Friday, May 26, 2017

[Orange County] Grand jury reports some county agencies far behind in follow-up duties

If you’re behind on some paperwork, at least you’re likely still way ahead of the governmental agencies the Orange County grand jury says are so out of compliance that they violate law.

In a new report, the grand jury states 15 percent of respondents to its inquiries were late and needed reminder letters. A whopping 20 percent of the documents were vague or incomplete and needed supplemental responses to comply with California Penal Code. More than 100 action items — recorded by the old 2015-2016 grand jury — remain pending.

The Orange County Office on Aging is one of the most cited agencies

But county agency scofflaws be warned: The grand jury quite literally will track you down.

The latest grand jury report makes clear it is “implementing an ongoing mechanism to track and publicly report on all outstanding commitments by county government entities.”

The report notes the grand jury expects the county chief executive officer to help ensure full and complete documents are filed on time.

“A significant number are submitted late,” the grand jury said, “use an improper format, or occasionally, are not submitted at all.”

What’s a few months — or a year — of tardiness when it comes to government? After all, we wait for an hour on hold with the DMV only to get disconnected, right?

Glad you asked.

“Grand jury investigations have little value unless recommendations are taken seriously by responding entities,” jurors explain, “and are addressed in a manner transparent to the public.

“Six past OCGJ reports have proclaimed the importance of tracking report responses, yet late, incomplete, and missing responses continue to drop out of public view.”

Perhaps some agencies consider procrastination a virtue. If they wait long enough some things go away.

Not so with future grand juries.

Timely responses

Part of the rub is respect. It’s just plain rude to invite citizens to volunteer to work form 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily — though the hours end up being far longer — month after month, pay them $50 a day, and then essentially ignore the work.

Yet for the men and women who serve, it’s not about respect or money. It’s about helping improve government.

Grand jury forewoman Carrie Carmody tells me she volunteered because she wanted to make a difference. “Every grand jury hopes when they put a report out, it’s going to make an impact.”

True, jurors ask for the job with eyes wide open. In their report released this week, they readily admit they “have no authority to enforce the implementation of report recommendations.

“The grand jury can only ensure that the reports and affected agencies’ responses are published for public scrutiny.”

But if procrastination isn’t a virtue, patience certainly is.

Carmody says it took three grand juries recommending improvements to the Orange County Animal Shelter before things changed. But change they did.

Jurors have a watchdog role, Carmody explained, and they have a responsibility to hold agencies’ feet to the fire until problems are solved.

“We need to continue to keep things in the forefront so they don’t disappear.”

The report makes juror frustration clear: “The lasting value of a grand jury investigation is diminished when findings and recommendations are not appropriately addressed by the affected agencies.

“Often an agency will respond either that it intends to implement a recommendation at a later date or that a recommendation requires further study, leaving the report ‘open.’”

Regardless of “difficulties or the granting of extensions, investigated agencies are still responsible to provide substantive responses in compliance with Government Code requirements.”

Meeting deadlines, the report makes clear, is law.

Jurors explained the new tracking system is based on one used by last year’s grand jury, but it is now expanded “into a robust tracking system which will be passed on” to future grand juries.

The report outlines a series of 60-day and 90-day steps with comment and judicial review. It goes on to state, “The CEO should meet with each sitting OCGJ by March 31st of each year to provide a status report of open responses to previous grand jury reports.”

To be sure, the grand jury’s recommendations aren’t always acted upon, nor perhaps should they be. Supervisor Todd Spitzer pointed out in a September board meeting that the county sometimes “totally disagrees” with juror findings.

That’s the way government works. Robust checks and balances.

But as Spitzer said, tracking is critical.

And so are timely responses.

May 25, 2017
Orange County Register

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