Saturday, July 29, 2017
[Tuolumne County] Grand jury takes aim at IT department, other public agencies
The Tuolumne County Information Technology Department is understaffed, underfunded, and lacks appropriate security measures, policies and procedures to protect sensitive data and computer equipment, according to the findings of an investigation by the 2016-17 Tuolumne County Grand Jury.
In a 157-page report released to the public Thursday, the jury also detailed investigations it conducted over the past year into Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, Tuolumne County Jail, Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, Groveland Community Services District, Tuolumne County Fire Department, and Tuolumne County Library.
This year’s jury consisted of 19 members who interviewed more than 75 people while conducting the investigations. The jury is required to inspect any jail or state prison within the county, but then is free to look into complaints received about other public entities.
The jury evaluates a public agency’s procedures, methods and systems and makes recommendations for improvements based upon its findings.
Any agency investigated by the jury doesn’t have to implement the recommendations made in the annual report, but they are required by California law to submit responses to each within 90 days of the report’s publication.
Here are summaries of the report’s highlights:
The county’s IT Department received the most ink of any other entity investigated in this year’s report.
Over the course of 40 pages, the jury painted a picture of a department trying to meet increasing demands while struggling with inadequate staffing, outdated equipment and a lack of leadership that has contributed to inconsistencies in processes.
“The 2016-2017 Tuolumne County Grand Jury investigated the Tuolumne County Information Technology Department. The Grand Jury was terrified,” the report stated. “Security, policy and procedures, training, and project management need to take more prominence in the IT Department and throughout Tuolumne County.”
According to the report, the department had 32 employees in 2008 compared to 17 now due to budgetary problems caused by the economic downturn that led to cuts in all county departments.
The report also stated there are serious security threats throughout the county’s fleet of IT devices, and the department’s staff lacks training in the current standards for dealing with security incidents.
County servers and other IT equipment are also stored in facilities that lack security cameras and are equipped with active overhead sprinklers that could cause irreparable harm if they were to be set off.
Among the reports 62 findings and 53 recommendations is the reinstatement of multiple positions, including the IT director, something that was on the Board of Supervisors’ shortlist of high priority positions this year but was not included in the 2017-18 fiscal year recommended budget due to a lack of funds.
The county eliminated more than 14 positions, including laying off three people, in order to balance the budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 and runs through June 30, 2018.
District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer said the board and county staff are well aware of the problems with IT services, but blamed a lack of funding for the slow progress on improvement.
“They did a very good job and benefit to the county by identifying some shortcomings and actually some creative ways to deal with that, so that aspect of this grand jury I thought was exceptional,” said Rodefer. “By the same token, we have to address those recommendations with limited resources. It’s going to take us awhile to work our way through all of that stuff.”
Deputy County Administrator Daniel Richardson, who oversees the IT Department, could not be reached for comment because he’s on vacation until next week.
The county should look at increasing the sales tax and/or property tax in order to supplement the budget for the library system that’s currently underfunded, according to the report.
A study of the potential tax increase should be completed by the end of the year to give enough time for putting the issue on the June 2018 election ballot, the report stated, adding that the additional funds should be used to hire a director of library services with a master’s degree in library science who would report directly to the county administrator.
The position has remained vacant since September 2010 due to budget cuts, while staff has also been reduced, hours of operation have been cut, branches have shuttered and library cardholders have increased from 27,664 to 32,372 in 2015-16.
A recommended county budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year that was approved by the board last month includes money for hiring a similar head librarian position, though the county-operated libraries would see reduced funding for new books, reductions to the bookmobiles schedule, and cuts to relief positions.
Many of the library employees interviewed by the jury admitted to being overworked and spread thin, according to the report.
Fire Department and Dispatch
Having the same person serving as both the chief of the Tuolumne County Fire Department and Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit may represent a conflict of interest, the report stated.
The county pays Cal Fire for dispatch services, emergency fire protection, emergency response, basic life support and extended fire protection services under a three-year contract not to exceed $12 million.
Josh White serves the dual role of Tuolumne County Fire chief and Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit chief.
While the report stated that having one person fill both positions provides representation for the county at the state level and keep’s the county up to speed on state protocols, some people interviewed by the jury found it to be a conflict of interest.
A conflict of interest falls under California Government Code 1090, which states:
“Members of the Legislature, state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members. Nor shall state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees be purchasers at any sale or vendors at any purchase made by them in their official capacity.”
The jury has asked for an explanation for why it’s not a conflict of interest to have the same person serve in both roles “while being paid by both the county and the state,” which White said wasn’t factually accurate because he’s only paid by the state.
White further stated being paid by the state doesn’t affect his decision making on matters affecting the county, nor does he own or have any connections to any enterprises that do business with the agency.
“I don’t want to get into my opinions and feelings, but I think you can look at it from a pragmatic approach as a consolidation of services,” White said. “That’s good government. Instead of having 20 fire chiefs, wouldn’t it be better to have one?”
The report also recommended relocating some fire equipment and personnel, adding ambulance stations in areas to improve response times for emergencies, and establish a multi-agency dispatch center that’s been planned since 2010 on South Forest Road in Sonora to consolidate existing dispatch centers operated independently by the Sonora Police Department, Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office, Cal Fire in San Andreas and California Highway Patrol in Merced.
In March, the county hired Matrix Consulting Group to perform an independent study for $69,000 of the county’s fire and ambulance systems. A similar study completed years ago by county officials in coordination with local fire chiefs recommended consolidation as a possible way to improve service and efficiency.
“I think this is going to be nice and clean and transparent by having an outside entity handle the study,” said White.
Groveland Community Services District
The Groveland Community Services District Board of Directors violated the Ralph M. Brown Act twice in 2016 by having discussions about privatization that weren’t included on the agendas for two separate meetings.
Due to financial constraints, the GCSD board began looking into the idea of possibly being purchased by California American Water, a private water company based in Southern California.
Published agendas for June 13, 2016, and July 11, 2016, did not include any notice about exploring the possibility of privatization, but the jury reviewed audio recordings of the meetings and determined those discussions took place in violation of the Brown Act.
The jury recommended training in the Brown Act for new and returning directors and forming an ad hoc committee for new issues such as privatization. It also recommended training in the 1913 Raker Act that created Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the district’s water supply, which it purchases from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
Board of Supervisors
For the first time in 10 years, the jury investigated the county Board of Supervisors and determined members should give themselves a raise.
The board has not accepted a pay raise since 2006, according to the report. A 2015 compensation study of all county positions determined each supervisor’s annual salary of $39,814 was about 10 percent lower than the average for supervisors of similar counties.
A raise, the report argued, would make the job more financially attractive to future potential supervisors. Those who didn’t want to accept the raise could opt to return all or part of their salary to the county.
The board rejected a 14.5-percent raise in July 2016, followed by a 2-percent increase the next month.
Supervisors often work between 40 to 60 hours per week and play a key role in bridging the gap between the county and state or federal representatives, according to the jury.
Other recommendations for the board included reviewing the effectiveness of the existing structure for committees and commissions, as well as hiring assistants to help the supervisors better manage all of their responsibilities.
Tuolumne County Jail
No annual Grand Jury report would be complete without a scathing review of deteriorating conditions at the county jail on Yaney Avenue.
This year’s report suggested some conditions are so poor at the jail that they should be addressed before the opening of a new, $40 million facility that’s scheduled to begin construction later this year and take 18 months to complete.
One of the report’s nastier findings was that leakage from sewer pipes was being funneled by tarps into garbage cans with no lids. The report also stated that there were plumbing issues throughout the building and raw sewage may seep into the hallways adjacent to the kitchen when the system gets backed up.
Other health and safety concerns that jury stated should be addressed immediately included a lack of windows and airflow in the garage where inmates are transported to and from the jail, new ABS pipes used to replace cast-iron sewer pipes were plastic and flammable, the garbage cans used to capture leaking sewage were flammable, warning labels were missing from electronic panels in the basement, and equipment stored at the bottom of the stairwell next to a cell block was blocking a fire evacuation route.
The report also stated the jail was understaffed by two officers and recommended the creation of a recruitment plan for the positions.
On a positive note, the report commended the jail for its inmate work-crew program for men and nursery program for women.
Sheriff Jim Mele could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The only recommendation the jury made in regard to Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown was to establish an action plan for correcting 25 issues with facilities identified by the 2016 Sierra Conservation Center Environmental Health Survey that have yet to be addressed.
Although the jury didn’t formally investigate the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility, the report described it as “a welcome and necessary addition to the Tuolumne County Juvenile Justice System.”
July 6, 2017
The Union Democrat
By Alex MacLean