Sunday, July 10, 2016

[Santa Barbara County] In Our View: Making policy in daylight

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
It might seem to Lompoc taxpayers that various public officials are conducting an ongoing seminar on how not to take care of the public’s business — in public.
Lompoc residents are still smarting from the recent housing development agency fiasco, and now must deal with a reported second violation of the Brown Act open-meetings law, what may be a conspiracy involving the on-again, off-again City Council decisions on a motorsports raceway near the airport, and the latest setback, a county civil grand jury report skewering the Lompoc Unified School District board for a laundry list of questionable activities and decisions.
The question for many Lompoc residents now seems to boil down to — is Lompoc becoming the new Bell?
Bell is a blue-collar community in the bowels of the Los Angeles Basin that was the focus of an investigative reporting team’s efforts several years ago, resulting in seven city officials being convicted on charges of graft and corruption. Prison sentences and probation were handed down for four council members and the two top city administrators.
Bell became the national poster child for local government malfeasance and mismanagement, in large part because it was a small city whose managers were receiving among the highest salaries of any city officials in America, while Bell’s citizens were paying sky-high taxes, presumably to support the lavish lifestyles of elected and appointed officials.
The complaints from Lompoc citizens that have led to reactions from this county’s District Attorney’s office and grand jury haven’t quite attained the levels reached in Bell, but one has to wonder what will come next.
The grand jury report castigating the school board lists seven areas of deficiency, including conflict of interest, inadequate and unenforced internal financial controls, hostile work environment, generally unethical behavior, and a lack of ethics training.
Usually, these kinds of categorized accusations can move in one of two ways — either a finding of activities that could inspire specific charges of malfeasance and deliberate mismanagement, or a finding that the people in charge were basically just asleep at the wheel.
In LUSD’s case, the conflict-of-interest charge appears to be genuine. At the center of the controversy is a school board member who failed to recuse himself from at least two votes to give raises to a group of employees that included his wife.
The board member’s apparent defense strategy is to argue that the laws are complex, with many exceptions. He denies breaking the law.
The district has 90 days to respond to the grand jury’s report, and it will be interesting to see what that response could be. If, indeed, conflict-of-interest laws are so complex that an elected official would feel free to vote a family member a raise, perhaps it’s time to revisit the law.
The strange politics in Lompoc in recent years makes one wonder if maybe there’s something in the water, or maybe chronic winds somehow coerce normal people to behave in unorthodox or illegal ways.
Whatever the cause, it’s up to the citizens of Lompoc to bring the necessary changes, so that Lompoc does not so often find itself and its leaders in the harsh glare of unwelcome publicity.
That process could be started by elected members of the City Council and school board being more above-board about conducting the public’s business. Maybe it could jump-start such an effort by holding a series of public meetings to discuss the meaning and implications of the concept of government transparency.
Policy makers meeting behind closed doors is rarely a sign of civic good health.
July 5, 2016
Santa Maria Times

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