Friday, March 24, 2017
[San Diego County] Grand Jury: San Diego's trash cans are brittle and the city should replace them for free
SAN DIEGO (CNS) - The city of San Diego's curbside refuse bins that are provided to the public are brittle, and replacement costs depend on where you live, according to a county grand jury report issued today.
The grand jurors said they noticed dilapidated bins in San Diego's residential areas and decided to investigate how they got that way and why they weren't being replaced.
They said they found that nearly 12,000 of the black trash bins had to be replaced at owner expense in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2016. That compared to almost 7,400 the year before and approaching 6,500 the year before that. That's out of around 304,000 residences that receive curbside refuse pickup.
The plastic bins deteriorate from constant exposure to sunlight and become brittle in cold weather, according to the report. Cracks occur when they're grabbed by the automated arms of refuse collection trucks or when overfilled by homeowners.
Between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, the city received almost 6,800 complaints that bins were broken by collection vehicles.
The grand jury said replacing the bins costs residents $95 -- $70 for the bin and $25 for delivery. Replacement had been free prior to 2008, when the city instituted the fee as the recession hit. Green and blue recycling bins are still replaced for free, paid for by city recycling revenues.
The grand jurors said they found examples of cracks on black bins being held together by glue, duct tape, or pieces of wood or metal that are bolted to the plastic.
Meanwhile, three members of the City Council -- whom the grand jury didn't identify -- began using their office funds to pay the fee for constituents who complained.
The use of the Community Projects, Programs and Services funds for the purpose violated council policy, which bars the money from going for a private purpose, according to the report.
The free replacement program created an inequity since it was never publicized and the six other council offices didn't make the same offer, the grand jury said. They said the council offices allocated the money to help the disabled, seniors and low-income residents, but there was never any verification of whether a recipient qualified.
"The grand jury believes the city should consider returning to the pre- 2008 city policy of providing all homeowners with free replacements for any unserviceable bins beyond their normal service life or any damaged in the collection process," the report said.
"Until then, the grand jury believes providing free replacement refuse bins for low-income citizens, seniors and the disabled is a noble and worthwhile endeavor that should continue -- but only if it is administered fairly in all City Council districts and the program's existence is publicized," the report said. "Applicants should also be screened to verify that they qualify."
The City Council needs to define what CPPS funds can and can't be used for, and provide oversight of spending of such funds, the grand jury recommended.
The report also suggested that the mayor's office advise the city Environmental Services Department to order more-durable refuse collection bins, urge the Fleet Services Department to improve repair and maintenance of automated refuse collection vehicles to limit the damage inflicted upon bins; and get Fleet Services to provide a sufficient number of experienced personnel to reduce a backlog and long delays in repairing the trucks.
City officials have until June 12 to respond to the grand jury report.
March 22, 2017
ABC 10 News
By City News Service
The North Kern Cemetery District doesn’t usually get a lot of outsider attention.
It’s getting it now after the Kern County grand jury released a scathing report Tuesday documenting a nearly $60,000 loss of district cash and other problems at the agency.
The district provides cemetery plots to the people of Delano, McFarland, Pond and Famoso and brought in more than $961,000 in revenue in 2014-2015.
The report outlined the loss of district money, land disputes with neighboring farmers, public fights between members of the district board, lax financial security and potential violations of the state's open meetings law.
Most noteworthy, the grand jury’s Special District’s Committee found the district lost $58,495 between July 2013 and November 2014 and the culprit has not been identified.
Karen O’Neil, an attorney for the cemetery district, said district auditors discovered the losses and immediately reported them to the Delano Police Department.
Investigations by police, a special investigator hired by the district and by the district’s insurance company have been conducted.
“The independent investigator concluded there was a loss but (the report) was inconclusive as to which person was responsible,” O’Neil said.
The insurance company paid off the $60,000 loss, she said.
Grand jury members blamed the loss on the district’s lack of financial controls, lack of reliable audits, and general poor management.
O’Neil said the board members immediately made major operational changes and have continued to improve the district’s fiscal safety over the past two years.
But the problems were stark and serious, according to the 35 findings in the grand jury report.
• Agendas and minutes didn't exist for every meeting of the five-member district board.
• Some district actions and communications seem to violate the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open meeting law.
• The cemetery district is reportedly a hostile work environment.
• Three different accounting firms have worked on district finances in the past five years. The first two firms didn’t identify the loss of the cash.
• The accounting firms have not always completed the legally required audits.
• Cash, checks and other money paid to the district was left in a vault that was open during the day and vulnerable to anyone who walked into the district office.
• Deposits of money into the bank were made only infrequently — every week or every other week.
• A local farmer may have encroached onto district property, planting crops there.
The grand jury recommended the cemetery district revamp its cash handling, secure its vaults, ask the Kern County Board of Supervisors to appoint new members to the board, and review and comply with all state law.
O’Neil said the district has stopped accepting cash payments, segregated its money handling so more than one person controls funds from when they are received to when they are deposited, installed a secure safe in the vault and is working to improve all aspects of the district’s operations.
She said she and district leadership will fully review and investigate the grand jury’s findings and prepare a detailed response.
March 21, 2017
By James Burger
Blog note: this is a comprehensive statement about what grand juries do.
Last June, seated in a courtroom, along with a small crowd of other prospective grand jurors, I waited in anticipation to see whether my name would be called from the small pool of applicants.
Few people are willing to give a year of their lives to the work of the grand jury — investigating and reporting on the operations of local governments here in Shasta County. It will require at least 15 hours a week from each of us — and most will spend 20 or more hours weekly at committee meetings, interviews and as part of report writing teams. Those seated with me in the courtroom have passed interviews and reference checks to become potential jurors. Now we will pass the final test, the random drawing.
Later that same morning, we are sworn in by the judge. A team of 19 jurors, instantly comrades, united in our confidential work as local government watchdogs. We receive our badges, our keys, our training binders and instructions to report the next morning. Our new world is opening up.
Our first week as grand jurors is a dizzying and highly educational array of informational meet-and-greets. We hear presentations from VIPs representing every major aspect of city and county government, including leaders from Shasta County Office of Education, Health and Human Services, Redding Police Department, the County Administrative Office and so many more. We take notes continuously, mostly on our impressions of these leaders, who we have, so far, known only at a distance. Now these important people personally answer our curious questions and reach out a collegial hand.
Over the following weeks we are introduced to our new home, the grand jury offices, a nondescript and unmarked location with shaded windows and ever-locked doors, in the heart of downtown. This is where the bulk of the grand jury’s work occurs, and here we gather for the first time as an official plenary to sort ourselves into one of seven committees and choose our committee leaders. I take up work as chair of the City Committee, co-chair of an ad hoc committee, and member of the Criminal Justice Committee.
And so the work begins in earnest. Three or more times a week we meet with other grand jurors to sort through citizen complaints, choose investigations and determine a strategic plan. We are an intelligent bunch, some quiet, others charismatic. We hold to a mixture of religious and political views. But all of us are united by deep curiosity and an unfailing desire to serve our community.
As summer shifts to fall we settle into our approved areas of investigation. Lists of necessary interviews are collated and week after week we admonish members of city, county and district government and question them on confidential matters. We send out official requests to various department heads and gain the necessary documents to corroborate the information we’ve gathered during our interviews. Slowly, our knowledge grows and we begin to verify the pertinent facts of our investigations.
Mid-winter, as rain falls, we begin to write our reports. The process will take several months. We start with the facts, write them into narrative form and then compile recommendations that we will make to county, city or district officials. Each fact is checked and rechecked, every government dollar confirmed from multiple sources. Each committee will spend weeks perfecting these reports before passing them on for additional scrutiny. The reports will be vetted by the Editorial Committee and revised by the full plenary of jurors. Our legal adviser, the county counsel, will review them for legal compliance before they are approved by the presiding judge.
Over the next few months we will wrap up our term on the grand jury. We’ll conduct exit interviews with members of our local government to confirm final details of our reports. We’ll collect a single copy of every document and interview we used in our final reports into paper and electronic files that will be saved for five years. We’ll shred everything else and clear our computers. We’ll have a few more parties, and form deeper friendships. Then we’ll help to recruit a new team of jurors to replace us next year.
The grand jury is recruiting for 2017/18. The term begins June 26 and ends the following June. To learn more about grand jury service or to volunteer for the grand jury, go to www.shastacountygrandjury.org or call the Superior Court at 530-245-6761.
March 20, 2017
By Annelise Pierce
The Oakdale Irrigation District [OID] for many years has violated state and federal law by failing to balance its voting districts, the Stanislaus County civil grand jury says in a report seeking immediate action.
“Clearly, OID is out of compliance with the laws on redistricting,” says the report, released Thursday evening. The grand jury recommends that OID correct the problem, and “immediately develop and implement a district policy” so numbers of people in OID’s five districts don’t get out of kilter again.
OID “has no disagreements with the facts as presented,” says a press release issued Friday. The release notes that the OID board began the process of resizing – also known as redistricting or reapportionment – in 2015. The process started 10 days after The Modesto Bee exposed the issue.
Next step: airing proposals to adjust boundaries of voting districts, and letting people comment. A presentation and public hearing are scheduled for a board meeting Tuesday evening. It’s not clear when final action might be taken.
The district has not made public the reapportioning options reviewed by a committee in recent weeks. Some who have seen map proposals say the latest revision appears gerrymandered to preserve power for the current board majority.
The grand jury was tipped off by an Oakdale resident and Bee articles, the report says. The Bee in 2015 found that OID’s voting districts over the years had become so imbalanced that one had bloated to twice the population of another.
Other government agencies – including the Modesto, Turlock and South San Joaquin irrigation districts – had followed the law by resizing after the 2010 Census so that sizes of their voting districts deviated less than 5 percent.
The Bee showed that then-OID board members failed to reapportion in 2011 despite being aware of the law. When the grand jury questioned General Manager Steve Knell recently, the new report says, “the response was, ‘We simply forgot to do it.’ ”
In fact, OID has not resized since 1991 – missing both the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, the panel reported. Technically, OID has missed eight chances to resize since 2000, representing its odd-year elections.
OID also apparently ignored a 2011 written warning from the county Clerk-Recorder’s office, the report says.
If OID voting districts were balanced, each would have 6,340 people, according to numbers Knell gave the grand jury. Instead, populations range from 8,366 – 30 percent larger than is legal – to 4,307, or 33 percent smaller than the average.
No government agency regulates others’ sizes, experts have told The Bee.
“OID is committed to completing this process,” the press release says, and intends to do so in time for the November ballot; the deadline for that election comes in May. All three members comprising the board majority – Gary Osmundson, Steve Webb and Herman Doornenbal – will be up for re-election in the fall.
“It was OID that advised the civil grand jury of (OID’s) intent to develop an OID policy on redistricting such that these matters don’t go overlooked again,” the advisory says.
Knell and the board must respond to the grand jury report within 90 days.
Results of failing to resize are being seen in a current recall campaign against board member Linda Santos, with a ballot scheduled for April 25. If former board members had followed the law, her critics would have been required to collect twice the number of signatures to prompt the special election.
Board member Gail Altieri was elected along with Santos in fall 2015 and the two frequently find themselves on the short end of 2-3 votes. Division among the board has brought two lawsuits, including the board majority suing in an attempt to keep the two women out of some closed-door strategy sessions.
Failing to resize – a decision made before Altieri and Santos joined the board – also effectively reduces political power in Altieri’s voting district, the largest and most urban of the five divisions. In other words, the voice of her constituents – mostly city folk – is diluted.
City dwellers pay OID more than $1 million in taxes each year, The Bee reported Monday. City officials have questioned whether that’s fair, and the two agencies have begun exploring how city people can get more of a return in future services such as using some of OID’s share of the Stanislaus River to water city parks, instead of pumping groundwater.
Tuesday’s OID board meeting begins at 6 p.m. in the boardroom at 1205 E. F St., Oakdale. First on the agenda is the redistricting presentation and public hearing.
The board also expects to:
▪ Discuss and possibly decide how to spend $2 million from selling surplus water to outsiders last fall.
▪ Settle on a price for selling surplus water to farmers just outside OID boundaries.
▪ Hire a company to drill a tunnel in a hill near Knights Ferry, and award associated bids.
March 17, 2017
The Modesto Bee
By Garth Stapley
Blog note: this is a comprehensive statement about what grand juries do.
An envelope arrived the other day inviting the lady of the house to the county courthouse for possible jury duty. OK, such letters are not invitations. They're commands, as in "we can send the sheriff out, you know."
Nobody likes jury duty. Nobody sits by the mailbox in eager anticipation of a summons. But people need to show up. A jury of your peers requires peers.
I've served on two juries over the years: a criminal jury and two year-long terms on the civil grand jury. Great experiences both.
The criminal case was a pretty straight forward DUI case, but it was remarkable in my mind for the work the jurors put in. I cynically expected jurors to march into the jury room, take a quick vote and hit the door for lunch. Two days later we still were going over evidence and arguing. It may have been only a DUI case but to a person jurors understood a conviction would unpleasantly alter the defendant's life. Jurors also understood the seriousness of someone climbing behind the wheel while intoxicated.
Likewise, serving on the civil grand jury wasn't easy. The pay was crummy, the hours often long and disagreements among jurors sometimes sharp. But the work was important, what I learned was intoxicating and the experience was immensely satisfying.
Just to be clear, this county's civil grand jury does not investigate crime. It does not indict people. The civil grand jury is not a gotcha outfit. Jurors try to find ways to make government agencies more efficient, productive and responsive. Jurors do work closely with the county prosecutor's office — the assistant district attorney is the jury's liaison to that office — but if the jury does stumble across possible criminal activity, the matter is referred to prosecutors. Likewise, jurors also work with the county counsel and with the advice of the superior court judge who oversees the jury. And this county's jury also enjoys the considerable expertise and experience of a judicial clerk who literally sits beside the jury foreperson.
There are only two basic requirements the civil grand jury must fulfill: each prison and jail in the county must be inspected and a report must be issued on at least one public agency within the county. That's it.
Of course, that's not it at all. Every civil grand jury does much more. During the terms I served reports were issued on Manteca Unified, Stockton's utilities department, homelessness, south Stockton, private donation bins, Stockton Unified bus purchases, public defender fees, the registrar of voters and rural fire district consolidation.
The jury also followed up on the work of previous grand juries to see if agencies that were the subject of earlier reports responded as required to the findings and recommendations.
We toured prisons and jails, sewer and water plants, and the port. Some members rode along with police officers and firefighters. Members attended countless meetings of boards and commissions. Dozens and dozens of witnesses were called to help jurors understand how things work and what was going on when they didn't.
All of the report work was done in secret. You can't go out and blab about what witness X said about subject Y (witnesses are under the same requirement, but, well, people are people). Secrecy protects witnesses, but it also obligates the jury to verify information with multiple sources.
The learning curve was steep, but also exhilarating. It's fun to know stuff, to learn things. I can't think of a day I attended to jury business that I didn't learn something interesting.
There is a saying in newspapers that sunshine is a great disinfectant. That's an acknowledgment that a newspaper can't force anyone to do anything. It can only shine a light on a problem and hope someone takes action. It's the same with a civil grand jury. Jurors can't force an agency to do anything. They can only point things out — through findings — and suggest possible remedies — through recommendations. The real power of the grand jury (and the media) is focusing attention and sometimes in framing the public conversation.
None of this can happen without citizens willing to do the work, to serve. Consider this column a plea for county residents to get involved. Applications for the 2017-2018 civil grand jury are due by March 31. To apply, complete the application questionnaire on line at http://www.sjcourts.org/general-info/civil-grand-jury or call (209) 992-5290.
The process is pretty simple. Applicants usually are interviewed by the superior court judge who oversees the jury. The names of successful applicants chosen are randomly drawn from the pool during an open court session. Those picked are sworn in. The jury consists of 19 members and perhaps four to six alternates who serve if a regular member drops out during the July-to-June term.
Jurors receive an ID badge — no more removing your belt to clear courthouse security — a parking pass — no more paying for downtown parking — and the code that unlocks the door to the jury room where the magic occurs. Oh, and, of course, there's the $15 a day each juror gets for his or her efforts.
Early on there are two days of training, a tsunami of information and early organizational jury meetings to form committees and name officers (the foreperson is named by the judge and generally is a holdover juror). There also is an optional but helpful day-long report writing session given each fall in Sacramento by the state grand jury association and optional training offered by the local grand jury association made up of former jurors. All this is a way of saying you're not in this alone.
The grand jury — like a trial jury or a criminal grand jury — should reflect the population it serves, in our case a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-generational county. Such diversity brings a rich chest of ideas to the effort. But it takes peers willing to do the work. So apply. You won't regret it.
March 16, 2017
By Eric Grunder: Special to the Record
Medical Center Additions Would Go Long Way in Filling Pressing County Need
Blog note: this article references grand jury reports.
As many as 26 new lockdown psychiatric beds are on the drawing boards for North County’s Marian Regional Medical Center. Spokesperson Kathy Sullivan confirmed that Marian is working in partnership with the County of Santa Barbara to revamp Santa Maria’s former Valley Hospital, purchased by Marina in the early 2000s and now used largely for offices, into a behavioral wellness complex. Sullivan noted that finished plans and designs have not yet been submitted to state medical regulators for review. At the soonest, she said, it would be at least two years before the new facility could open its doors. Even so, the prospect of so many new mental health beds ranks as big news.
Santa Barbara County has suffered a dramatic shortage of acute care beds for decades now, eliciting numerous grand jury reports. Currently, Santa Barbara County has only 16 lockdown psychiatric beds, which theoretically are allotted to those so mentally ill they pose a threat to themselves or others. Based on formulations by mental health professionals, a county Santa Barbara’s size should have between 40 and 60 such beds.
Making matters worse, the county’s limited number of beds are often occupied by patients facing misdemeanor criminal prosecution and deemed unfit to stand trial. As a result, mental health administrators find themselves increasingly forced to transport Santa Barbara’s mentally ill to out-of-county facilities. The volume of such referrals has been a chronic budget buster. This year, the Department of Behavioral Wellness is already $5 million over budget because of the issue.
Also on the drawing boards for the same Santa Maria mental health complex — though considerably further down the road — are plans for a 40-bed Institute for Mental Disease (IMD). IMDs are long-term care facilities for those with chronic and debilitating mental challenges. Santa Barbara has never had such a facility and the provision of 40 IMD beds would likewise fill a major gap in services.
March 15, 2017
Santa Barbara Independent
By Nick Welsh
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
The county’s current grand jury has determined that actions agreed to by its 2014-15 predecessor and the agencies it investigated “have been or are in the process of being carried out.”
That follow-up or “continuity” report, released March 9 by the 2016-17 grand jury, included updates on two North Coast situations: “In a State of Emergency: Assessing Fire Risk in Cambria,” and “Making the Case for Efficiency: Maximizing Emergency Services in Cambria.”
In the Fire Risk report, the jury asked the district to confirm the status of a $498,000 grant that would pay toward reducing fire risk in the community. The Cambria Community Services District reported that the money had been awarded to the county’s Fire Safe Council, which submitted to the jury a detailed grant allocation document. The grant-funded work has been ongoing.
For instance, project manager Jim Neumann reported to the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group on March 8 that during that week, a 14-person crew from Northern California was removing (by hand and “weed wrench”) lots of invasive French broom from various Cambria locations spanning from Bridge Street toward the Camp Yeager area. The broom is a fire risk because the weed can grow tall, spread rapidly and burn hot when dry.
In the Emergency Services Report, the jury wanted CCSD to submit a multiyear plan to address fire management. The jury also wanted the CSD and Cambria Community Healthcare District to begin establishing reserves to update or replace fire and emergency equipment, and to determine how best to combine firefighters and emergency medical services personnel “within a common management organization.”
The district replied that preparation of the plan was delayed by the one-year trial period in which Cal Fire handled management of the Cambria Fire Department. Now that the CSD has opted to keep and manage the independent department, the multiyear plan can be addressed, according to the district reply.
The district has purchased a new fire engine. The CSD also hired three more full-time firefighters, funded initially by a two-year grant.
The health care district responded that it is developing a reserve/asset replacement policy for updating/replacing emergency equipment, including ambulances.
However, no joint agency has been formed, according to the CSD, because legal restrictions remain. The health care district said more study is required.
March 15, 2017
By Kathe Tanner
The 2016-17 Stanislaus County civil grand jury issued a report on the county library system.
According to the report, issued last week, the grand jury decided to take a look at the library because a grand jury hadn’t done so for more about 15 years.
The report is generally favorable, finding that the library provides “numerous high-quality, professional services and programs to an ever-changing county.”
Jurors had some concerns that the library is dependent on a special tax that goes before voters regularly, and encouraged officials to find a more stable stream of revenue. The report also suggested that the library need a technology update and should look for ways to donate discarded materials.
March 13, 2017
The Modesto Bee
Modesto Bee Staff
Blog note: this blog focuses mainly on media coverage of civil grand juries and their reports in California. There are occasional exceptions because the news might be of interest to people who follow California grand juries. This is one of those exceptions: the Georgia State Legislature is considering a constitutional amendment to allow grand juries to pick school board members, returning to a previous practice in the state. This is anecdotal information only.
A proposal to amend the Georgia constitution so communities can return to an older way of picking school leaders took a step through the General Assembly Monday.
Senate Resolution 192 would let voters in school districts across Georgia hold a referendum to decide whether they want their school district leader to be a popularly elected politician rather than a professional hire, as is the practice now.
Since the constitution was changed in 1992, school board members have been elected and the boards have hired superintendents. SR 192 would change that so superintendents are elected while school boards would be appointed by grand juries, as was the practice a quarter century ago.
The author, Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, said he is reacting to a growing turnover rate, with superintendents holding office less than three years under the current system versus eight years under the old one. He said appointed superintendents also can cost more, citing one school board that hired a superintendent for a quarter million dollar salary then decided to cancel the contract after a year, paying the superintendent a half million dollars to leave.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will again have Georgia’s largest team covering the Legislature. Get complete daily coverage during the legislative session at myAJC.com/georgialegislature.
“Ten teachers could have been hired with that money,” Wilkinson said. He said it could make sense in some communities to have the grand jury pick school board members. The panel of randomly-selected citizens is entrusted with deciding whether to bring indictments in criminal investigations and had a process for taking applications and doing interviews before the practice was abolished.
“It’s not like they just picked random people out of the phone book,” Wilkinson said.
The resolution was approved 5-2 in a subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Education Committee Monday. It must now get through the full education committee and then get two-thirds support in a floor vote in the full House.
It passed the Senate 40-12 on March 3. A two-thirds majority followed by a voter referendum is required for constitutional amendments.
March 13, 2017
By Ty Tagami
Amid accusations by President Donald Trump of widespread voter fraud in California, Orange County’s civil grand jury says it conducted a thorough review of the local voting system – and found no signs of significant fraud in the recent election.
In a new report Monday titled “No Voter Fraud Here: The Transparent Election Process,” grand jurors said their evaluation left them highly confident in the integrity of the county’s voting system.
“The Grand Jury was impressed with the commitment of all employees, volunteers and poll workers to maintain ballot box security and vote integrity, over and above Federal and State laws,” jurors wrote.
“The Grand Jury found no evidence of widespread or organized voter fraud or vote interference in Orange County election processes in this year’s General Election.”
Actual attempts at voter fraud are small and infrequent, the grand jury found, adding that a strong system of safeguards is in place to prevent and catch fraud.
“In the rare case that attempted fraud is detected, the [county Registrar of Voters] refers the case to the District Attorney” for potential prosecution, the report states.
“Attempts at voter fraud are so minimal that election results are not impacted and the Grand Jury is confident that election results in Orange County are valid.”
In a rare move, the panel had no recommendations for changing or improving the fraud detection system.
Grand jurors said they conducted a “comprehensive evaluation of the voting process in Orange County” that involved examining “all areas of election operations and management.”
This included a review, they said, of “voter registration, control and use of the voter registration roster, ballot creation and production, ballot integrity and security, electronic voting systems performance, provisional ballot handling, use of pre- and post-election automation, vote-by-mail controls, handling of out-of-county voters, and voting service centers operations.”
“The Grand Jury interviewed [county Registrar of Voters] administrative personnel and employees, heard a presentation from the ROV on historical voting habits in Orange County, and attended the three and one-half hour training course given to all poll workers. Members of the Grand Jury observed Logic and Accuracy Testing and, prior to Election Day, teams of Grand Jurors conducted site surveys of three pilot Voting Service Centers. On Election Day, the Grand Jury conducted polling site surveys and observed 39 polling sites representing 57 precincts in 15 cities in Orange County,” the report states.
“Grand Jury members also observed the start of the vote tally process the evening of November 8, the 1% audit manual count of the Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail ballot, a parallel printout of the electronic e-slate ballot on November 18, and attended the ROV post-election debriefing session in January.”
Not only were there no signs of widespread fraud, grand jurors said local election workers inspired confidence by continually improving the voting system.
“By taking a proactive position, looking for ways to improve the process, and ensuring the integrity of the voting process, the [Registrar of Voters] promotes public confidence in the election process.”
The grand jury also gave a thumbs-up to California’s new push to consolidate in-person voting into a smaller number of large “vote centers,” which Orange County election chief Neal Kelley has helped spearhead across the state and nation. The vote centers and mail-in ballots would generally replace home garages, schools and other neighborhood polling places.
“It is believed that Voting Service Centers…which are to be located at strategic sites throughout the County, will promote voter turnout, provide longer timeframes for ballot casting, maintain the security of the voting process, and preserve election integrity in the years ahead,” the grand jury wrote.
After winning the presidency in November, Trump claimed that millions of people voted illegally, including in California, and promised a “major investigation” into it.
He won the Electoral College by a wide margin (306 to 232), but according to official results lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.86 million votes.
Trump’s claim has been widely disputed by state election officials across the country, including many Republicans who oversee elections in their states. The claim was also rejected by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, as well as Republican U.S. Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“There is no evidence that [voter fraud] occurred in such a significant number that would have changed the presidential election,” McConnell said last month.
Trump had planned to sign an executive order launching the voting fraud probe, but has yet to do so. In early February he said he’ll be establishing a federal commission to investigate the issue, led by Vice President Mike Pence, who has yet to set it up.
Over 1.2 million Orange County voters cast ballots in the November election, out of 14.6 million voters statewide, according to the California Secretary of State’s office.
Orange County cast more votes in the presidential election than 19 individual states, including Kansas, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico.
March 13, 2017
Voice of OC
By Nick Gerda
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
When Brian Lee was hired in January 2015 as manager of the San Lorenzo Valley Water District, his new bosses included three newly elected directors. The district was off to a fresh start, after a controversial rate increase, an unflattering Grand Jury report and the firing of its district manager.
His arrival also followed by barely two months the filing of a lawsuit against the water district board and one of its former members, Terry Vierra, alleging a conflict of interest in connection with the purchase of some property nearly four years earlier.
Vierra lost that lawsuit in December, and was ordered to repay a real estate commission and possibly $70,000 in legal fees incurred by the man who filed that lawsuit, Bruce Holloway.
Vierra hasn’t repaid the commission, because four of the current water district directors believe they are obligated to pay all of his fines and fees, and also agreed to seek to overturn the court ruling. The decision to appeal virtually guaranteed that Vierra’s legal fees, borne by the district’s ratepayers, will surpass six figures.
The controversy over that decision by the current board – which directed its attorneys to continue to continue to represent the former director – has already resurrected the powerful ratepayers’ group, San Lorenzo Valley Watchdogs.
Lee’s aggressive advocacy of this board stance – in emails to ratepayers, public comments and court filings – now places him squarely in the middle of the controversy.
All of this is coming at a time when he and the board are beginning to build a case for yet another round of rate increase for the approximately 8,000 customers in the sprawling mountain district.
Lee’s most recent action was to send an email this week, presumably on his own initiative, to all five directors giving them “a gentle reminder” that only “Chair Ratcliffe” (board president Gene Ratcliffe) could speak to the news media.
He said he was referring to the most email request sent to all directors by the Press Banner asking if the directors had authorized or directed Lee to speak on their behalf, specifically about the Vierra appeal. Ratcliffe and three other board members – Margaret Bruce, Chuck Baughmann and Erik Hammer – continued to ignore this most recent request to clarify their position with regard to Lee’s advocacy on their behalf.
Lee’s email this week was the last straw for newly elected member Bill Smallman, who had cast the lone dissenting vote against the continued legal appeal of the conflict-of-interest ruling, and who had kept silent publicly. Wednesday he broke that silence, in an email to the Press Banner.
“I can't talk about what specifically took place in closed meetings,” he wrote in an email Wednesday. “If I discuss this issue publicly, I was told that all it would do would worsen my relationship with the other directors, but I don't care. They are childishly trying to keep me out of this.”
“My position has not changed. Vierra violated conflict-of-interest, it is that simple,” Smallman wrote . “This Board and Brian are completely out of touch and their reasoning is absurd in my opinion. They think it is all going to roll over, and people will let it go.”
He called on the Valley Women’s Club, the most powerful political organization in the San Lorenzo Valley communities, to “put a stop to it.”
“As far as my relationship with the board and Brian, I'm up against a fight, and I don't think it is going to end until the next election – if we get some fiscally responsible candidates that respect and understand conflict-of-interests laws,” he wrote.
The water district attorneys will be back in court on March 17, asking Superior Court Judge John Gallagher to admit he made mistakes in the original trial of the Vierra case, reverse his decision and order a new trial.
March 11, 2017
By Barry Holtzclaw
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Blog note: we don’t normally post published articles on grand jury recruitment, since they tend to more or less be the same, and our main focus is on the media's treatment of grand jury reports. We are breaking our rule with this article, since it references specific Humboldt County grand jury reports.
The Humboldt Chapter of the California Grand Jury Association is currently seeking applicants for the next year of service.
The county Grand Jury does lengthy investigations of different issues related to local government. Reports on these investigations, which usually come out in May or June, are archived on the county’s website under dry titles like “Best Practices in Purchasing/Procurement” or “Americans With Disabilities Act,” but if you actually read the reports you’ll find sometimes blistering prose that would be at home on the front page of any newspaper, such as “Humboldt County Leadership and a Trail of Broken Promises,” and tales of fiscal mismanagement that could curl any taxpayer’s lips.
Without the deep digging of the grand jury, who would have known, for example, that there was little-to-no oversight of some third party contractors hired by the county to make sure the money spent actually correlated to services performed? Other past reports have found that the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office had “evaded” its responsibilities by not informing indigent detainees of their right to transportation after serving jail time (2015), and that the Humboldt County Planning Department had lousy customer service (2012).
The jury — which is composed entirely of volunteers — requires at least six hours a week of service, time in which the participants will be actively in the jury room discussing and researching the subjects they have decided to take on. Jurors are expected to be objective, non-partisan, reliable and of high integrity. The time commitment does limit who is able to serve, however, according to Sam Giannandrea, president of the Humboldt chapter.
“People who are working full time really don’t have time to be on grand jury,” she told the Journal, adding that she had seen jurors do it, but it was unusual and difficult. “It takes a significant amount of time.”
By the end of the year, the work, which includes writing and rewriting reports, can require up to 15 hours a week of the volunteers’ time. But it’s time well spent, says Giannandrea.
“It’s so challenging, so interesting,” she said, adding that the jurists get to decide what they’re going to investigate, and are given a wide variety of resources to conduct their investigation, including the power to subpoena witnesses. Once a report has been filed, the entities in question have a duty to respond in writing and discuss how, or if they will address the problems identified by the Grand Jury. These responses can be as illuminating as the original reports. For example, in 2015 Sheriff Mike Downey responded to the jury’s investigation of their indigent release program by saying that neither the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office nor “many counties throughout the state” were aware of the penal code that required them to provide transportation assistance to indigent detainees. Downey decided to post signs in the booking and housing units of the jail that would inform released prisoners of their rights. He denied that the HCSO had deliberately refused to tell people they had the right to transportation assistance, but said he believed the signs honored the spirit of the recommendation.
Giannandrea admits that the ultimate impact of a grand jury’s work can be hard to quantify. “Another thing I’ll tell my juries, sometimes it takes up to three years before something will happen,” she said, adding that it’s not unusual for a county department or board of supervisors to say they don’t have enough money to implement a program, then revisit the idea years later.
“Suddenly they’ll say, ‘You know what, they’re right,’” she says, laughing. Giannandrea served on the jury for three years before becoming president.
The deadline for applications is May 31. Those interested in applying should call 269-1200 to find out more.
March 11, 2017
North Coast Journal (blog)
By Linda Stansberry
County law enforcement agencies said a series of San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury recommendations related to requesting bail increases were either unnecessary or inappropriate, according the grand jury’s 2016-17 continuity report released Thursday.
The grand jury is composed of 19 civilian volunteers who typically serve a one-year term and whose role is to provide citizen oversight of local governmental agencies. Under California law, local agencies must issue a response to the grand jury’s recommendations regardless of whether those recommendations will be used.
The grand jury’s most recent annual report addressed just two issues: the question of whether scheduled bail was too low and an inquiry into the process of issuing a minor use permit.
Under the first category, the grand jury report “was conducted to determine if local law enforcement agencies are utilizing their option to request enhanced bail for arrestees when indicated to preserve public safety and increase the chances that the offender will appear in court.”
The grand jury report made four recommendations to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office and all seven county police departments:
▪ The District Attorney’s Office should coordinate the development of a uniform written policy for local law enforcement agencies to request an increase in a suspect’s scheduled bail.
Both the DA’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office said such policy already is in place, as did most of the county’s police departments.
▪ The DA’s Office should coordinate a formal training program to assist local law enforcement agencies in seeking higher bail amounts.
On this the DA and sheriff disagreed, “both stating that the training of law enforcement professionals remains the responsibility of the local law enforcement agency,” according to the grand jury report.
Most of the police departments said this policy already is in place, while the Paso Robles Police Department said it is unnecessary.
▪ Local law enforcement agencies should work with the DA’s Office to develop department-specific programs related to higher bail requests.
Again, most county law enforcement agencies said this policy already is in place. The DA’s Office and Paso Robles Police Department disagreed with the recommendation.
▪ Local law enforcement agencies “should rely only on California state law when considering whether a bail increase is appropriate.”
Agencies responded by saying they already abide by this recommendation.
The second report, titled, “Minor Use Permits: An Oxymoron?” was based on a citizen complaint regarding the notification process used when the county issues a minor use permit. As with the first report, the grand jury issued several recommendations to the county Planning and Building Department, County Administrative Officer and the Board of Supervisors.
The Planning and Building Department responded to the five recommendations, and that response was shared by the other agencies.
The department’s response was that most of the recommendations were “not warranted and not reasonable,” with the exception of recommendations that already are in place.
The Thursday release of the annual report coincided with a call for applications for the next one-year grand jury term, which begins July 1.
Jury foreman pro tem Dennis Frahmann said applicants are reviewed by a committee as well as by the county presiding judge, and the names that pass that process are then placed into a drawing.
“Typically, the pool (of applicants) is much larger than the number of positions,” Frahmann said.
Grand jury applications can be found at www.slocourts.net/grand_jury/application_forms.
March 10, 2017
By Andrew Sheeler
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — Following a slew of harsh criticism in two consecutive Grand Jury reports, the Mental Health Advisory Board (MHAB) has reported massive internal reorganization and improvement.
Calling the report a catalyst and a scare, MHAB Chairperson Kate Avraham said they were hindered by a lack of training and support. Now she said the board has made a 180-degree turn.
"In the past, we were not accommodating to the public, it was not functioning as a vital board and certainly not functioning as the law prescribed," Avraham said. "It's like a whole new board and a whole new story."
Essentially, she said they worked off the recommendations in the report like a checklist. Avraham is the second person to lead as chairperson following the report.
In the 2015-2016 report, the Grand Jury found lapses in communication with the Board of Supervisors, vacancies that prevented MHAB from operating effectively, failing to meet requirements of the Mental Health Services Act, and failing to investigate or act on issues raised during the meetings, among other things. The Board of Supervisors was also reprimanded in the report for "providing little or no direction, goals, objectives and no comprehensive training on how to be an effective advisory board."
Since then Supervisor Greg Caput began serving as their advisor, a training was held, and a process was put in place to conduct meetings according to County Code Chapter 2.104.
"We are involved in the community with site visits, going to Supervisor meetings, really being visible and interacting, and that is only going to increase," Avraham said. "Now that we have the training and we know what we are empowered to do, I think we are becoming a more up-to-date, more visible, more proactive board."
This progress has followed a year of hard work, according to Avraham, and has seen many of the issues resolved. Now they are looking to the future.
"Everything has been revitalized and it took a lot of people to help with that," Avraham said. "We are making contact with the public to educate them so they know we are there and we are trying to normalize and give a different voice to de-stigmatizing mental illness."
Part of that begins with having a full board for the first time in many years, Avraham said, and that number will get larger under a change currently being considered that would allow for 15 members instead of 11.
"We are functioning as we should, gradually we will get more effective in all the areas," Avraham said. "We got to keep people passionate and fresh."
February 20, 2017
By Bek Sebedra
Blog note: this article references a Lassen County grand jury report that mentions the new public defender.
The new Humboldt County public defender, whose hiring has raised questions in the local legal community, said he is ready to start working this week. And he is responding to the criticism levied in his direction.
David Marcus, the Lassen County Public Defender from 2005 to 2011 who has spent the past five years working as the CEO of a dental company and a contract lawyer on the East Coast, said he’ll be in town Wednesday.
“The first thing I’ll do is to really get to know the people in the office,” Marcus said. “I need to see what’s important for them to get their job done.”
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors announced the hiring of Marcus on Feb. 7 following Kevin Robinson’s retirement last month.
A week later at the next Board of Supervisors meeting, Robinson — who could not be reached for comment on this article — and four other criminal defense attorneys told supervisors their hiring process was “flawed” because the board’s expert advisory panel was made up of mostly law enforcement and the district attorney.
“That’s like having the New England Patriots make draft picks for the Atlanta Falcons,” said Greg Rael, a criminal defense attorney in Eureka, who was also one of the speakers at the Feb. 14 meeting.
According to the county Human Resources Department, the five-member advisory panel was made up of District Attorney Maggie Fleming, Undersheriff William Honsal, Chief Probation Officer Bill Damiano and one representative each from Child Welfare Services and the Department of Health & Human Services.
Rael said having a panel “skewed” with current adversaries provided potential for them to pick a weak public defender. What is just as bad, he said, is that defense attorneys were not invited to join the advisory panel.
Dan Fulks, the county human resources director, said his department began searching for a pool of applicants to fill the anticipated vacancy months ago, about the time Robinson announced he would retire.
Fulks said he picked the panel members himself, which is his role as the department’s director, creating what he called a subject matter expert panel with high-level officials from county agencies that interact the most with the public defender’s office. He rejected claims the panel was skewed in anyone’s favor.
“We wanted folks that have regular interaction with the Public Defender’s office,” Fulks said. “We went to the very best of the best for this.”
In total, the county received 19 applications from prospective public defender candidates; six were invited to interview. Ultimately, five candidates were interviewed separately for the job by both the Board Of Supervisors and the advisory panel during a series of interviews that lasted all day, according to Fulks.
At least three of the applicants were from the county’s defender offices, according to multiple sources familiar with the application process.
When asked why he did not invite private criminal defense attorneys to serve on the expert panel, Fulks said he doubted they would want to serve on the panel for free.
“It’s my belief, based on experience, that asking someone from the private sector to come in and volunteer the entire day with no pay — that no one would do that,” Fulks said.
Rael, and local attorneys Beorn Zepp, Zachary Curtis, David Nims and Patrik Griego each said they would have served on the panel pro bono had they been asked.
“We would have been happy to serve without pay,” Rael said. “I know others that have served on hiring panels before — for nothing. It’s bogus. They just had to pick up the phone and call a few volunteers.”
Griego, a criminal defense attorney with Janssen Malloy LLP in Eureka, said he had served on two other advisory panels during the past three years. He made recommendations to the county for its pick of an investigator and another administrative position in the county’s defense offices.
Fulks said he could not recall a private defense attorney serving on an advisory panel.
Barry Pollack, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Washington, D.C., said there was little uniformity among states and counties in how they hire public defenders but it “makes absolutely no sense” that the chief prosecutor would be involved in hiring a public defender while the local defense bar is left out.
“They shouldn’t have any role much less that they would have a role to the exclusion of defense counsel,” he said.
Pollack said the ideal panel would not have included any acting prosecutors of standing judges.
“The referee should no more be deciding draft picks than your opposing team,” Pollack said.
Hiring process elsewhere
Ernie Lewis, the director of the National Association for Public Defense and the state of Kentucky’s former public advocate, said judges and prosecutors are not involved in the hiring process of the public advocate, that state’s equivalent to a public defender at the state level. He said the position is nominated by a 12-member advocacy commission.
Still, Pollack with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said often times judges and prosecutors are placed on panels to hire public defenders but not without a significant balancing of defense attorneys.
“This clearly gives an appearance of lack of independence,” he said. “Even if they made a terrific selection for public defender that person would be subject to skepticism because they were selected through a process that I don’t know why anybody would think is appropriate.”
Rael said he thought Fleming should have known there was conflict by her serving on the panel and she should have recused herself.
Fleming disagrees calling the idea illogical.
“The suggestion that having someone from the DA’s office participate in interviews of public defender candidates is a conflict of interest makes no sense to ethical prosecutors because our duty is to serve the public and achieve justice,” Fleming said in an email.
Spirit of cooperation
The district attorney said she accepted the invitation to serve on the panel because she thought her knowledge and perspective would be useful. She added her office had an incentive to pick the most effective public defender because the opposite could lead to unnecessary and time-consuming appeals.
“While we obviously have an adversarial justice system, cooperation between prosecutors and the defense benefits both the public and the accused,” Fleming said. “Mutual respect and effective communication result in greater efficiency and better outcomes. For example, public defenders willing to share information with the prosecution early in the process can shorten cases to everyone’s benefit.”
Marcus said he didn’t think the panel was trying to prejudge whether or not they could beat him in court. He said despite the adversarial role between prosecutors and defense attorneys, they need to collaborate.
“There is a lot of interaction that take place outside of the courtroom,” Marcus said. “Health services, the sheriff, DA; we all come out of the same budget. We have to serve together or we’re all competing for dollars.”
Fleming added that her only input was to provide comment to the Board of Supervisors.
Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell confirmed that was the case.
“We accepted input from the subject-matter experts but we didn’t weed anyone out because of them,” Fennell said. “It was purely a decision of the Board of the Supervisors.”
She added that the makeup of the panel was purely the decision of the county human resources department and that the board had received input from Robinson separately.
He said during an interview in October he would make recommendations to supervisors of attorneys at the public defender’s office.
Fennell declined to comment on the interview conducted during a closed session meeting but said, “Mr. Marcus fit the bill for what we were looking for.”
She defended the board’s decision to appoint Marcus during this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting too.
“There were no surprises with us,” she said. “We had a frank discussion with Marcus and had a background check that satisfied any questions.”
The years Humboldt County’s new public defender spent in Lassen County also left some lingering questions.
According to a grand jury report from the Lassen County courthouse, Marcus was alleged to have only spent “an estimated 30-40 percent of the day at work.” The report further alleged Marcus was “not actively engaged in the caseload other than for felony preliminary hearings.”
Marcus said the findings were not clear in the report, saying he had been attending graduate school to earn a master’s degree in public administration. He said the county supervisors approved of his return to school.
A second allegation reported by the Lassen County Times in 2011 claimed Marcus had avoided hiring a local defense investigator and hiring a defense investigator from Reno after taking advice of the district attorney’s office in Lassen County.
Marcus said the decision to hire an out-of-area investigator was based on price. He said he asked for the district attorney’s advice because he was looking for the most effective investigator.
Marcus says he is ready for the challenges that await in Humboldt County.
“I think I’ll earn the respect of the community once we get things moving forward,” Marcus said. “If I can find out how to focus the office then we’ll have no problem meeting our obligations to our clients.”
February 18, 2017
By Manny Araujo