Saturday, April 29, 2017
Deputies at the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana had long complained of flawed inmate monitoring procedures that allowed three men to escape from the facility last year, but nothing was done to correct the problem, according to a report released by the Orange County Grand Jury this week.
The scathing study listed failures by officials that contributed to the escape, which made national headlines and became a major embarrassment for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
The grand jury cited a flawed inmate counting procedure, the failure of deputies to remove jerry-built tents around the escapees’ bunks that may have concealed their activites and inadequate monitoring of the jail’s plumbing system, which the inmates used to gain access to the roof, as major factors in the escape.
A lack of surveillance cameras and lighting in the plumbing tunnels and on the roof, which the inmates rappelled down from before, were also cited as problematic in the report.
Deputies failed to catch on to an escape plot even though the report found it probably took months of planning and would have involved loud sawing and cutting as the prisoners worked to gain access to the plumbing tunnels.
Authorities have said that Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong were able to obtain a cutting tool and saw through several layers of metal and rebar when they broke out of the jail in January 2016, sparking a statewide manhunt that lasted nearly a week, according to the report.
Jail staff did not become aware of the escape until 15 hours after the trio climbed to the roof of the jail and fled, a time lapse that probably helped the fugitives stay well ahead of their pursuers. The men had been jailed on charges including attempted murder and torture.
“After conducting a comprehensive study, problems with both supervision and training became obvious,” the report read. “Lack of compliance with existing policies and procedures by various [Orange County Sheriff’s Department] personnel at all levels was the primary factor responsible for the escape.”
The inmates took a cab driver hostage and traveled as far north as the Bay Area. Their escape plot began unraveling days later, police say, when Duong rejected Nayeri’s plan to kill their hostage and fled to a San Jose motel with the cab driver.
Duong drove back to Orange County and surrendered to authorities on Jan. 29. Nayeri and Tieu were arrested in San Francisco the next day. The men are due in court for preliminary hearings in June, records show.
Jail staff were supposed to conduct two types of inmate counts a total of five times each day, according to the report.
“Module Book Counts,” which involve deputies approaching an inmate and comparing his appearance to a booking photo, were to be conducted twice daily, the report said.
“Statistical Body Counts,” which involve tallying both the number of inmates meant to be in the jail and those who might be absent due to a court appearance, were to be conducted three times a day.
A lawsuit filed last year by the union representing rank-and-file sheriff’s deputies said staffing cuts led jail personnel to conduct just two daily checks.
About a year before the escape, some staff members who had been transferred to Central Men’s Jail from another county facility told supervisors about the laid-back inmate counting procedures, but their complaints were ignored, the grand jury report said.
“They had previously been assigned to another facility where the importance of conducting the counts ‘by the book’ had been emphasized and strictly enforced. They brought this concern to [Central Men’s Jail] leadership,” the report read. “These concerns were never acted upon.”
In the year since the breakout, the Sheriff’s Department has attempted to re-fortify the Santa Ana jail, which was built in 1968. Intense lighting now covers the outside of the building and the interior tunnels, while metal grilles were added to the tunnel vents.
Motion-sensitive cameras monitor every nook and cranny of the jail now, including the plumbing tunnels. The jail has also strengthened its procedures for preventing the smuggling of contraband into the facility. Canine units specifically trained to detect drugs and cellphones are now a routine sight.
The department is also using radio frequency identification technology to track inmates’ movements to and from their cells. In all, the department spent at least $570,000 on short-term improvements.
Still, key questions about the escape remain unanswered.
The grand jury reviewed thousands of pages of internal documents and interviewed dozens of Sheriff’s Department personnel as part of its investigation, but it remains unclear how the cutting tools used in the escape were smuggled past security.
One of Duong’s associates, Loc Ba Nguyen, has been charged with providing the tools used in the breakout and driving the escapees from the jail after they rappelled down from the roof. Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said investigators believe the men took the cutting tool with them, and an agency spokesman has said the device was never found.
It also remains unclear how the men obtained a cellphone, which they used to take photos inside the jail and call Nguyen, officials said.
Nooshafarin Ravaghi, a teacher at the jail who became friendly with Nayeri, was arrested last year and accused of aiding in the escape, but prosecutors declined to charge her and publicly criticized Hutchens for announcing her arrest.
Dozens of deputies and staff have been questioned during a lengthy internal review of the escape, but there is no indication any deputies or civilian staff members were involved in the smuggling of contraband to the escapees, according to Hutchens. Capt. Chris Wilson, who oversaw the jail at the time of the escape, was transferred from that post and later retired, officials have said.
Tom Dominguez, president of the union representing rank-and-file deputies, said Wilson was one of several high-ranking Sheriff’s Department officials who ignored complaints about the improper count procedure. The union sued the county last year, claiming staffing cutbacks made it easier for the men to escape.
“In essence, the count procedure was nullified by sheriff’s administration with the direction ‘we’ll get back to you’ and of course they never did,” he said.
Dominguez said he was “not aware” of any other command staff in the jail who were transferred after the escape.
The department has yet to issue an after-action report on the incident, which would follow normal protocols for major events, because of the ongoing criminal case, according to Lt. Lane Lagaret, a department spokesman.
Lagaret said he would be unable to respond to a list of additional questions from The Times on Friday, but the department did issue a statement this week highlighting improvements to the jail since the escape.
“When the escape occurred in January 2016, the department acknowledged failures and need for improvement,” the statement read. “Those improvements have been made and the jail is secure. Orange County residents can feel confident that we have made the necessary changes to meet our current security needs and that we have a proactive plan in place for additional upgrades.”
April 29, 2017
Los Angeles Times
By James Queally and Richard Winton
Will creating a ‘housing coordinator’ fix the problem?
“Marin is an expensive place to live, not only for low-income residents but also the average wage earner,” is the opening salvo of the Marin County civil grand jury’s “Overcoming Barriers to Housing Affordability” report, issued last week.
That’s not exactly breaking news, but the report takes a wide swipe at the many factors causing Marin’s housing crisis and tries to provide a plan to fix things.
The study found that new housing is opposed by citizens; that Marin property is expensive; that developers avoid Marin projects due to local regulations; that planning for low-income housing is weak; and communication between residents and developers is ineffective.
In order to fix the many problems, the grand jury recommends that county officials “should create and fund the position of Regional Housing Coordinator. The coordinator’s responsibilities should include: working with funding sources and developers, identifying underutilized properties, working with jurisdictions to create specific plans, and creating a county-wide civic mediation program for all civic project community dialogues.”
Housing problems aren’t exactly new to the region.
“Sky-high rents and a competitive real estate market have created a housing crisis of epic proportions in California and especially in the San Francisco Bay Area,” reported the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. “The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual report, ‘Out of Reach,’ ranks California as the third most expensive rental market in the country. The five most expensive rental counties are in the San Francisco Bay Area: Marin, San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Mateo.”
This news does not bode well for home-hunters in Marin County.
According to a report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, affordability is only part of the Bay Area’s housing problem. “Inadequate supply is the real underlying issue,” the LAO reports. “Housing production remains far below the estimated housing units needed to meet demand, especially in strong employment markets.”
Matt Regan, senior vice president of policy at the Bay Area Council, explained that it’s in the best interest of local economies to create more affordable and middle-income housing now if they want to keep businesses in the Bay Area.
Marin County officials are taking steps to create affordable housing. Recently, the Marin County Board of Supervisors approved a $1 million contribution to its Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and the Marin Housing Authority (MHA) secured about $1.8 million in federal funds to stave off a deficit and bolster its Section 8 voucher program.
“This grant will allow us to serve more families,” explained MHA Executive Director Lewis Jordan. “Without this grant we would not be able to meet the rent increases that landlords are requesting ultimately resulting in MHA serving less low income families.”
MHA had to fight for the funds. Jordan said it was a competitive grant process that required verifiable proof of need, as well as a proven success rate. Jordan said the area’s booming rent increases were at the center of the discussion.
Leelee Thomas, Community Development Agency (CDA) principal planner, said steps are being taken to allow workers to live in the same area as their places of employment.
“Marin has one of the more expensive housing markets in the Bay Area,” she said. “While other communities are more expensive, like San Francisco, Marin is set apart because we have very minimal new development. In the unincorporated County last year 56 new market-rate homes were developed.”
What steps are being made to provide and/or create affordable housing? “Because of the difficult development climate, the Board of Supervisors has recently decided to focus on acquisition of existing housing and conversion to permanently affordable,” she said.
The grand jury report found that “Community resistance forms a barrier to virtually any new development in Marin. Vocal opposition serves to constrain the actions of civic leadership. Attempts to satisfy the needs of the developer and the needs of the community simultaneously are often ineffective.”
The grand jury report also stated that “It is expensive to build in Marin. The high cost of land and construction form a formidable barrier to affordability, particularly in the case of low-income affordable housing. No one solution will completely overcome this barrier, but a creative approach to address some construction fees will make Marin more attractive for development.”
The report continued to say developers cite the planning process in Marin as a clear barrier to progress. “Regulatory delay becomes burdensome when developing low-income affordable housing. We suggest that models exist where successful early cooperation between developers, and planners, and neighborhoods have made the planning process more efficient. These models could easily be adopted across Marin’s communities.”
Also, the report calls for the county and all 11 municipalities to “coordinate available resources to develop low-income affordable housing that would benefit all of the citizens of Marin. This effort would be best coordinated through a central Housing Coordinator.”
Residents can expect to see the grand jury report on local calendars, as responses have been requested from every Marin municipality, as well as county officials and housing agencies.
April 27, 2017
Marinscope Community Newspapers
By Chris Rooney
Jury releases results of investigation
SANTA MARIA, Calif. - The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury has released the findings in their investigation into allegations of mismanagement of about $16 million dollars from a state grant by Santa Maria High School.
The Grand Jury determined that the funds from the Quality Education Investment Act state grant were spent properly.
The Grand Jury also took a look at other allegations that included: Communication conflicts between the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, site administrators, and teachers; concerns regarding school safety; and on the implementation of anti-bullying procedures as required by law.
The report says there was a strained relationship between teachers and school leadership that was created as a result of union contract changes, introduction to the Common Core curriculum, and other schedule and procedural changes implemented by the school district and Santa Maria High School Principal.
The report, however, states that the relationship between educators and school leadership are improving.
Santa Maria Joint Union High School District Superintendent Dr. Mark Richardson issued the following statement:
"We commend the grand jury on their accurate evaluation of Santa Maria High School. We are excited about what the future holds for our students and are dedicated to engaging all stakeholders in the process of ongoing improvement focused on what's best for kids."
April 26, 2017
By Oscar Flores
Blog note: this article references a 2015 grand jury report on sex trafficking.
Marin District Attorney Ed Berberian delivered a stark message on human trafficking Wednesday during a panel discussion on the topic sponsored by the Marin County Bar Association.
“We’re not immune from it in Marin; it’s here,” Berberian said. “In Marin since 2014, we’ve had 17 individuals who have been charged with human trafficking violations.”
Joining Berberian on the three-member panel were Marianna Warmee, a federal administrative judge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Gina Vucci, a member of the Marin County Coalition to End Human Trafficking. Vucci was a delegate to the United Nations in March at the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women.
About 70 people attended Wednesday’s luncheon meeting at the Four Points Sheraton in San Rafael.
Vucci also stressed that human trafficking is occurring in Marin. Warmee said that more attention needs to be paid to labor trafficking, which she defined as the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of labor as opposed to commercial sex.
Vucci said that in 2013 the FBI conducted a nationwide human trafficking sting operation, known as Operation Cross Country. She said that during the operation 55 “buyers” were arrested in Marin County, more than in any other county. She said 20 of these buyers were soliciting sex with minors.
Many of the transactions took place at a popular hotel franchise in Southern Marin, “not at a seedy motel,” Vucci said.
Berberian said that human trafficking isn’t as big a problem in Marin as in some surrounding counties, San Francisco in particular.
Vucci said the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the top hot spots for trafficking in the U.S. California has three of the top locations: San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Vucci said sex trafficking victims are less likely to be kidnapped in Marin, but she said that doesn’t mean Marin kids are necessarily safe.
“Here in Marin County we have a particular vulnerability with middle school and high school teenagers,” Vucci said. “One of the popular ways of recruitment is through an older boyfriend; we call him a Romeo pimp.”
Vucci said Romeo pimps first gain the trust of girls, then compromise them by asking them to perform progressively more sexual favors. She said such pimps are calculating and look for vulnerable targets — people with issues that tend to isolate them.
“They play the long game,” Vucci said.
Berberian said a report on human trafficking prepared by the city of San Francisco in 2016 identified 499 human trafficking survivors in the city as of 2015, seven of whom were natives of Marin.
“And we all believe that is just the tip of the iceberg,” Berberian said.
A 2015 Marin County Civil Grand Jury report found that sex trafficking in the county is “mostly unrecognized, under-reported, and rarely subject to intervention.”
One of the grand jury’s recommendations was for the Marin County Board of Supervisors to fund the creation of a database that systematically tracks adult and minor victims. Berberian said he needs such data to solicit the funds required to better pursue traffickers.
“Here in Marin County sex trafficking is a crime that is in the shadows so it is underreported and underdocumented,” Vucci said.
Warmee, the federal administrative judge, said, “We’ve seen a sea change in our response to sex trafficking over the last six years.”
But, Warmee said, “While we all think of sex trafficking when we talk about human trafficking, the reality is the vast majority of trafficking crimes worldwide are labor trafficking operations.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for which she works, investigates and pursues civil enforcement actions against labor trafficking operations.
Warmee provided several examples of labor trafficking cases to demonstrate how hard it can be to detect such cases. She said the biggest case her office has worked on involved the most conspicuous labor project in the state of California at the time, the building of the new Bay Bridge.
Warmee said the perpetrators recruited “skilled foreign nationals to work on the Bay Bridge who were later trafficked down to Los Angeles to work in restaurants and other industries.”
Warmee said the investigation of another federal labor trafficking case — in a rural Midwestern state she declined to identify — unearthed a shocking discovery.
“All the chambermaids in that establishment were modern day slaves,” Warmee said.
“Similarly in California,” Warmee said, “we’ve seen a lot of eldercare facility homes where there have been labor trafficking cases, where most of the employees are modern day slaves.”
Warmee said she insufficient attention is paid to labor trafficking because it fails to generate the same degree of moral outrage as sex trafficking.
“There are a lot of people who don’t necessarily care about the state of affairs for somebody who is undocumented,” she said.
Warmee said neither force nor fraud is necessary for labor traffickers to coerce many undocumented immigrants into doing their bidding.
She said, “Just threatening to deport somebody is a very powerful tool.”
April 26, 2017
Marin Independent Journal
By Richard Halstead
Monday, April 24, 2017
Affordable housing is a pressing issue across this county and it was a good issue for the 2016-17 Marin County Civil Grand Jury to tackle.
In its report, issued April 12, the grand jury details obstacles to building affordable housing and urges the hiring of a countywide housing coordinator to help shepherd local housing projects.
We’re not convinced that hiring another top-level bureaucrat will change the level of political initiative that seems to be a primary barrier, whether its leadership or lack of local residents’ support.
Certainly there are bureaucratic obstacles, from a costly and time-consuming planning process to extraordinarily high governmental fees that hinder attempts to build affordable housing. But it’s going to take leadership to not only lower those barriers, but to overcome political opposition. Building affordable housing needs to be a local imperative, with a focus on finding community consensus on the right locations, size and design.
While the grand jury focuses on barriers, it misses a prime opportunity to detail — at greater length — the need to build affordable housing and how Marin can benefit, economically, environmentally and socially.
Critics of housing proposals often dwell on fear, from bringing lower-income households into neighborhoods to hurting the value of their homes.
The grand jury could have probed these issues and offered detailed and more expansive evidence in response.
While Marin has seen numerous battles over affordable housing, the irony is that many of the potential residents of these proposals likely earn more than some of the residents objecting to having them as neighbors. The difference is, often, that existing neighbors who criticize proposals were able to buy their houses 10 to 20 years ago, before the mean price of a Marin home grew past $1 million.
The grand jury recommends that a countywide housing coordinator be hired to not only focus on building “low-income affordable housing, but housing that is affordable for people who currently live and work in Marin.”
The report’s recommendation of working with local residents on the front end of a responsive planning process to help counter opposition is a good one. So is the grand jury’s complaint about the use of planning jargon obfuscating public involvement until someone translates it — often in the form of opposition.
The grand jury also recommended the preparation of a public map of an inventory of vacant and underutilized properties in Marin to help facilitate housing proposals.
Of course, if there is no local initiative, Sacramento lawmakers appear primed to steer local planning measures.
For example, Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a former mayor of Glendale, has authored legislation that would require towns and cities that do little to build affordable housing to put some of their property tax revenue into a fund for other nearby communities to use to build housing.
“If you’re a community whose property values are skyrocketing because you’re not building, you will either have to build affordable housing or we will take a portion of that increase in property values and make you put it into a fund that nearby communities that want to do the right thing can use to build affordable housing,” she said, according to Capital Public Radio.
The Marin perspective on appropriate development and Sacramento’s are not the same — and state lawmakers are trying to come up with remedies for California’s housing crisis. In addition, the next round of Bay Area planning is taking shape, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by making room for building commute-shortening housing.
There’s also a growing political push for rent control, including a ballot-measure fight underway in Santa Rosa.
The grand jury has asked the county, cities and school and utility districts to respond to its findings and recommendations.
Insisting that the elected representatives on these boards consider their leadership role in helping build affordable housing that makes sense in Marin may be an important product of the grand jury’s work.
April 23, 2017
Marin Independent Journal
Is it time for Santa Barbara County law enforcement agencies to adopt policies and procedures for body cameras? Would incorporating this new visual tool enhance the evolving role of patrol officers and sheriff deputies in our changing, technological society?
Across the nation, body cameras are becoming a valuable tool in evaluating disputed actions on the part of both law enforcement and the public. Recorded footage is sometimes critical in ascertaining guilt or innocence. Images the camera records can be played in courts and in the media. The public is now highly media conscious and often insists on seeing what has been caught on camera in the interest of fairness and transparency. This tool is becoming more available to law enforcement throughout California. While not failsafe, the data provided by cameras can offer protection for both the officers and the public. The 2016-17 Santa Barbara County Grand Jury concludes that the use of body cameras has the potential of providing greater transparency for both the public and law enforcement.
April 19, 2017
Edhat Santa Barbara
Source: Santa Barbara Grand Jury
Zika virus could be ‘major concern’ in Orange County in 5-8 years without proper mosquito abatement, grand jury says
The spread of the Zika virus, which can cause birth defects, could be a “major concern” locally within five to eight years, according to an Orange County grand jury report.
To make sure that doesn’t happen, the report noted, the government agency charged with mosquito abatement needs to do more to eradicate breeding grounds to prevent future Zika transmission.
The report, released April 18, commended the Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District’s efforts in “fighting an uphill battle” with limited resources and in shifting its focus to proactive communications with residents on how to eliminate mosquito infestations. But it also stated that the district’s board did not collect or spend enough money to address the looming Zika threat, hasn’t allocated enough resources toward public communication and are reluctant to spray pesticides that have proven effective in killing mosquitoes.
District Manager Rick Howard suggested that Zika could become a regional problem even sooner than the grand jury stated. But he also noted that the district has in the past two years significantly ramped up public education efforts, funding them in part with federal grants meant to combat the spread of the virus.
Orange County has experienced an epidemic of mosquito-borne illnesses in recent years. Between 2014 and 2015, at least 395 people in the county were infected with the West Nile Virus, resulting in at least 15 deaths, according to the report. That infection rate decreased substantially last year, but district officials said they are preparing for the possibility of a rebound in the number of cases due to the heavy winter rainfall, which has led to substantial increases in the local mosquito population.
There were 24 identified cases of Zika in Orange County last year, but all contracted the disease outside the county, according to the report. However, if the two species of mosquito capable of spreading the virus continue their predicted geographical expansion, the report said it soon could be problematic for the county. Specimens of those mosquito types have been identified in 12 cities in Orange County, but none have yet tested positive for Zika.
UC Riverside professor of entomology Bill Walton said he expects people to contract Zika from mosquitoes in Orange County even sooner than the grand jury noted. He emphasized the importance of public education campaigns, but said the threat could emerge even from a single home that fails to eliminate standing water that helps mosquitoes breed.
Any full-blown outbreak, he added, could be difficult to contain.
“If Zika becomes transmitted locally, then all bets are off,” Walton said. “You really need the public to cooperate and be informed… At some point it boils down to how much of a social push can we make for people who aren’t compliant.”
The report called public communication and education campaigns the “key to successful intervention in mosquito-borne virus control,” but noted that only half of the county’s residents are aware that the district is available to help with mosquito abatement, according to a 2014 telephone survey.
To pay for more and better public communications in advance of a Zika threat, the grand jury recommended increasing one of the two property tax levies that fund the district to its maximum allowable rate. Last year, the district collected at 95 percent of the allowed amount, leaving $316,000 on the table.
Howard pointed out that the district already had increased that levy by 34 percent over the past two years and said it now has spent $1 million in revenues to attack the spread of West Nile Virus and mosquitoes capable of carrying Zika. He said the grand jury finished its report before the district received $225,000 in federal funding to help fight the spread of Zika – funding which he said will fully pay for the district’s public outreach team, which goes door to door to educate on how to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds.
He said questions of whether the district would further increase its funding would be left to the board to decide.
The grand jury also called on the county to fund a project to map the region’s storm-drain system, where stagnant water can become a significant mosquito breeding ground. The goal would be to locate “undocumented” storm drains and identify aging infrastructure where repair could reduce the threat. An OC Health Care Agency spokeswoman said the agency eventually will provide a formal response to the grand jury’s request through the Board of Supervisors. Howard said most cities have already mapped their storm drains.
Though the grand jury made no recommendations regarding the aerial spraying of pesticides, it declared the controversial technique to be harmless to humans, pets and the environment. It also noted that the district’s board has disregarded staff recommendations to use the method.
“The district reports that aerial spraying on a larger scale is relatively cheap and has been very effective elsewhere,” the report stated. “Despite significant scientific and experiential evidence that aerial spraying is effective and safe, the regional public and the (district’s) Board of Trustees are reluctant to support the use of aerial spraying.”
The question of whether the district should use pesticides has been met with resistance in recent years from local activists, triggering a board vote last year that rejected a proposal to give the district’s manager unilateral power to order sprays over residential neighborhoods. Critics of the board’s decision said at the time that it would limit the district’s ability to act quickly during a large outbreak of West Nile Virus.
The board still has the power to order the pesticide to be sprayed and district spokeswoman Mary-Joy Coburn said it is “a tool in our toolbox that is used when all ground-based options have become ineffective.” She noted that last week the district used a helicopter to distribute naturally-occurring bacteria over the county’s wetlands to kill mosquito larvae to “get ahead of the issue.” Spraying pesticides, on the other hand, is used to kill fully-grown mosquitoes.
Coburn recently said that the district is developing closer partnerships with cities to spread the message to residents of how to control mosquito populations, mostly by asking people to eliminate any untreated, standing water around their homes.
The two non-native species that can spread Zika are the yellow fever mosquitoes, which are brown with white markings, and Asian tiger mosquitoes, which are black with white stripes on their abdomens and legs. Both bite during the day.
Zika can cause babies born to infected pregnant women to have abnormally small heads and brain damage.
April 18, 2017
The Orange County Register
By Jordan Graham
Blog note: this article references a Los Angeles County grand jury report on the coroner’s office.
A year after the Los Angeles County coroner abruptly resigned amid a backlog of bodies to be examined and hundreds of pending toxicology reports, some progress has been made inside one of the busiest morgues in the nation. However, the department’s request for additional funding was rejected Monday when the county released its proposed $30 billion budget.
In March, 2016, 180 bodies were waiting to be processed. That number has now been cut in half, according to coroner spokesman Ed Winter.
On Friday, about 80 bodies were awaiting examination, with 17 scheduled for autopsies, Winter said. The number of toxicology reports also has been reduced. Last year, 2,400 reports were pending compared with 945 now.
By this summer, 90 percent of the cases will have toxicology reports completed within 90 days, said Dr. Christopher Rogers, acting chief medical examiner-coroner in response to a Southern California News Group request for information.
Several factors have helped make a difference including staffing, Rogers said, and existing staff working more than 20,000 hours of overtime. The department also has been helped by contracting toxicology testing to the National Medical Services, which has labs across the country, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees that county’s medical examiner’s office.
“We have achieved a significant reduction in our laboratory backlog and implementation of safety measures to ensure that the workload does not reach critical backlog status again,” Rogers said.
In addition, an active search for a new medical examiner continues, he said.
The department came under scrutiny when Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Mark Fajardo resigned abruptly in March 2016. At the time, he told reporters he left because it was common to have 40 to 50 bodies waiting to be processed and the backlog of bodies was “nuts.” In addition, it was taking six months for toxicology reports to be completed. The backlog in the toxicology lab meant the coroner couldn’t make a ruling on cases, so they remained open, affecting families.
Fajardo returned to his old job as Riverside County’s chief forensic pathologist, where he earned $227,190 in total pay and benefits in 2012 before he came to Los Angeles County, which paid him $426,907 in 2014 on his first full year at the job. He did not return requests for comment.
But a 24-page grand jury report backed up his claims, placing the blame on Los Angeles County’s lack of funding.
“The Board of Supervisors has provided inadequate resources to support the stated significant needs of the (Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner),” according to the report titled “Who Cares for the Dead When the Dead Don’t Vote?”
“If these issues are not addressed, DMEC’s accreditation may likely be withdrawn during 2016,” according to the report.
The department received provisional accreditation in October by the National Association of Medical Examiners, Rogers said.
MORE FUNDING REJECTED
But despite the grand jury’s warning, the county’s executive on Monday recommended $38 million in its proposed budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, or $57,000 less than the current fiscal year. The proposed amount is also about $5 million less than requested by the medical-examiner’s office. A response by the medical-examiner’s office was unavailable Monday, though funding may change as the budget moves through public hearings and deliberations until it is finalized in late June.
Despite the funding challenges, L.A. County CEO Sachi Hamai says things are improving.
“We are making good progress with the coroner’s office,” she said during a Monday press conference to discuss the county’s overall proposed $30 billion budget. “Several positions were given to (the acting chief), and we’re working closely with that department to ensure his needs are filled.”
In March 2016, the Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner had 229 positions with 26 vacancies. At least 32 people have since been hired, Rogers said. In addition to positions opening up due to retirements, funding approved by the Board of Supervisors —about $2.5 million in September — allowed the department to expand the number of positions to 253.
Rogers said the department is hopeful that the vacant position of coroner’s investigator trainer will be filled soon. There were 979 applicants, of which 485 were qualified to take the exam, he said.
Last year, the medical examiner had asked for more tests on 1,346 bodies, known as deferred cases. Currently, there are 1,198, but Rogers anticipates those tests to be completed faster.
“We have achieved a significant reduction in our laboratory backlog and implementation of safety measures to ensure that the workload does not reach critical backlog status again,” he added. “We are confident that the backlog will be completely resolved within the next month.”
But the department still faces challenges, Rogers acknowledged, including filling what he called critical vacancies for senior criminologists, investigators and physician pathologists. In addition, the process to find a permanent chief medical examiner continues.
“Although the department has made strides in hiring staff and addressing backlogs, we still have work ahead,” Rogers noted. “We continue to experience challenges in filling some specialized positions.”
Last fall, when the board allocated the additional $2.5 million, then-Supervisor Michael Antonovich requested ongoing updates, and Supervisor Kathryn Barger remains just as concerned, said her spokesman, Tony Bell.
“Supervisor Barger is very concerned that we continue to make the medical examiner’s office one that is fully funded and providing a very important service to the community,” Bell said “We are looking at the budgetary aspects of the operation and working with the CEO to initiate improvements in personnel and facilities.”
Of the 60,000 to 80,000 deaths each year in Los Angeles County, about 20,000 to 25,000 are referred to the Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner. Up to 9,000 bodies are examined closely. There are 4,000 autopsies annually, sometimes about 30 a day. Although that’s about the same as the medical examiner’s offices in New York City and Chicago, those agencies employ more people, according to the grand jury report.
Bobbie Asano, a resident of Tarrytown, New York, said she experienced the L.A. County backlog last summer, when her 69-year-old brother was found dead outside his home near the Baldwin Hills area. Police suspected foul play, and his body was taken to the morgue. But it took six weeks for the coroner’s office to positively identify him and determine his cause of death: arteriosclerosis.
In the meantime, Asano said she couldn’t make final arrangements and her brother’s home was robbed three times and vandalized as Asano waited for the death certificate so she could move ahead with selling his property.
“I couldn’t do anything until it was resolved,” Asano said.
While she understood that the department was short-staffed, she said she “got the run around.”
Her answers came when she contacted the Los Angeles County Executive Office and recommended others who are in the position she was at the time, do the same.
“That’s the only time I got a response,” she said. “The coroner’s office (understands) what people are going through. It’s beyond their capacity with their staffing. But the county needs to understand that people suffer because of that. There are consequences. The people in power need to be made aware.”
April 17, 2017
Los Angeles Daily News
By Susan Abram
A new Ventura County Grand Jury report says that the county needs to improve its internal auditing procedures.
The County Auditor/Controller’s office has an Internal Audit Division, which looks it whether taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently, and effectively. But, the Grand Jury says you can’t tell if the dozen or so audits done annually have led to cost savings. It also says a wish list of potential future performance audits is unrealistically long, with nearly 100 subjects.
The report says with current staffing, it would take more than five years to complete the list.
The Grand Jury says the county needs to give the agency more funding to deal with the workload, and suggests that the Auditor/Controller’s Office do an annual report evaluating the audit results.
April 14, 2017
KCLU – NPR for the California Coast
By Lance Orozco
The San Diego County Grand Jury urged city officials to move forward “with haste” in enforcing a long-ignored transparency law that requires companies doing business with San Diego to provide details about the financial interests behind the transactions.
The Grand Jury report, released today, also concludes that the City Council “has been remiss” in not following the advice of three consecutive city attorneys, who recommended how the law should be enforced.
The report comes eight months after inewsource first reported that the law – known as Section 225 of the city charter – has not been followed, despite a mandate from 86 percent of voters in 1992.
“At the very beginning of our research we uncovered your article and it was a key element,” Grand Jury member Jackie Landis said, “and we’re very grateful for that. So thank you.”
Essentially, without enforcement of the law, the city doesn’t know who it’s doing business with. To that point, the Grand Jury wrote, “The citizens of San Diego deserve to have the transparency in City contracts that was the law’s intent 24 years ago.”
inewsource investigated the city’s failure to enforce the law last August, and has been reporting on it ever since. The stories prompted then-City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and several city council members to act.
It’s been a slow-moving process. The Grand Jury report released today recommends that the City Council collaborate with the Mayor’s Office, Independent Budget Analyst and other city departments to “either amend the municipal code to enforce the transparency law or place a measure on the 2018 ballot to amend charter section 225” by July 12, 2017.
“The Grand Jury encourages the Mayor’s office to complete the task with great urgency. Voters decided this issue more than 24 years ago, and enforcement is long overdue,” the report said.
Jackie Landis, one of the Grand Jury members, told inewsource by phone, “It was beyond surprise — it was shocking, that the law had been on the books for so many years and the city was doing nothing to enforce it.”
“I got the sense that this is an issue that unless public attention is kept squarely on it, will disappear again,” she said.
Though a Grand Jury report doesn’t legally require anything other than a response, Landis said, its intent is to bring issues into the spotlight and convince the government that “they need to act.”
“There doesn’t seem to be an urgency to push it forward unless there is pressure from an outside source.”
Why Section 225 matters
Voters passed the law — called Mandatory Disclosure of Business Interests — in 1992 after San Diego almost entered into a real estate deal with an alleged mobster. The policy requires every company doing business with the city to disclose the name and identity of everyone involved in the transaction — whether directly or indirectly — along with the “precise nature” of those interests.
inewsource’s investigation — confirmed by today’s report — found that despite that law, today the city has more than $3 billion in contracts with more than 1,000 private companies, yet rarely knows the financial interests behind them.
“It’s common sense and good business to want to know who you’re doing business with,” Councilwoman Barbara Bry told inewsource in March. Bry, who represents District 1, said she was surprised to learn the city wasn’t already asking for this level of disclosure when she assumed office.
Three separate city attorneys, and now the Grand Jury, have recommended the City Council address the problem of the law’s “overly broad language,” which renders it “largely unenforceable,” according to the report.
The Grand Jury reported that city officials said enforcement of 225 might be hampered by staff or budget limitations. “The Grand Jury does not believe that enforcement of this law is optional, nor should it be postponed or sidelined by lack of staffing or budget,” the report said.
Jurors have been assured that “the mayor’s office is diligently working on the process of putting the pieces of the puzzle together, whether the result is an ordinance to amend the Municipal Code or a ballot measure to amend the City Charter.”
The topic is also scheduled for discussion at an upcoming Rules Committee meeting in June.
Long-ignored transparency law would reveal who’s doing billions in business with San Diego
August 2, 2016
A law that’s been on the books since 1992 can help reveal the people behind the companies doing billions of dollars in business with the city each year — if someone would only enforce the thing.
Fix proposed for San Diego's ignored transparency law
Oct. 22, 2016
After our investigation found San Diego’s transparency lacking, the City Attorney has recommended a new law to ensure all business is done in the open.
City Attorney’s Office will weigh in (again) on San Diego disclosure law
Aug. 5, 2016
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith told inewsource his office will basically reiterate its predecessors. This will be the fourth time the office has weighed in on Section 225 since its inception.
Financial interests behind San Diego deals worth billions still undisclosed
March 13, 2017
Despite overwhelming voter approval in 1992, three separate city attorney recommendations and an inewsource investigation, the city of San Diego is still not following a law mandating government transparency.
April 13, 2017
By Brad Racino
A Year on the Civil Grand Jury
By the Santa Cruz County Chapter CGJA
Like clockwork, our nation’s election cycle ignites impassioned conversations about transforming government: There are calls for sweeping changes and demands for greater transparency. However, once the ballots are cast, most folks resume their everyday routines.
Yet one group of citizens – the Santa Cruz Civil Grand Jury – works all year to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of local government.
Every year nineteen citizens volunteer to serve for twelve months, frequently working up to twenty-hours per week. They conduct investigations and submit their recommendations to government agencies in an effort to remedy shortcomings, correct oversights, or rectify negligence.
Yet their contributions often initiate changes most of us benefit from but often cannot easily observe.
One recent example of the impact of a Santa Cruz County Grand Jury Report is the overhaul of the Mental Health Advisory Board (MHAB). In two consecutive reports, the grand jury had been critical of how the Board functioned. In a February 2017 local newspaper article Board Chairperson Kate Avraham called the second report “a catalyst and a scare” for the MHAB.
She said the Board worked off the recommendations in the report like a checklist. Prior to the revamping, the Board had been hindered by a lack of training and support. Now she said the Board has made a 180-degree turn.
In another instance, following a grand jury report investigating five deaths at the jail, measurable improvements have been made, improving inmate safety.
You can read all final reports and government agency responses at www.co.santa-cruz.ca.us/Departments/Grandjury. You will also find citizen complaint forms and information about volunteering for the civil grand jury.
Perhaps more challenging than working to achieve these successes is the struggle to find volunteers to serve on the jury, particularly from under-represented populations.
One of the strengths of the grand jury system is having individuals who come from diverse cultures, careers, socio-economic status, and educational backgrounds.
It is the richness of varied views that allows a jury to discuss the issues, research problems, and recommend the best outcomes for the citizens of our communities. We ask the committed leaders in our civic, social and professional organizations to promote greater involvement in civil discourse, and urge qualified citizens to review the requirements for civil grand jury service and volunteer to serve. The deadline for volunteering is April 28, 2017.
Jurors receive training from the California Grand Juror’s Association (CGJA), view presentations by various government agencies throughout the year, and are advised by the District Attorney, County Counsel and the Presiding Judge. Jurors may ride along with local law enforcement agencies and tour various city and county departments to observe first-hand the demands of providing services to over 262,000 county citizens.
The Santa Cruz County chapter of the CGJA will speak free of charge to organizations throughout the county to answer questions regarding what the civil grand jury does and how it operates. Please contact Chapter President Nell Griscom at email@example.com to schedule a speaker.
Each year our grand jury contributes almost 20,000 hours of service to improve Santa Cruz County. Often their recommendations make lasting changes to our community. Like all others who have served, we are privileged and proud to have been a part of that process.
April 10, 2017
By Michael Oppenheimer
You might say the city of Tehachapi is living it up — a nod to one of its slogans — after a committee of the Kern County grand jury visited the city and offered no recommendations for improvement.
The Cities and Joint Powers Committee of the 2016-17 grand jury visited the city Feb. 28. Often, but not always, the committees offer points for improvement for the city or other entity they review. Not so here, in a report issued Thursday.
"The city appreciates Kern County grand jury for their extensive and thorough annual report," Tehachapi City Manager Greg Garrett. "This report adds to a long line of grand jury reports that confirm our team understands and embraces what it takes to manage all of your publicly owned infrastructure and support businesses. I am extremely proud of every employee for consistency providing the highest level of service to our residents possible."
Among the findings in the grand jury's report:
• The city has been operating in the black since 1999, and, according to the chief financial officer, the city anticipates being free of debt in three to four years. The city has a five-year budget plan, which is updated every year.
• Water conservation is important in the city. Water is produced by seven wells. Plans are under development to expand the wastewater treatment facility.
• The new police communication center replaced the contract with Bear Valley Springs, which was costing the city about $400,000 a year.
• According to Police Chief Kent Kroeger, crime is down 16 percent (although no information was listed by the grand jury regarding what time periods were being compared) and police are now enforcing city building codes.
• The Walmart Supercenter is expected to hire about 250 employees, and is anticipated to open later this year.
• The city received a regional award of merit from Kern Council of Governments for a model water-efficient landscape ordinance. A $2 million grant for downtown railroad safety improvements will be used for pedestrian crossings, fencing, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and gutters and sidewalks. A new bike path is to be added.
According to the report, the committee met with the city manager and assistant city manager, as well as staff from the Departments of Administrative Manager/Deputy City Clerk, the economic development coordinator, finance director, development services director, and the police chief.
April 9, 2017
By Darla A. Baker
Users apply duct tape and wood to avoid $70 replacement fee
Complaints about city of San Diego garbage trucks damaging trash bins that the city then requires people to pay for have increased 25 percent a year for the last two years — and are probably valid, the San Diego grand jury said in a report released Mar. 22.
But not everyone paid the $70 replacement costs — and a $25 delivery fee, according to the report. Three city council offices — which remain unidentified — used money from a separate budget to pay for replacement bins for constituents, the report says.
The council members paid for the bins from their Community Projects, Programs and Services funds, a bucket of money allotted to individual council offices each year that accumulates if it goes unspent. The ordinance governing the funds specifically forbids that practice, the report notes.
The grand jury found that the increase in damage was at least partly caused by the city's own trucks, which are poorly maintained. "This combination of lesser-quality bins, aging collection trucks, and poorly maintained lift arms has contributed to a rapid rise in the number of damaged bins," the report states.
The city Department of Environmental Services is working on its response to the report and declined to comment until its formal response is public, according to city spokesman Paul Brencik.
Nearly 12,000 people obtained new bins in 2016, about twice the number that replaced them in 2015, according to the report. (Disclosure: I paid for a replacement bin in 2014. My bin almost immediately showed the lid damage discussed in the report.)
The bins are being damaged by an aging fleet of 97 garbage trucks, 36 of which are past their normal service life, the report says. And seven of 10 trucks out in the field experience a breakdown on collection days. Much of the damage the grand jury found on its field trips to watch garbage collection in the northern part of the city was broken lids on the bins.
"It is not hard to figure out why so many lids crack when you observe the collection process, as Grand Jurors did, and see the lids slam against the truck chassis when the bins are emptied," the report states.
The panel observed that garbage bin owners had taken steps to avoid the replacement costs that ranged from duct tape wrapping to Frankensteinish attachments of wood to hold bins together.
"One individual obtained a blue recycle bin, which is free, and simply painted it black." The panel also found that the city's ability to maintain the trucks - and lift arms — was hampered by a lack of space — now shared with the fire truck maintenance facility and that there weren't enough mechanics to keep up with repairs. The grand jury also concluded that the majority of black bins are beyond their normal service life and are damaged, and need to be replaced.
April 6, 2017
San Diego Reader
By Marty Graham