Monday, July 24, 2017

[San Mateo County] Balancing privacy with protection

Civil grand jury asks cops to disclose surveillance policies

As many Bay Area law enforcement agencies grow eager to adopt technological advancements to help fight crime, the debate over how surveillance systems could impede privacy rights continues to stir.
The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury investigated local agencies’ techniques and policies before releasing a report this week titled “A Delicate Balance: Privacy vs. Protection.” In it, the grand jury suggests most agencies are not doing an adequate job of informing the public as to how or whether they’re being watched and recommends cities and the county adopt new policies to promote transparency.
“Surveillance tools are everywhere: Video cameras are in stores, public buildings, even at a neighbor’s front door. Advances in surveillance technology have assisted law enforcement in investigating mass shootings, tracking terrorists and finding lost children,” the grand jury wrote in its report. “As valued as these new surveillance tools are to law enforcement, privacy experts say that innocent people may be targeted.”
The 2016-17 report comes just as numerous law enforcement agencies are working to equip their officers with body-worn cameras — which was recommended by the grand jury a year earlier. Now, it seeks to promote public awareness about how potentially sensitive information is gathered, stored and who has access.
Currently, 14 police departments and the Sheriff’s Office have purchased or plan to implement body-worn cameras. However, only Menlo Park has a statement related to the use of this equipment available online. Cities such as Atherton, Belmont, Foster City, Hillsborough and Menlo Park have had the equipment for several years. South San Francisco is just turning their cameras on; while San Mateo and Burlingame recently approved purchasing them. The Sheriff’s Office, Brisbane, Colma, Pacifica, Redwood City, San Bruno and East Palo Alto are expected to implement programs in the coming months.
The grand jury also recommends the various city councils and county Board of Supervisors adopt new requirements that include seeking public input before adopting new technologies, making their use policies readily available online, and increase accountability by posting periodic reports about the effectiveness of various surveillance tools.
The report outlines a wide variety of high-tech investigative equipment on the market such as cellphone interceptors. However, San Mateo County agencies are primarily using body-worn cameras, automated license plate readers or LPRs, and the Sheriff’s Office’s ShotSpotter that detects the location of gunfire.
Legislative action
The report highlights potential shifts in statewide regulations. Pending legislation by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, seeks to build off another law he authored by requiring cities and counties to host public meetings and craft a Surveillance Use Policy. The goal is to balance public safety with civil liberties while holding law enforcement agencies accountable to properly handling sensitive data. The bill also aims to promote transparency by having clearly outlined policies that must be approved by a governing body with public input, not just the law enforcement agency using the equipment. The San Mateo lawmaker’s bill is currently pending in the Assembly.
“This is just the beginning of the technology and the evolution of surveillance technology, we don’t know where it will end. But we know the citizens have to be part of the conversation because if we’re not, then those liberties and rights we have and hold dear today will be lost,” Hill said. “It’s certainly not intentional upon law enforcement’s part, that I believe. But they have a job to do and we expect them and push them to do the job, so they will use whatever they can to do that.”
License plate readers, new cameras
Hill’s effort is an expansion of prior legislation focusing on LPRs, which he chose to tackle after discovering some law enforcement agencies contracted with private companies that also sold the data. All San Mateo County agencies using LPRs store data with the Northern California Regional Crime Information Center, NCRIC, which was established by Congress.
Locally, LPRs are used by the Sheriff’s Office as well as police departments in San Mateo, Daly City, Hillsborough, Menlo Park, San Bruno and South San Francisco. San Carlos and Millbrae contract with the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services and Burlingame sometimes borrows LPRs.
The grand jury noted several of the departments do not have their LPR policies conspicuously available for the public to view online. The grand jury polled local law enforcement departments for its review and found most that are posting information on LPR polices have essentially used a vague, boilerplate statement from NCRIC. However, the grand jury did commend the city of San Mateo for an easier to understand description online, according to the report.
Representatives with Foster City and San Mateo police as well as the Sheriff’s Office said they were not ready to comment on the report as of Wednesday.
Foster City, which the grand jury report suggested did not involve the public when it first adopted body-worn technology, is slated to go before the City Council Monday to request new state-of-the-art cameras during a public hearing.
San Bruno police Lt. Troy Fry said the council has not yet approved purchasing cameras and the police department is still working on its body-worn camera policy. Also not able to comment on the grand jury report directly, Fry said there’s a balance.
“As a citizen in my community where I live, I understand the privacy concerns. But I would welcome the technology to help reduce crime and solve violent crimes,” Fry said. “It’s just a tool, and it can be used in good or bad ways. But as a citizen, I would welcome it as long as privacy rights are kept in line.”
Expanding transparency
Hill said he supports law enforcement being equipped with high-tech tools to fight crime and keep the public safe. His legislation, he argued, doesn’t detract from officers’ ability to secure the technology, instead it aims to provide opportunity for public comment and oversight for how sensitive data is stored.
The grand jury report notes neighboring entities have adopted or are considering explicit surveillance policies such as Santa Clara County, the city of Oakland and Bay Area Rapid Transit.
While the grand jury’s recommendations are not technically enforceable, responses are required by the local San Mateo County city and town councils, Board of Supervisors, Sheriff’s Office and Broadmoor Police Protection District.
Hill added he’s pleased the grand jury studied the issue and made recommendations for local jurisdictions to expand transparency.
“It’s a policy in place with the basic information. What does the technology do? How are you going to use it? Who has access to the information and how long will you be keeping the information?” Hill said. “Basic questions that are important.”
July 13, 2017
The Daily Journal
By Samantha Weigel

[Humboldt County] Grand Jury report: ‘Raw, disturbing’ child abuse issues probed

HUMBOLDT – Humboldt County’s Grand Jury has released an annual report that delves into child welfare issues that are “raw, disturbing and should be of concern to all members of our community.”
Protecting children from abuse and responding to it were main investigative items in the report, which was released in full last week.
Declaring that “the children of Humboldt County are ill-served by the intake system that is meant to protect them,” the report analyzes the effectiveness of child protection services.
“Unfortunately, the (Grand Jury) discovered that our children are not being afforded the protections that they deserve,” the report states.
According to the report, the county’s Child Welfare Services (CWS) division twice denied the Grand Jury’s requests for intake processing data based on confidentiality issues – and then “abruptly made notable changes to their policies and procedures at intake.”
The report allows that the new procedures may improve the timeliness of CWS responses to instances of abuse and neglect but states that the Grand Jury “cannot conclude that serious deficiencies have been corrected until CWS provides needed measures of timeliness.”
The report’s recommendations include having the county’s Department of Health and Human Services develop a “timeliness metric” for measuring response times once child  abuse/neglect is reported.
In a related investigation, the Grand Jury probed the response effectiveness of three key entities – school districts, law enforcement and CWS.
The Grand Jury found “numerous problematic areas” with each, along with “major problems” in how agencies interact to address child abuse.
Recommendations include having the Humboldt County Office of Education instruct school personnel “on the importance of filing a written report” with CWS after making initial phone contact.
The county Sheriff’s Office is requested to file investigative reports even when allegations are not confirmed, to create a record that may show the need for “more in-depth investigation.”
The Grand Jury also looked into law enforcement readiness in outlying areas in a section of the report titled, “Rural policing in Humboldt County: Lawlessness Ignored?”
The report states that according to FBI data, violent crime in the county’s unincorporated area has increased by two-and-a-half times since 2012, “exceeding the national average for the first time in many years.”
Statistics between 2005 and 2014 show that Humboldt County has the highest arrest rate in the state, according to the report. It also states that “crime continues unabated” because criminals are “empowered by the perception that law enforcement will not respond when called.”
Finding that “rural areas of county are underserved by law enforcement and other emergency services,” the report acknowledges that recruitment and training requirements delay staff additions.
That’s especially relevant to adding deputies funded by the Measure Z public safety tax, which has been “slow,” according to the report.
The Grand Jury recommends increased funding for the Sheriff’s Office and streamlining hiring procedures and “staff retention protocol.” Measure Z expires in 2019 unless renewed by voters and the report recommends that the county find a “permanent funding model.”
The county’s $232.3 million employee pension funding liability as of June 30, 2015 is also probed in the report, which asks, “Will Unfunded County Pensions Un-fund Our Future?”
It threatens to, according to the report, “particularly if projected tax revenues do not materialize or if we have a business recession that affects county revenues.”
The report states that the pension liability “could jeopardize vital programs, even Humboldt County’s solvency.” A main recommendation is for the county to contribute at least $2 million to the trust fund dedicated to covering the liability in the 2017 to 2018 budget.
The Board of Supervisors approved the budget in late June and the pension liability fund will get a contribution equivalent to a half-percent of projected county employee salary costs for the fiscal year. That’s forecasted to amount to about $819,000.
The liability fund’s balance, not including the current fiscal year contribution, is about $1.2 million.
Also in the report, the Grand Jury analyzes accounts of employers seeking – and not finding – skilled workers for available jobs. The report recommends that the Workforce Investment Board “increase its effectiveness by focusing on targeted employment needs and opportunities and broaden program descriptions to include clearly-defined skill levels.”
The report also found that the 2015 consolidation of the county Sheriff’s Office and Coroner/Public Administrator office has led to “significant operational improvements” but not cost savings. However, the report notes that “the consolidation was most successful in rescuing an underfunded operation.”
The Board of Supervisors and other agencies evaluated in the report will issue responses to the Grand Jury’s findings and recommendations in the coming weeks.
July 12, 2017
Mad River Union
By Daniel Mintz

San Mateo County watchdog gives police high marks on outreach

San Mateo County watchdog gives police high marks on outreach

A citizen watchdog group gave high marks overall to law enforcement on access to outreach for non-English primary speakers in the county, but found a few agencies lagging.
The 2016-17 San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury lauded nine police departments for offering “an impressive array of outreach events and are to be commended for having interpreters at many of these programs for the languages widely spoken in the communities they serve,” in a report dated June 29. Those agencies include Redwood City, San Mateo, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto on the Peninsula. Of the county’s estimated 729,543 residents, 305,069 (41.8 percent) self-report that their primary language is not English, and nearly half of those residents (130,019) state they don’t speak English “very well.”
The civil grand jury dinged law enforcement agencies serving Atherton, Brisbane, Colma and Hillsborough for making no mention of outreach programs on their websites. It also reported that Daly City — which, at 64.2 percent, contains the county’s highest percentage of residents who speak languages other than English — offers no interpreters for its outreach programs.
The report commended nine of the county’s 17 law enforcement agencies for providing web access in multiple languages, citing East Palo Alto’s as “particularly effective.” East Palo Alto’s website allows users to choose from more than 100 languages, as does the website for the city of Menlo Park. The county’s Sheriff’s Office is among eight agencies that do not offer multilingual websites.
The civil grand jury found that there are more than 170 outreach programs in place in the county. It said it is “essential” that awareness of this outreach be supplemented on agencies’ websites.
“Promoting these programs through agency websites and extending outreach in multiple languages is essential if English and non-English speaking residents alike are to benefit from them,” the report states.
The civil grand jury recommends that all county law enforcement agencies modify their websites to allow multilingual translation by Dec. 31. It also recommends all agencies make all of their outreach programs available on their home pages or via a prominent link on the home page to an outreach programs page by that date.
July 12, 2017
The Mercury News
By Kevin Kelly

Napa [County] grand jury says Solano is answer to county’s jail needs

FAIRFIELD — The Napa County grand jury has recommended that rather than building a new and larger jail facility, the county should contract with Solano for inmate housing.
“(The) Grand Jury found that construction of additional new facilities . . . could be avoided because Napa County has the opportunity to enter into a cost effective regional jail partnership with Solano County, which the Jury recommends,” the grand jury report released June 19 states.
Lenard Vare, director of the Napa County Department of Corrections, said he could not comment on the grand jury report until the Board of Supervisors addresses it, but said there is no active discussion on what the county is going to do after the three current construction projects are completed.
One of those is a 60-bed remodel of the basement at Napa’s current jail, converting the area into two-inmate cells.
“The plan is . . . the approximately 40 inmates (who) are in Solano County will come back once the basement remodel is done,” Vare said.
In the meantime, Solano County officials are trying to figure out how to absorb that lost revenue – about $3,500 daily at the current inmate population.
“Yes, we are going to lose revenue, and we are making adjustments throughout our (operations),” said Capt. Denton Autry, custody commander for Solano County. He emphasized that the department will employ all cost-saving options before it reduces its staffing, and even if it comes to that, will simply not fill open positions before laying off anyone.
The county has more than 360 officers, so through retirement and other attrition, it is not uncommon to have vacancies to fill, Autry said.
Napa contracts on a sliding scale that equates to $88 per bed, per day for 40 or more inmates. The contract calls for payment of $128 per bed for one to 25 inmates and $108 per bed if the inmate count is between 26 and 39.
“We have the authority to contract up to 125 inmates, but Napa hovers around 40,” Autry said. That population is comprised of 30 men and 10 women, and the security levels range from minimum to maximum. Solano does not accept inmates with significant mental illness.
Autry added while Solano is open to housing inmates from other counties, the Sheriff’s Office is not marketing the bed space around the state as a revenue generator.
“We have a resource available to other counties and that’s jail beds,” Autry said. “We have a paper cap of 125 (inmates), but we could take more.”But we are not out shopping contracts.”
Solano also has an active contract with Sonoma, but currently does not have any inmates from that county.
In addition to the basement remodel, Napa also is building a 72-bed re-entry facility designed to help inmates transition back into society.
“That should be completed in the middle of 2018,” Vare said.
Napa County also is constructing a $28.4 million, 96-bed jail. It will include a 17-bed unit for inmates with mental illness. That should be finished by the 2021-22 fiscal year, Vare said.
The 72- and 96-bed projects come under the label of the first phase of the county’s jail needs. The next two phases, which the grand jury recommends against, would be for a $128 million, 304-bed facility.
“And at this point, we are just releasing options about what should do,” Vare said.
He is not convinced that renting beds in the Solano County jail is the most fiscally prudent option over time. He also noted that construction costs are not going to get any cheaper, so a decision on the new facility needs to be made sooner than later.
Calls seeking comment from a Napa County supervisor on the subject was instead responded to by a public information officer.
“Napa County does not comment on Grand Jury reports until the Board of Supervisors has reviewed the document and has had a chance to respond to it,” the email from Kristine Jourdan stated.
She said the board acknowledged receipt of the report on Tuesday, and directed staff to begin preparing responses.
Napa is one of two counties in the state in which the jail division does not come under the sheriff’s authority.
July 12, 2017
Fairfield Daily Republic
By Todd R. Hansen

[Los Angeles County] Police pursuits cause unnecessary deaths and injuries, L.A. County grand jury says

Police chases in Los Angeles County are “causing unnecessary bystander injuries and deaths,” and law enforcement officers need better training to reduce the risk of crashes during high-speed pursuits, according to a new report by the county’s civil grand jury.
The report comes after a data analysis by the Los Angeles Times showed that 1 in 10 car chases initiated by the Los Angeles Police Department from 2006 to 2014 resulted in injuries to civilians.
The grand jury said both the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department need to improve training for officers who engage in pursuits, and questioned the need to chase suspects for nonviolent crimes. The Sheriff’s Department’s training center is in dire need of an upgrade, the report said.
Citing data provided by the California Highway Patrol, the grand jury report found that 17% of the car chases that took place in the county in a 12-month period beginning in October 2015 ended in a crash that could have resulted in injury or death. Two-thirds of those 421 pursuits ended in an arrest.
Over the same period, three fleeing drivers were killed and 45 people were injured, including suspects, their passengers or officers, the report said.
“Is this the best balance that can be realized between law enforcement goals and the risk of unintended consequences?” the grand jury report asked.
The report also cited a national study conducted by the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police that found that 91% of high-speed chases were initiated in response to nonviolent crimes. The study, which reviewed about 8,000 car chases, found that 42% of the pursuits involved a traffic infraction. A third of the chases were initiated after officers either noticed a stolen vehicle or suspected a driver of being intoxicated, the report said.
L.A. County Sheriff’s Capt. Scott Gage, who oversees training for the agency, agreed with the report’s assessment that deputies should spend more hours training for the dangers of a high-speed pursuit. The agency has allocated funding for a new training facility and is waiting for a bid process to play out to begin construction, Gage said.
The Sheriff’s Department has been involved in 318 pursuits in 2017, according to data released this week by the agency. Those chases resulted in the death of one civilian and injuries to nine others, records show.
In a statement, the LAPD said pursuits are “inherently dangerous and that is why the Los Angeles Police Department takes every step to develop tactics and mitigate the risk posed by these dangerous interactions.”
The grand jury’s report, which was published in late June, is not binding or enforceable, but both agencies will have to provide a written response to the findings within 90 days.
In calling on local law enforcement agencies to revamp how they approach pursuits, the grand jury cited analyses by the Los Angeles Times showing that LAPD car chases have led to bystander injuries and deaths at twice the rate of pursuits in the rest of the state.
From 2006 to 2014, 334 bystanders were injured — or 1 in 10 LAPD pursuits, according to a Times review of pursuit data reported to the California Highway Patrol. In 2015, LAPD pursuits injured more bystanders than in any other year in at least a decade.
The grand jury report also highlighted the death of Jack Phoenix, a 15-year-old who was decapitated in November 2015 when he was struck by a car fleeing the LAPD.
In court, an LAPD officer testified that police noticed a stolen vehicle and followed it along the 10 Freeway and into the Palms neighborhood. The officer said she and her partner continued to follow the car at speeds above 60 mph without turning on their lights and sirens. They did not try to stop the driver as he sped along Venice Boulevard, where he eventually struck the teenager.
The LAPD has said it does not consider the incident a pursuit. The driver, Paul Brumfield, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 27 years in prison in April. Phoenix’s family is suing the LAPD.
“It’s ridiculous in this day and age, with the kinds of technologies that are available, that they would have to chase a guy through traffic like that,” said Nick Phoenix, the victim’s father, adding that he was happy to hear about a push for policy reform.
Previously, experts have described the LAPD’s pursuit policy as one of the most permissive in the state.
Officers in many other major cities in California, including San Francisco, San Jose and Long Beach, are allowed to chase only drivers who present an immediate danger to the public or are suspected of violent felonies. Los Angeles police, however, are allowed to chase motorists suspected of felonies or misdemeanors.
The LAPD also chases suspected drunk and reckless drivers more frequently than other departments in the state, a practice that often is subject to criticism from policing experts, who say police are likely to cause an already erratic driver to become more dangerous by pursuing him or her.
Sheriff’s deputies are also allowed to pursue drunk drivers, but their policy is more restrictive, Gage said. Deputies are allowed to pursue a drunk driver only when they see a motorist driving in an extremely dangerous manner, Gage said. Deputies then must balance the danger posed by the driver against the possible risks of enacting a chase, he said.
“The deputy has to see the erratic, dangerous driving prior to them even trying to stop the vehicle. Then, we’re gonna activate our lights and sirens, not just to stop the suspect, but as a duty to warn the public,” he said. “Once we initiate, there is going to be a constant evaluation, if we’re going to cause the suspect to drive more erratically.”
The grand jury said the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department should provide officers with recurring training on driving in pursuits and each department’s trainers should investigate injuries at pursuit crash scenes.
Grand jurors described the Sheriff’s Department’s pursuit training facility as “substandard” compared with the LAPD’s and called for improved and longer training for deputies.
The LAPD has been working on revisions to its pursuit policy since 2015, officials previously told The Times, adding that the revisions were not in response to any public criticism of the department’s tactics. Nearly two years later, the policy revisions still are being negotiated with the union that represents rank-and-file officers, an LAPD spokesman said Tuesday.
Joanne Saliba, the grand jury forewoman, said she hopes the report leads to serious policy reform in both agencies, adding that some grand jurors were concerned about the way high-speed chases of low-priority suspects can endanger the lives of people who are simply going about their day.
“Many of them were concerned that these high-risk pursuits through urban areas at high speeds, especially for groups of people that haven’t committed a serious crime, seem to put the public at risk,” she said.
July 12, 2017
Los Angeles Times
By James Queally

[Orange County] Deputy errors, understaffing were major factors in Santa Ana jailbreak, Sheriff Hutchens says

Blog note: this article references the sheriff’s response to an April 2017 grand jury report on the subject.
Orange County sheriff officials told county leaders Tuesday, July 11, that jail mismanagement, understaffing and deputies’ longstanding disregard for department policies were major factors  in last year’s brazen escape of three inmates — an official acknowledgment that it was staff missteps, rather than antiquated jail infrastructure, that played the central role in the breakout.
In response to the January 2016 escape from Central Men’s Jail, the sheriff’s department has increased staffing by $4.5 million annually, hiring nearly 22 new deputies and officers to man the facility, according to a confidential sheriff’s document obtained by the Register, which also was discussed more generally at the county Board of Supervisors’ meeting Tuesday.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ admission of the role of personnel shortcomings in the jail breakout came in a recently published response to an April report from the Orange County Grand Jury, which found that jail staff ignored security rules, took shortcuts in counting inmates, didn’t search jail vendors, and failed to follow policies requiring deputies to regularly inspect tunnels inside jail walls. The panel also found that jail management failed to fix those problems when sergeants and lieutenants raised some concerns before the escape.
Those shortcomings helped give the escapees – Hossein Nayeri, Bac Tien Duong and Jonathan Tieu – a 15-hour head start before jail staff realized they were missing, according to the report. The men led law enforcement on an eight-day, statewide manhunt before their recapture.
Hutchens agreed with nearly all the report’s findings. Her concession is the furthest the sheriff has gone in assigning blame to her staff for the jailbreak.
The three men, who were facing charges ranging from attempted murder and kidnapping to mutilation, escaped by cutting through metal bars, crawling through tunnels, climbing onto the jail roof and rappelling down four stories. Following the men’s recapture, the sheriff’s department announced that it had worked to “harden” the Central Jail, paying $570,000 to install new bars, lights, motion detectors and other physical improvements.
But the Feb. 13 confidential sheriff’s report reveals that the department’s response to the jailbreak was largely a personnel issue.
According to the report, deputies who were supposed to conduct random searches and body counts were often redirected to do other jobs in the jails, leaving the area understaffed. A single sergeant charged with supervising two floors of the jail’s housing unit remained stationed on the bottom level, leaving the roof and top floor – where the escapees were housed – unmonitored. And the jail had no watch commander during the “midnight shift,” leaving lower-ranked sergeants to supervise the facility, the report stated.
To plug those deficiencies, the sheriff’s department has created posts for two new lieutenants, four sergeants and some of the 16 deputies recommended by the internal report.
The sheriff’s department also has made numerous other changes in jail operations, including conducting regular roof inspections, accounting for all sheets and clothing, checking plumbing tunnels each shift, requiring additional training of jail staff, tracking what tools enter and exit the facility, adding a canine team, auditing guard stations, holding mock “breakout” classes and beginning implementation of a system that tracks inmates with radio frequencies.
On Tuesday, Supervisor Todd Spitzer grilled sheriff’s officials, asking why the department hadn’t admitted earlier that personnel missteps were chiefly to blame for the escape. He also alleged that Hutchens attempted to hide those mistakes from the public by using unfilled positions to make new hires – a move that did not require board approval.
“Sheriff Hutchens blamed the building for the failure when in reality it was a failure of management, and she controlled all of it within her existing budget so she didn’t have to have this conversation on the record,” said Spitzer, who is running for district attorney. “The building didn’t fail. She failed.”
Spitzer asked Sheriff’s Commander Jon Briggs, who assumed control of custody operation following the jailbreak, whether the escape should have been discovered if deputies had been doing their jobs properly.
“It should have been (discovered),” Briggs responded.
Briggs told Spitzer that the department still doesn’t know what tools the inmates used to cut through the bars, though he said the marks resembled those made by reciprocating saws, which were left behind on two occasions near inmate housing areas prior to the escape.
Briggs also told the board that “four or five” people had been disciplined over the breakout, but no one had been fired or demoted.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson said he disagreed with Spitzer’s assertion that Hutchens had hidden the personnel problems from the board
“It wasn’t hidden from me,” Nelson said. “The fact that you could even have tools for cutting told me that someone didn’t do their job.”
But Nelson said the board was never told prior to the escape that there may have been concerns about understaffing in the jails.
“Not even by the union,” Nelson said.
The union that represents Orange County’s sheriff’s deputies sued Hutchens and the department in February 2016, alleging that staff reductions contributed to the escape. That lawsuit is pending.
Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies, said Tuesday that the grand jury report validated many of the allegations in its lawsuit. But he also commended the department for addressing some of the union’s concerns.
July 11, 2017
The Orange County Register
By Jordan Graham

[San Mateo County] Grand jury calls for pause on fake turf at schools

Report details need for turf choice guidelines and further study

Following inconclusive results about the health effects and questions about the cost savings of artificial sports fields, the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury is urging school district officials to take a closer look at how and when they use artificial turf and engage school communities on the topic.
The grand jury is recommending in a report released Monday that school districts stop using artificial turf derived of recycled rubber tires until an ongoing study by the Environmental Protection Agency provides further data on the health effects of using tire-derived products on athletic fields or until they write decision-making guidelines that take the safety, cost and suitability of a materials used to create artificial turf into account.
With some investigations revealing the presence of lead and other toxins in tire-derived turf, questions about whether the material could be related to cases of cancer and other negative health effects have swirled among education communities, according to the report. The jury’s recommendations are meant to stall use of the turf until conflicting reports and ongoing studies can better inform district officials’ decision-making.
“The grand jury believes that it would be a mistake for San Mateo County school districts to fail to consider such potential health risks as a part of their overall analysis of whether to use crumb rubber on its athletic field surfaces,” the jury stated in the report.
Of the 192 athletic fields managed by the 23 school districts in San Mateo County, 29 are made of artificial turf using tire-derived products, with 16 school districts considering field replacements in the next five years, according to the report.
The report noted the rising popularity of using artificial turf fields in recent years, specifically those with crumb rubber infill, which involve filling the spaces between artificial grass blades with rubber from used tires. Lauded for recycling used tires, reducing the need for irrigation during drought conditions and being able to withstand year-round use, among other benefits, artificial turf fields have been an attractive option for school district officials contending with an increase in demand for field time from school athletic teams, according to the report.
In its report, the grand jury called perceived benefits of artificial fields into question, bringing attention to other hazards related to them and comparing the cost of installing and maintaining artificial turf fields and grass fields. Known to absorb and trap heat at a higher rate than grass fields, the fields have also been pegged as a potential hazard to those using the fields in high temperatures, according to the jury.
District officials at the San Mateo Union High School District confirmed the six artificial turf fields with crumb rubber infill maintained on its premises cost an annual average of $63,600, or $10,600 per field, with replacement of the underlying carpet of the fields expected to cost $700,000 and to be required every seven years. San Mateo-Foster City School District officials confirmed annual maintenance costs of $2,850 for each of the grass fields it manages.
Sheri Costa, a spokeswoman for the San Mateo Union High School District, said the district is invested in providing the best possible artificial turf product for the safety of its students and is seeking artificial turf alternatives and solutions.
“There have been numerous reports published throughout the U.S. and abroad that have presented inconclusive evidence of the link between certain types of artificial turf and major health issues, and there have been reports on the risks associated with alternative products,” she said in an email. “We appreciate the grand jury’s investment and effort in studying this topic, will continue to evaluate new possible artificial turf products for safety and we welcome input and ideas from our community.”
The grand jury acknowledged the challenge of sifting through existing information about artificial turf as studies aimed at clarifying its health effects are pending and cost savings information is often provided by artificial turf providers, who have a vested interest in their installation. County Superintendent Anne Campbell expressed appreciation for the grand jury’s focus on an issue affecting San Mateo County school communities.
“Student safety should always be our highest priority, and the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s report at the end of this year will help our districts in assessing the safety of specific types of artificial turf,” she said in an email.
Though Campbell confirmed the responsibility of implementing guidelines regarding the selection of athletic field surfaces belongs to local boards and superintendents, she said the County Office of Education would be supportive in creating them.
The San Mateo County Grand Jury are has no legal authority to implement policy change, but elected officials are required to respond to a report’s findings and recommendations within two months and governing bodies must respond within three months.
July 11, 2017
San Mateo Daily Journal
By Anna Schuessler

[Nevada County] Bill Neville: Grand jury report ignores factors in Higgins Fire District financial problems

As a retired fire chief officer, fire district director, fire service educator and 25-year fire service consultant, I find myself both engrossed and disappointed by the Nevada County Grand Jury Report on the Higgins Fire District financial problems.
The report leaves no doubt that the citizens of that district face severe fire and emergency medical service issues. But, in my mind, the report ignores many factors contributing to the district problems.
While the citizen volunteers who serve without compensation on the district's board of directors are severely chastised by the grand jury's report, the district's chief executive officer's lack of involvement in addressing the identified issues seems largely disregarded. According to the report, the district had duly appointed, as the district fire chief and chief executive officer, a Cal Fire chief officer and in accordance with the "special relationship" between Cal Fire and the Higgins District made him "responsible for the functions of the District."
As a fire service consultant for the last 25 years, I can unequivocally state that I would have expected the district's chief executive officer to lead the district's efforts on gaining passage of the ballot measures to increase District revenue. I don't, however, find anything in the report indicating significant efforts in this regard by the Cal Fire chief officer duly appointed as the district's chief executive officer, and responsible for the functions of the district.
The report lists as factors contributing to failure of the Higgins Board's tax increase ballot measures: "lack of sufficient information given to the public, and public confusion as to the purpose of the California Fire Prevention State Responsibility Area fee (SRA fee)." Apparently, certain parties opposed to the district's tax increase ballot measure, claimed that no additional district funds were required because the new California Fire Prevention State Responsibility Area fee would provide all necessary funding.
Given that the SRA fee was, in fact, in support of a Cal Fire wildfire prevention program (no funds designated for emergency fire or emergency medical response), it seems obvious to me that the Cal Fire chief officer, as the fire district's chief executive officer should have been the ideal party to educate the public on the true nature of the SRA Fee. I find nothing in the report indicating efforts, or lack thereof by that officer to clarify the SRA fee for district voters.
The grand jury further charges that the board alone failed to engage the local community and maintain an appropriate website. There is no doubt in my mind that these matters are more appropriately the role of the professional chief executive officer than the volunteer, part-time, board of directors who, in my experience, typically deal with broad policy issues rather than these kinds of administrative functions.
Another shortcoming attributed solely to the district board by the grand jury was the poor performance of the consultant hired to assist in gaining public support for the tax increase ballot measure. Again, in my experience, such consulting service is typically administered by career management, in this case, the district chief executive officer.
The report states, "The Amador Contract is a vital element in the operations of the Higgins District." Yet the report does not examine Cal Fire's demand for a 700 percent fee increase to continue that contract with Higgins. Apparently, "Chief Officer and other support services have been provided to the District at no charge for over 35 years." It would seem pertinent for the grand jury to have determined if this kind of "special relationship" has been provided to other fire districts and if so, their experience with that "relationship."
The rationale driving the citizen's group who made exaggerated, incorrect claims regarding district employee benefits on the ballot argument opposing the tax increase would also seem to have been relevant material for grand jury report examination.
Perhaps the answer to some of these omissions lies in the noteworthy limited scope of persons interviewed by the jury:
No representation from the other, fiscally viable, Nevada County fire districts.
No representation from LAFCo, the organization responsible by State law for reviewing proposals for changes in the organization of existing agencies.
It seems clear to me that the Higgins District Board of Directors has demonstrated shortcomings. However, several other significant factors were addressed only vaguely or not at all. The inequitable tenor of this report causes me to seriously question the credibility and viability of the Civil Grand Jury system, at least as practiced in Nevada County.
Bill Neville served as assistant chief of the Los Angeles City Fire Department, fire chief in Hayward, superintendent of the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., director of the Penn Valley Fire Protection District, and as a fire service consultant for agencies from Massachusetts to Hawaii and Florida to Alaska.
July 10, 2017
The Union of Grass Valley
Opinion by Bill Neville

[San Francisco County] Voter generosity helped SF pile up huge pension tab

A civil grand jury found that San Francisco has a huge $5.8 billion pension liability, and a series of retroactive benefit increases approved by voters over a dozen years is mostly to blame.
San Francisco has a staggering $5.8 billion pension liability, and a series of retroactive benefit increases approved by voters over a dozen years is largely to blame, according to a recently released civil grand jury report.
That generosity is contributing to an eye-popping increase in the public payroll. The grand jury found that the cost of city salaries and benefits, which include pensions, has grown by 33 percent over the past decade — and it’s expected to keep up that pace for at least five more years. That will add another $698 million to the public tab.
And while these estimates come right out of the city’s budget forecasts, said grand jury member Christopher Bacon, “it’s a bigger problem than I think the city has wanted to face.”
According to veteran City Hall watcher and Chamber of Commerce Vice President Jim Lazarus, the mounting retirement expenses “for the foreseeable future (will) require a substantial general fund payment into the pension system.”
That, in turn, could force the city to cut services, and it may “affect the number of employees ... and the wage and benefit packages (the city) can afford,” Lazarus said.
It’s worth noting that the city has paid almost twice as much in pension contributions as workers over the past decade. In that time, the city’s annual contribution has more than tripled, to $526.8 million.
At the heart of the city’s pension troubles, the civil grand jury found, are 10 ballot measures approved by voters between 1996 and 2008 that allowed for retroactive increases to employee retirement benefits.
“These retroactive increases were very expensive gifts to employees and retirees from taxpayers, paid for with money borrowed at a high interest rate from the retirement system, and paid back over 20 years by taxpayers,” the grand jury said.
Among them was Proposition H in 2002 to boost police and firefighter pensions — which had the backing of everyone from the entire Board of Supervisors to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Their ballot argument, plus a statement from then-Controller Ed Harrington, said there would be “no costs to taxpayers for at least 10 years,” thanks to the pension system’s “large surplus.”
If the retirement surplus was “ever exhausted,” police and firefighters would be required to negotiate with the city “to pay for the added benefit themselves,” the advocates said.
That never happened, we’re told — although police and firefighters now pay a higher percentage into their pensions.
After reviewing the impact from the wave of retroactive pension increases, the grand jury concluded that a series of mayors, members of the Board of Supervisors, city controllers and retirement board members “did not fulfill their responsibility to watch out for the interests of the city and its residents.”
City Controller Ben Rosenfield, while acknowledging the seriousness of the rising pension debt, blames more recent events for the city’s predicament. Pension recipients are living longer, he said, and the courts overturned a 2011 city initiative that would have limited cost-of-living increases for retirees — delivering a $1.3 billion blow to San Francisco’s pension savings.
And while the grand jury also points to $1.4 billion in investment losses dating back to the economic crash of 2008, city retirement board member Victor Makras says the agency’s own poor investment strategies are the real issue.
“We can’t blame (the recession) anymore,” he said. “We are responsible for prudently investing.”
July 10, 2017
San Francisco Chronicle
By Phillip Matier & Andrew Ross

[Napa County] Grand Jury: It’s cheaper to send Napa County inmates to Solano jail

The Napa County jail needs more space, more programs, and more Correctional Officers. But the Solano County jail is already equipped with these things, so it may be easier and cheaper for the county to expand the partnership than to expand in size, according to the 2016-2017 Napa County Grand Jury.
The Grand Jury came to this conclusion after two jail inspections, reviewing documents and conducting numerous interviews with officials from Napa and Solano Counties.
The Grand Jury’s report on the Napa County jail, “Where are we headed?,” states that, despite clear improvements made to the current jail, including significant renovations and the reintroduction of education and job training programs, the jail continues to have problems.
Napa County does not comment on Grand Jury reports until the Board of Supervisors has reviewed the document and has had a chance to respond to it, said Napa County Public Information Officer Kristi Jourdan on Friday.
As part of a three-phase plan, the county has a 96-bed maximum-security facility scheduled for completion in 2022. The jury recommends that the next two phases be scrapped and instead the county enters into a “cost effective” regional jail partnership with Solano County. Housing in the Solano County jail is less expensive than in Napa County, the jail has programs in place for inmates, has plenty of space for more inmates and is well-staffed, the jury said.
The average estimated daily cost of housing an inmate in Napa ranges from $121 to $149 per day, the jury said. The cost to house Napa County inmates in Solano County ranges between $88 and $128 per day.
The Solano County jail already has excellent education and rehabilitation programs in place and plans to add new skill programs in the next few years, the jury said. More than 150 Napa County inmates have participated in rehab programs in the last three years.
Napa County currently has about 40 inmates housed in Solano County – these inmates are expected to return to Napa when jail renovations are complete at the end of this year, the jury said.
The Grand Jury found that, although jail personnel performed their duties in a professional manner, the Napa County jail has a 25 percent vacancy for Correctional Officers. In comparison, the jury said, the Solano County jail experiences an annual turnover rate of 3.8 percent.
“The reality is that the jail has been chronically understaffed for several years because of noncompetitive compensation and lack of career advancement opportunity,” the Grand Jury said.
Correctional Officers at the Napa County jail have little opportunity for job advancement and a compensation package that isn’t nearly as good as other jobs in law enforcement, the jury said. If the Napa County Board of Supervisors wants to recruit and retain correctional officers, compensation for the job needs to be improved significantly, the jury said.
One solution to this problem would be to switch the jail from an independently operated facility overseen by the Board of Supervisors to the jurisdiction of the Napa County Sheriff’s Office, according to the report.
The Napa County jail is one of two in the state that is not run by the county sheriff’s office, officials said.
The Grand Jury found that there is no good reason that the jail isn’t run by the sheriff despite the belief of some county officials that the jail would be less focused on rehabilitation under the sheriff’s watch and that an independent Department of Corrections is less costly.
The cost savings of providing smaller compensation packages, though, can be outweighed by the costs of a continuing cycle of recruitment, training, lack of tenured staff and overtime costs, the jury said.
Between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2016, correctional officers in Napa County accumulated 26,660 hours of overtime, the jury said. The cost of overtime for the 2015 fiscal year was $517,344, and in 2016 it was $727,687, according to the report.
The Grand Jury said that the county’s basic pay scale is competitive but that its retirement and injury leave are not competitive with other law enforcement and correctional agencies. Many recruits leave for other opportunities in law enforcement, the jury said.
The Grand Jury also recommended that the county should work with state officials to obtain resources to create a regional mental health jail. Between 30 and 40 percent of Napa County inmates are affected by mental health- related problems, but correctional officers have limited training in managing inmates with mental illnesses, the jury said.
“The situation is not going to get better without a concerted focus on inmate mental health treatment,” the jury said.
Under the Board of Supervisors’ current plan, a 72-bed re-entry facility will be completed by the middle of 2018 and a 96-bed maximum security facility will be completed in 2022, the jury said. The maximum-security facility, projected to cost $78 million, is supposed to have classrooms, mental health treatment facilities, individual counseling rooms and administrative offices, according to the jury report.
If this plan were to move forward, the county would operate both the new jail and the downtown jail until it could come up with more money for a new jail expansion, according to previous Register reports.
Last month, though, supervisors began discussing the possibility of builder a bigger jail — a 304-bed facility — instead of a 96-bed facility. The larger facility would mean more money up front — approximately $128 million — but lower operating costs. County staff are working on a design and fiscal analysis for the 304-bed jail proposal that will be discussed at a future Board of Supervisors meeting.
July 9, 2017
Napa Valley Register
By Maria Sestito

Saturday, July 22, 2017

[Santa Cruz County] Report criticizes Santa Cruz Metro financials, long-term plans

SANTA CRUZ >> Despite efforts to cut costs, the Santa Cruz Metro is still struggling with long-term financial viability, according to the findings of a grand jury report.
The report, released June 29, takes aim at the transit district’s approach to sustaining itself financially.
Since the 2008 recession, the entity had regularly dug into its $25 million reserve to continue operation and stave off severe cuts to services. But that practice is not sustainable and the entity needs to focus on growing its ridership and community ties, according to the grand jury report.
“Current Metro Board actions and guidance to management do not address the need to grow income,” the grand jury wrote.
The Santa Cruz Civil Grand Jury investigates local governments, county facilities, special districts and schools.
Outlined in the report were five focal points for the body to address: funding, facilities maintenance, management, ridership experience and business development. But a chief theme throughout the 10-page report was the need to address long-term financial viability and growth.
While the grand jury commended the district for making attempts to cut costs through route reductions and decrease of stop frequencies, it cited the need for more grant writing and expanded partnerships throughout the county.
But Alex Clifford, CEO and general manager for Metro, says there is evidence that shows otherwise. The district had a great 2016 as far as grants. That list included a $3 million federal grant for three electric buses as well as grants from the state and the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.
“How do you tell us that we’re not doing well in grants when we had an incredible year last year of receiving grants?” he said.
As is typical with grand jury reports, the entity in question must respond within a time frame. The transit district board has until Sept. 17 to respond while the CEO — Clifford — has until Aug. 28.
The board and Clifford plan to dispute much of the report, including the contention that the report omitted key facts and contained numerous errors.
While the report cited Metro’s projection that it would run into a deficit within two years — despite the body’s best efforts — Clifford said it failed to consider recent funding. The district is expecting funding from SB-1 and Measure D. He also added that the board recently adopted a five-year budget that eliminated the projected deficit.
“They’re just wrong and we’ll correct the record in our document that we present to the board in August and in September,” he said.
One point that Clifford and the grand jury do agree on is the recommendation that the district’s need for a marketing manager. While the role is open, it has remained unfulfilled because of budgetary issues.
The position could champion new methods of bringing in revenue, expand the number of partnerships and advocate for other programming that would grow metro.
“Currently these activities are disjointed and sporadic, and are constrained by a narrow definition of marketing. A business development manager would also examine the practices of similar and more financially robust transit systems to identify proven strategies,” the grand jury wrote.
The position has remained unfulfilled because of a lack of resources, Clifford said. Now that the board is in a better financial position, he said the position could be filled in the next few years.
Despite disagreeing with many of the findings, Clifford said he was pleased the body did not come back with issues concerning fraud, resource waste or abuse.
“Whenever you have any kind of audit or investigation, that’s one of the things you hope you’ll come through clean on,” he said.
July 8, 2017
Santa Cruz Sentinel
By Calvin Men

[Marin County] Marin IJ Editorial: Grand jury nudges agencies to open their doors

There are quite a few take-aways from the 2016-17 Marin County Civil Grand Jury’s report on governmental transparency.
First, the grand jury has counted 130 separate public agencies — large and tiny — across the county, from the Marin Board of Supervisors to local neighborhood-improvement districts.
Second, the report follows up on the hard work of the 2015-16 grand jury, which graded the websites of these agencies, A to F, and sadly found too many deserved D’s and F’s. Too many public agency websites lacked vital public information such as up-to-date detailed budgets, the terms of elected board members and payroll data, according to the jury’s Consumers Report-type review.
Third, the 2015-16 report’s grades and recommendations made a big difference, compelling, if not shaming, some agencies to dramatically improve their web presence.
The latest report details the progress made by many public agencies, but also turns up the public heat on those that need improvement.
These are assessments presented by the 19-member grand jury, an annual panel of civic-minded residents whose agenda is to improve public service. If the 2015-16 grand jury hadn’t raised these issues, it is doubtful, unfortunately, that many agencies would have made those improvements.
All too often, some agencies tend to treat public information as “for their eyes only” budget numbers, reports or payroll figures. Sometimes, they forget for whom they work and serve. Or they assume the approach: If the public doesn’t ask for it, it doesn’t need it.
The 2015-16 grand jury report corrected that assumption. The 2016-17 grand jury drove it home with its follow-up.
As it put it in its report, “A transparent website allows for more efficient interaction between the agency and the public and signals that the agency has nothing to hide from the public.”
In addition, with many agencies having reduced their office hours as a result of budget cuts, posting pertinent information online is even more important.
In response, many agencies made significant improvements. Some — such as the Marin Emergency Radio Authority, the Bel Marin Keys Community Services District, the Novato Fire Protection District and the Novato Sanitary District — went from F to an A.
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District, for instance, went from a C-minus to an A-minus.
The county government — and many of its iterations such as the flood control district and tiny community agencies — still have a lot of work to do to meet the grand jury’s standards.
Some others continue to lag. The grand jury found there is room for improvement in the online information and services provided by many agencies, among them the Marin City Community Services District, the Marin Healthcare District, the Richardson Bay Sanitary District and the Strawberry Recreation District.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of posting minutes, budgets and contracts.
Neither grand jury reviewed the wide variation of details provided in different agency’s minutes — from nearly useless outlines to verbose accounts — but maybe the next grand jury can take up that task.
The 2016-17 grand jury’s follow-up report is an important reminder to Marin public agencies that their websites should, at least, meet a uniform public standard. That so many have responded positively is an example that improvements can be made if agency leadership believes it is a priority.
The fact that there is still room for improvement should compel the 2017-18 grand jurors to continue to focus on this issue.
July 8, 2017
Marin Independent Journal