a formal response to the report. It is important to note that the concerns raised by the grand jury pre-date our management agreement with HCCA, which has completely turned around the hospital’s finances, finished construction of the outside of the tower and is developing a plan to complete the project and provide our community with the state-of-the-art hospital it deserves.”
The current board of directors is made up of three of the five members who were on the board during portions of construction, including Chairman Sherrie Bell, Dr. Parmod Kumar, and Richard Torrez. A recall of the three failed in 2013.
Phase I of the expansion hasn’t been completed because money for it ran out. Phase two remains on the drawing board.
 “The 2005 voter-authorized $85 Million in bonds has been completely expended. At the time this report was drafted, TLHCD had only an uncompleted and non-functional structure to show for it,” the Grand Jury reports.
Many in Tulare call it the empty shell.
In addition, the five-page report accuses TLHCD officials of withholding financial information about the hospital expansion from the public and of failing to inform the public about the dire financial situation of the expansion plans.
The report states that the investigation was initiated in response to a complaint claiming “willful failure on the part of the TLHCD Board of Directors to disclose details surrounding the expenditure of proceeds from the bonds.”
It also cites claims of gross malfeasance in managing the construction of Phase 1 of the hospital expansion.
The grand jury is comprised of private citizens appointed annually and serve as a public watchdog, investigating claims of malfeasance and irregularities by county and municipal agencies.
Naming its report on TRMC “Tower of Shame,” it states the investigation involved looking at financial statements and minutes of hospital board meetings, construction and expense data and interviews with hospital and residents in the hospital district.
Among the Grand Jury’s findings and facts uncovered:
•TLHCD’s board created a bond oversight committee to oversee spending of the bond money, but the district “routinely withheld pertinent information and financial data from the Bond Oversight Committee, thus rendering the committee incapable of performing its oversight function.”
•That committee failed to follow up on its requests for detailed financial information, necessary for the independent oversight of the spending of bond funds.
•From January of 2010 through December of 2015, there was an absence of detailed disclosure of financial aspects for Phase 1 of the tower project in the board minutes, and the minimal amount that was disclosed was found to be inaccurate.
•TLHCD often failed to disclose pertinent information related to the financial aspects of Phase I that the public was entitled to have.
•From 2008 to 2014 TLHCD’s board hired, fired, hired again and fired again the same individual as Chief Executive Officer of the hospital district, incurring hundreds and thousands of dollars in costs for severance payments.
Shawn Bolouki was paid nearly $1 million to come back in 2013 before being unanimously voted out a year later.
•A significant delay in construction of Phase I occurred due to the delamination of the concrete poured by a contractor on the upper floors of Tower I. This led to litigation resulting in TLHCD being ordered to pay the contractor $7.9 million, a cost taxpayers in the hospital district will have to pay.
•TLHCD didn’t engage the services of an independent construction manager until Feb. 26, 2013, more than four years after construction on Phase I of the expansion project began.
•Strict and complex statutes regarding public disclosure of information pertaining to spending the bond money “appear to have been routinely circumvented by the TLHCD Board of Directors.”
As for the Grand Jury’s recommendation for TLHCD, they include disbanding the Bond Oversight Committee and creating a new one fully authorized to access the finances for Phase 1 and that the board of directors undergo training — without delay — in governmental transparency and disclosure requirements for the expenditure of public funds.
More importantly, the report recommends that the TLHCD board release to the general public — also without delay — a full disclosure explaining the “manner in which proceeds from the sale of $85 million in bonds were expended from September of 2007 through December of 2015.”
Hospital district officials have the right to challenge the claims and recommendations in the report.
The report didn’t touch upon the hospital district’s efforts to get another bond initiative on a ballot this year in hopes of raising $55 million to pay for the completion of the tower project.
March 24, 2016
Visalia Times-Delta
By David Castellon