Friday, July 1, 2016

[Yolo County] Grand jury slams Yolo Habitat Conservancy

The Yolo County Grand Jury’s opinion of the Yolo Habitat Conservancy’s work is clear in the title of its recent report: “Yolo Habitat Conservancy: A Never Ending Story.”
The conservancy — which is operated by Yolo County and the cities of Davis, West Sacramento, Winters and Woodland through a Joint Powers Agency — has failed to produce an approved plan for protecting endangered and threatened species and its performance over the last 20 years “does not justify the time and money spent,” the grand jury reported last week.
That finding, though, is sharply disputed by the Yolo Habitat Conservancy’s executive director, Petrea Marchand, and Yolo County Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis, who chairs the conservancy’s board of directors.
In a letter to the grand jury, Provenza expressed being “deeply disappointed that the report … contains statements of opinion that are either unfounded or contrary to evidence that I believe is in your possession.”
Efforts to protect the habitats of local endangered and threatened species while also accommodating development first began nearly 25 years ago with a now-defunct program that focused on habitat conservation in eastern Yolo County. That was replaced by the Yolo Habitat Conservancy in 2002, when the JPA was formed to begin drafting habitat conservancy and natural community conservation plans.
The primary goal, according to the grand jury, was to create a “one-stop” permitting system for builders and developers. Without that, local governments, private entities and individuals would find themselves working with various federal and state agencies to mitigate impacts on endangered and threatened species.
“This is a lengthy process that can cost all parties considerable time and money,” the grand jury noted. “This approach also does less to protect wildlife because mitigation measures result in land being set aside haphazardly.”
And that haphazard process, grand jurors said, is less ecologically viable and more difficult to manage.
Process streamlined
Thus the Yolo Habitat Conservancy JPA was formed in 2002 to streamline the process. The agency receives funding from the state and federal governments, as well as from development fees, a portion of which are set aside to purchase land and easements within Yolo County, the grand jury said.
Little was accomplished between 2002 and 2010-11, however, when an audit uncovered improper financial and accounting procedures, improperly borrowed funds and grants that weren’t adequately managed — and in one case had to be returned, the grand jury reported.
The conservancy was restructured in 2012 in response to that audit, resulting in strict guidelines for procuring grants and spending grant money, submitting and paying consultant fees and managing finances, “leading to greater accountability and transparency,” the grand jury reported.
According to Provenza, the conservancy board’s management committee at the time, consisting of himself, Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor and West Sacramento City Council member Chris Ledesma, had to decide after that audit whether to continue with the conservancy’s work or not.
“We felt that the project was moving too slowly and was not all that fiscally sound … and we decided to go forward on the advice of the state and federal agencies, because our failure to do so would have resulted in habitat decisions being made in our county by the state and federal governments, which we don’t think is the best way to go,” Provenza said.
“There is a reason to do this and most of the money spent on this project is from the state and federal agencies who looked at our very transparent presentation of problems in the past and agreed that we should go forward with a new management and procedures.”
Draft plans issued
One year later, the conservancy released the first draft of a plan that would cover 32 species and require an investment of more than $500 million, but the plan ultimately was rejected by the conservancy board of directors due to its scope and cost.
Work has continued at a faster pace since then, with a draft subsequently released in 2015 and another expected later this year, with final adoption expected in 2017. The plan has been scaled down to cover 12 species and 15 natural communities with an estimated cost of $318 million over 50 years.
In a letter responding to the grand jury report, the conservancy’s executive director, Marchand, said, “I share the Grand Jury’s concern with the amount of time it has taken to complete the plan, but this concern in no way undermines the positive results of the conservancy team … who have worked so hard over the last three years to produce comprehensive drafts of the Yolo (Habitat Conservancy Plan/Natural Community Conservation Plan) that I anticipate the wildlife agencies will approve in 2017.”
Marchand also noted that “it is frustrating that the grand jury chose to release this report when the conservancy is so close to finishing (the plan).”
Provenza also took issue with the grand jury’s assessment that the “last 20 years does not justify the time and money spent.”
“The past 20 years is not a relevant timeframe,” Provenza said, noting that the first 10 years were part of an entirely separate effort that was never completed.
Over the past 10 years, since the JPA was created, a new effort was begun on habitat conservation, Provenza said, and following the reorganization in 2012, “has proceeded at an accelerated pace and successfully produced two plan drafts with a third on the way this calendar year.”
“It is neither fair nor accurate to judge the current planning effort on the basis of the failure of the 1991-2001 effort or the limited work that occurred between 2002-12,” Provenza told the grand jury.
Consultants eyed
Both Provenza and Marchand also took issue with the grand jury’s finding that “a decision-maker of the (Yolo Habitat Conservancy) is the owner of one of the consulting firms used by the YHC.”
“Even though the YHC board is aware of the this arrangement,” the report said, “the grand jury feels that the YHC board should take steps to avoid any appearance of impropriety regarding the approval of YHC consultants’ invoices.”
Said Provenza: “There are several problems with this opinion.
“Neither the executive director nor the program manager — the consultants to whom this statement could refer — is a ‘decision-maker of the YHC,’ ” Provenza wrote.
“The board of directors makes all significant decisions, and this statement is thus demonstrably false and misleading. Even more troubling, however, is what this opinion statement implies: … that agency decisions are made by a consultant with a financial stake in the outcome. Whether inadvertently or intentionally, this baseless opinion could cause great reputational harm to the consultant it targets,” Provenza wrote.
“I am confident that the grand jury has no evidence to support this damaging opinion,” he added.
Marchand — one of the two consultants to whom the grand jury could be referring — noted that she “meticulously brings all decisions to the board, as presented in detailed staff reports at regular board meetings.”
Additionally, she said, “the YHC has had a policy since 2012 that the chair (currently Provenza) approves both the executive director and project manager invoices.”
The grand jury issued two recommendations with the report: that the Yolo Habitat Conservancy submit a final plan for approval by April 30, 2017, and obtain annual performance audits to measure progress by September 2016.
Marchand said the conservancy board of directors will consider an official response to the grand jury report at its July 18 meeting. The current board members are Provenza, Saylor, Ledesma, Davis City Councilman Lucas Frerichs, Winters City Councilman Woody Fridae, Woodland City Councilman Sean Denny and a non-voting director, Marjorie Dickinson of UC Davis.
July 1, 2016
The Davis Enterprise
By Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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