Saturday, August 27, 2016
[Amador County] Supervisors defiant in Grand Jury response
On June 22, 2016, a special Grand Jury Report, which investigated dozens of questions and problems with the County Board of Supervisors in its alleged mismanagement of the Amador Health and Human Services Building, was released to the public. Last Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors made an official statement, formulated by a special ad hoc committee, called "Response by the Amador County Board of Supervisors 2015-2016 Grand Jury Special Investigation – Health and Human Services Building Lease" (see link to document, below).
The response was approved at the August 23 Board of Supervisors meeting in a 4 to 1 vote. Only one supervisor, Lynn Morgan from District 3, dissented on the grounds of what Morgan perceived as disagreeable language in the text of the ad hoc committee's response. "I would like to see the tone of it changed," said Morgan, "Starting with the first couple of paragraphs."
Two of the Board members, Richard Forster of District 2 and Brian Oneto of District 5, had been tasked with looking into the civil Grand Jury's controversial findings and drafting the Board's official response. In their document, which was addressed to Judge J.S. Hermanson of the Amador Superior Court, who presides over the Grand Jury, the two supervisors start by expressing their "complete dissatisfaction with not only the inaccurate and unsupported conclusions" reached by Grand Jury, but also the "apparent unobjective and targeted manner" in which they allege the investigation was conducted." They claim that the Grand Jury made potentially damaging and unreasonable allegations in their findings. These "insulting and slanderous" insinuations, wrote the supervisors, have, "inexcusably violated the trust and authority afforded to the Grand Jury."
In their 23-page response, the supervisors goes on to address each of the 19 Finding enumerated in the Grand Jury's report, which bears the title "Rules Do Matter." Of all the findings, Oneto and Forster agreed with only three: Findings 8, 16 and 19. The supervisors partially agree with seven of the Findings, but they wholly disagreed with the rest. Of the Grand Jury's nine recommendations, the supervisors refuse to implement seven, claiming that Recommendation 4, for County to re-negotiate another contract, is already occurring.
Among the nine Findings with which the supervisors most vehemently disagreed was Finding 1, where the Grand Jury found no good reasons to enter into such an apparently bad deal for the County, since the lease amendment “significantly increased” the value of the HHS Building. To this, the supervisors responded, "Rather than making further inquiry in order to determine whether other factors could explain or contribute to the change in assessed values, the Grand Jury, as it does throughout this report, jumps to an unreasonable inference apparently because it supports their preferred or predetermined conclusion that has no factual basis as demonstrated by its insignificant findings."
In Finding 2, the Grand Jury claims that the HHS Director, the County Counsel, the CAO, and all the Board of Supervisors’ actions exposed the County to unnecessary financial risk. But the supervisors protest this claims, saying that there were not only valid reasons for entering into the amended lease, but, "while the County recognizes that the State could, theoretically, terminate certain contracts with the County at any time contingent on the availability of state and federal funds, there is an important difference between whether something is theoretically possible, and whether it is likely to occur. The Board contends that there was, and is no reasonably foreseeable risk that the State agreements, or the associated funding, would be terminated."
The Findings with which the supervisors did agree concerned the removal of an agenda item pertaining to the $400,000 cash payment the County received after amending the original lease, as well as with Finding 16, which affirmed the integrity and character of the County’s Auditor’s Office, the Tax Collector’s, Office, and the Health and Human Services department when the Grand Jury requested their assistance. The supervisors also agreed with the last of the 19 findings, which said, "While the new owners contradicted the county’s claim that the County was paying the taxes on the first $13.6 million of assessed value, this conflict was not resolved by the Board of Equalization prior to their ruling against the new owner’s appraisal appeal." The Grand Jury had determined that new owners were correct in stating that they were paying the taxes on the first $13.6 million of assessed value and consequently that the Board of Equalization based their decision in part on that Board's misunderstanding of property tax payments. In Amador County, the Board of Equalization and the Board of Supervisors are the same body.
What surprised some Amador residents, who are close followers of the Board of Supervisors' activities, was the fact that the same two supervisors, Oneto and Forster, were the two sole members of an ad hoc committee charged with answering for the suspicious irregularities mentioned in the report's Findings, who had been serving on the Board when it made what the Grand Jury considered a series of heedless and highly questionable dealings in securing a new building for Health and Human Services. "Complete conflict of interest" said Rhonda Pope of the Buena Vista Rancheria, which has been contending with the Board in legal battles to open a casino in Ione, "They should have recused themselves."
Other residents have questioned the timing of the release of the initial Grand Jury investigation, which did not reach public attention until after the June 7 elections this year. At that time, Richard Forster and Louis Boitano had been been contending with with challengers Amber Hoiska and Frank Axe for their respective seats in the County government. Forster went so far as to request that the Grand Jury foreman delay the publication of the investigations until after the election. "I felt the grand jury report would be released in mid-May or later and not give the Board of Supervisors adequate time to respond" said Forster, "If this had occurred, which appeared likely given the timing of his visit, then it doubtless would have affected the election results, to use Mr. Axe's words. There's been enough of a public lynching without a trial on social media sites already. My request was simply to preserve justice and allow time for an adequate response to the report."
As far as an official response from the office of the County District Attorney about any possible legal action to be taken pursuant to the Grand Jury's findings and recommendations, nothing has come forward as of yet. District Attorney Todd Riebe said, "Our review of the Grand Jury report into the HHS Building has been hindered by our inability to procure evidence from the Grand Jury, despite our request. Hopefully, that hurdle can be scaled and we can complete our review." Two other prior Grand Jury reports focused on irregularities surrounding the same set of issues had been released in the two consecutive years before 2016, but no litigation was ever executed in response to those reports.
August 24, 2016
Amador Ledger Dispatch
By Eric Winslow