Monday, October 15, 2018

[San Diego County] Meant to help with mental illness, money from tax on millionaires piles up

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
While the hepatitis A virus ran unchecked through the streets and homeless camps of San Diego last year, claiming 20 lives and sickening hundreds of others before it was corralled, $170 million in special funding for mentally ill people sat in a county bank account.
So much Mental Health Services Act revenue piled up, San Diego County collected more than $12 million in interest from the unspent cash.
Even today, as the homeless crisis deepens and suicide remains persistently high, critics say too much of the money the county spends from the fund goes to consultants, reports, public relations and pilot projects rather than direct treatment for patients most affected by mental illness.
“They’re not addressing the seriously mentally ill,” said Theresa Bish, who used to serve on the county mental health advisory board. “They have allowed the problem to be on the shoulders of our jails and prisons and hospitals.”
At the end of the 2016-17 fiscal year, the latest period for which data are available, San Diego County had $170.6 million in unspent Mental Health Services Act revenue, including $42 million held in reserve as required by the state.
The amount rose steadily over years, state records show. In 2007, the county had $23 million in unspent cash. By 2009, the bank balance swelled to $58 million and by 2011 it reached $133 million.
County officials defend their handling of revenue generated by the Mental Health Services Act, the 2004 ballot measure that imposed a special tax on California millionaires.
They said the long-banked funding had no bearing on the county response to the deadly hepatitis A outbreak, which they called a well-coordinated effort involving many government agencies and budgets.
They began spending down the reserve ahead of the public health threat, they said. More important, it will be all but gone by mid-2020, according to current estimates, they said.
“Before the outbreak even occurred we had already increased MHSA spending,” finance director Andrew Pease said. “The Hep A response is far larger than mental health stuff. The county employed a whole bunch of other services. We weren’t sitting on this money.”
Other counties also have been slow to spend down the revenue. Sacramento County reported $126 million in unspent mental health dollars in 2016 and Orange County has $242 million on deposit. Los Angeles, the state’s most populous county, reported $739 million in reserves that year.
The excess funds have not escaped the notice of other elected officials, who regularly field complaints about homelessness and a lack of adequate services for people lacking shelter. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is publicly prodding county leaders to do more.
“Just like the city is doing with homelessness, the county MUST take a different approach with mental health,” Faulconer tweeted Tuesday night, the eve of World Mental Health Day. “Without more psych beds, ‘step-down’ facilities, long-term housing and strong outreach that proactively helps the mentally ill off the streets, we can’t turn things around.”
Assemblyman Todd Gloria poked county officials Wednesday, tweeting a chart published by the state auditor in February indicating that billions of dollars in Mental Health Services Act funding remained to be spent.
“We have a lot of work to do to fight stigma and help those suffering with mental illness,” he wrote. “Demanding CA counties use the $2.5 BILLION in unspent Prop 63 funds would go a long way to doing that.”
San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts wasted little time responding.
“Old numbers, my friend,” he tweeted to Gloria less than two hours later. “That’s from 2015-16. We are spending $80 million more annually than 2015-16 in San Diego County. The unspent reserve is gone by 2019-20.”
Waste and redundancy
Presented to voters as Proposition 63 the same day George W. Bush was re-elected president, the Mental Health Services Act imposed a 1 percent income tax on residents earning $1 million or more.
The idea behind the so-called millionaire’s tax was to create a dedicated money stream to pay for expanded treatment and other services for seriously mentally ill people and those vulnerable to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and other sicknesses.
San Diego County has reeled in more than $1 billion for mental health programs since then, including $151 million in the year ending June 30, 2017.
But according to mental health advocates and independent auditors, both the county and state failed to properly implement the law and voters’ will. Instead, policymakers created a system that promotes waste and redundancy and allows counties to bank the funding, they say.
“The counties were informed sort of informally that the money could not go to existing programs, which was simply not true,” said Rose King, who co-wrote the Mental Health Services Act and is now a Sacramento activist and whistleblower against its misuse of funds.
“They could put the money into existing programs,” King said. “They could pay the psychiatrists more to get more psychiatrists into the system. They could hire more social workers and more clinical services people so patients don’t have to wait three or four months for treatment.”
Alfredo Aguirre, who runs the county behavioral health department, said his office has been investing mental health funds carefully to serve as many people as possible and to comply with state mandates governing the program.
“We’ve developed more resources and we have strengthened our continuum of care,” he said. “The whole idea is we want to serve people so they don’t get into a crisis.”
Aguirre said the county Board of Supervisors has made a considered effort to invest more mental health funds into the community. His budget jumped almost 20 percent this year, to $658 million.
But he also said there are strict guidelines on how the special tax revenue can be spent, and much of the funding has to be directed to education programs and pilot projects.
“We’ve been compliant from Day One,” Aguirre said.
Even though compliant with state regulations, some county mental health spending was criticized by the grand jury two years ago.
“MHSA includes vague and ambiguous language that allows very broad interpretations of how to spend MHSA funds,” the grand jury found. “The result is that San Diego County uses MHSA for a wide variety of programs only tangentially related to those with, or at risk of, serious mental illness.”
Jurors singled out efforts to reduce gang violence, improve parenting, prevent hoarding and reach out to Alzheimer’s patients.
County officials said the spending was appropriate and within state guidelines.
“The chief administrative officer disagrees wholly with this finding,” they replied.
‘Hard-to-reach population’
One of the main initiatives in San Diego County is “It’s Up to Us,” a years-long multimillion-dollar promotion aimed at attacking the stigma often associated with mental illness, which according to the county affects one in five adults.
The campaign includes television commercials, printed materials, educational workshops and other methods of raising awareness of mental health issues, preventing suicide and providing easier access to services.
But while visits to the “It’s Up to Us” website continue to climb -- a 17 percent spike in 2016 and another 8 percent last year -- more people are committing suicide than ever before.
In 2004, the year Proposition 63 passed, 314 people in San Diego County took their own life. By 2017, the suicide rate had jumped 45 percent, to 458 people.
Critics say investments like “It’s Up to Us” should take a back seat to direct help.
Bish, the former advisory committee chair, said the county should boost the number of beds available through assisted outpatient treatment, a program under Laura’s Law that gives local officials the authority to petition court to order patients into residential care.
“If they expanded treatment and had the political and administrative will, they would seriously start making a dent, because over 40 percent of the homeless population is mentally ill,” Bish said. “They haven’t had a will historically to treat those who are most afflicted.”
County supervisors waited until 2016 to even adopt a policy allowing mental health officials to implement Laura’s Law, the 2002 statute passed after 19-year-old Laura Wilcox was murdered by a Nevada County man who refused psychiatric treatment.
San Diego County officials have twice petitioned judges for commitments under Laura’s Law, both in recent months. Three dozen other patients agreed to treatment after being threatened with involuntary commitment since 2016, they said.
“We’ve made a tremendous effort to engage this hard-to-reach population,” Aguirre said. “If they need a court order, we’re prepared to do that.”
Meantime, the number of beds available to serve patients experiencing psychiatric emergencies continues to shrink.
Tri-City Medical Center shuttered its 16-bed unit earlier this month after complaining that it was losing $5 million a year on the program. Police and sheriff’s deputies in North County now have to drive people who are a threat to themselves or others to Poway or Escondido for treatment.
Dr. Michael Plopper is the chief medical officer at Sharp Behavioral Health Services. He said patients who are ready to move from emergency treatment often have difficulty finding a place to receive continuing care.
“Our biggest needs have been for the seriously mentally ill and relatively to the continuum of care after residential treatment,” Plopper said. “We’ve had a significant reduction in the number of board-and-care beds. That means it’s much more difficult in hospitals to discharge people into new environments.”
About one in four patients released after emergency treatment return within 30 days, Plopper said -- a recidivism rate that has remained steady for years and inflates costs for providers and first responders.
If policymakers can find ways to enhance outpatient services -- add psychiatrists, promote access to prescriptions, increase supportive housing with wrap-around services -- the 700 or so in-patient beds now available countywide will suffice, he said.
“If our continuum was fleshed out and approved, I think we have enough beds,” Plopper said. “But without that we are all seriously impacted. We are full all the time.”
Frequent flyers
It’s not entirely clear how county officials will spend down the mental health reserves.
So far, officials earmarked $28 million this year for Project One for All, which works to find clients and provide treatment, housing and other services. Since 2015, the county also has doubled its PERT effort, the psychiatric emergency response teams that can step in when police or deputies encounter seriously mentally ill people.
State law requires the Mental Health Services Act revenue be invested in five categories: community services, prevention and intervention, innovations to improve access to services, technology and job training. But local authorities get a lot of leeway in deciding which programs to support.
Several current contractors hope for an increase to existing agreements so they can offer cost-of-living or merit raises to their staff. Others would like to see programs that were scrapped previously given another chance.
“When it comes to innovation contracts, we’ve had outcomes that were tremendous but never got moved onto long-term contracts,” said Cathryn Nacario, who runs the San Diego office of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. “It’s just an ongoing frustration.”
Daphyne Watson of Mental Health America of San Diego County said the way funding streams are categorized can defeat the purpose of providing help to those in need.
“If they identify as a homeless person they’re going to get homeless services,” she said. “Oftentimes it focuses on getting them off the street, but there’s not enough linkage or funding to provide ancillary services.”
State lawmakers intent on reducing the number of “frequent flyers” -- the seriously mentally ill and drug- or alcohol-addicted patients who churn through hospital emergency rooms at terrific public expense -- this year approved a new tool to help local officials.
They approved a five-year pilot project that grants San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego county officials the authority to go a step further than seeking treatment for those who need help — it allows officials to seek outright conservatorship of a person’s affairs. The law calls for county supervisors to approve the arrangement before conservatorship can be sought.
October 14, 2018
The San Diego Union-Tribune
By Jeff McDonald


[Kern County] OUR VIEW: Make Meadows Field a real travel option

Blog note: this opinion piece references a recent grand jury report.
We have been given hope. But it’s going to take more than hope to bring decent airline service to Meadows Field, Kern County’s airport in northwest Bakersfield.
Transforming the airport from a money-loser to a money-maker, and giving Kern County residents a reason to FLY MEADOWS, will need the commitment of public agencies and businesses, as well as the support of the traveling public.
This month, Kern County residents saw some hopeful signs – a new, experienced airport director arrived; American Airlines announced plans to begin a direct flight from Meadows Field to its major hub in Dallas; and a $500,000 federal Small Community Air Service Development Program grant was awarded to help American Airlines market the new route and offset startup losses.
It’s now up to local government agencies and businesses, as well as Kern County residents to support the airport and convince American and other airlines to establish, maintain and expand service.
In addition to being a transportation convenience, a viable airport is an economic driver. But in recent decades, Meadows Field has been an economic victim, as booms and busts roiled the region.
Particularly as a result of the area’s economic dependence on the oil industry, airline interest in serving Meadows Field has ebbed and waned. The Great Recession and subsequent plunge in demand for Kern’s oil resulted in a withdrawal of direct connecting flights from Meadows Field. 
Former Kern County Airports Director Richard Strickland, who resigned earlier this year, lamented in a report to Kern County supervisors, that the airport’s debt outpaced its revenue and required subsidies from the county’s general fund.
Strickland laid out a plan to obtain operating funds through fees and tax dollars. He called for increased efforts to stem the “leakage” of passengers, who drive to airports in Southern California, rather than fly from Meadows Field. Last year, the Kern County Grand Jury issued a critical report that called for improvements at Meadows Field, as well as outlying small county airports.
We hope Mark Witsoe, who supervisors appointed to manage the county Airports Department, builds on American Airlines’ agreement to add a direct flight to Dallas and on the SCASDP grant to bring improved air service to Kern County.
Direct flights from Meadows Field presently only go to Phoenix, San Francisco and Denver. With so few flights and so little competition, air fares often are so high that a two-hour drive to LAX is more cost-effective than to fly from Meadows Field.
Witsoe brings to his new job as Kern’s airports director nearly 30 years of airport industry executive experience. Before coming to Kern, he was the marketing and business development manager for the King County, Wash., airport, which also is known as Boeing Field.
Before that, he was the business development manager, airside real estate, for the Port of Portland and was manager of property administration for the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority. Before specializing in airport property management, he worked as an operations superintendent at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport.
There’s more to running an airport than lining up airline connections, and ensuring planes arrive and depart safely. Funding airport operations through business opportunities and providing travelers with competitive fares are critical to the airport’s overall economic viability and future.
We wish Witsoe well as he tackles the many challenges he faces at Meadows Field. Kern is depending on him to quickly transform this month’s hopeful signs into tomorrow’s reality.
October 13, 2018
The Bakersfield Californian


Sunday, October 14, 2018

[Marin County] Letter to the editor: Shocked by proposal to move rape kit exams

Blog note: this letter references s grand jury report.
As an attorney who represents sexual assault victims in civil cases I was shocked to see Anna Pletcher’s published proposal to move rape kit exams to Marin from Kaiser Vallejo.
The Marin County Civil Grand Jury just this year issued a detailed report concerning sexual assault in Marin and described the Sexual Assault Response Team in Vallejo as a “major value to Marin victims.” While it may take minutes more to transport victims to the Vallejo site, the trade-off includes a reduction of hours until the exam is actually performed, far more robust services, superior more qualified personnel and a dedicated area within the hospital for the exam.
The grand jury also noted “high volume allows these nurse examiners to maintain a high degree of proficiency that would not be obtainable in a small program.” It also reported that “Napa Solano SANE SART, in partnership with Kaiser Vallejo, has developed into a ‘center of excellence’ for Marin, and for all the counties it serves.”
While I agree with Ms. Pletcher that “justice with integrity” is important and that “The D.A. must create strategic plans and collect and analyze data,” her unsupported position hardly reflects such a commitment.
October 13, 2018
Marin Independent Journal
Letter to the editor from Mark Burton, Nicasio


[Lake County] Anderson, Harry square off in Middletown debate

Blog note: this article references candidate comments about the civil grand jury.
MIDDLETOWN— The two candidates running for Lake County Superior Court Judge, Department 4, Shanda Harry and Don Anderson squared off in a debate hosted by the Middletown Area Town Hall (MATH) on Thursday where they fielded questions about their experience, their motives for running for the position, how they felt about new laws, and how they would expect their time when not on the bench, among others for more than an hour.
Speaking about her background, Harry said her amily has been in Lake County for years. The candidate said her great grandparents owned a resort in the 60s and 70s in Clearlake and she used to spend all her summers with her relatives. Harry said she used to joke that she swam in the lake she was three months old and addressed her motivation for running.
“I love Lake County, about 15 years ago basically my entire family moved up here,” she said, “I decided to make this my home. I have been an attorney for 18 years. I went to law school at UCLA. I’ve done a lot of civil, criminal work, I have honestly always wanted to be a judge and I thought that this was the right time to run.”
“One thing that I decided when I wanted to run for judge was that I wanted to get out and meet everyone. I’ve done my best to go out and meet everyone that I can,” she said during her opening remarks.
Anderson said he has been in the county for 49 years, having moved here when he was a junior  in High School
“When I was 20 years old I joined the Sheriff’s Office as a reserve before being hired full time,” he said, adding that he spent 15 years as a deputy sheriff. Anderson said in the early years working in the Sheriff’s office he was kind of a rebel. “Back then Middletown was a place nobody wanted to be in. Whenever I did something to upset my administrator, I was sent to Middletown as a punishment.”
He joked that every time his superiors would ask him how things were going, he would ask if he could home to Lakeport.
“In reality that was the best time I ever had in patrol,” he said.  “Great people, great times. I made a lot of good friends.”
According to Anderson, he had a tough choice to make. He went to law school while he worked patrol and worked undercover narcotics. “I got my law degree and had to make a decision (whether) to become a lawyer. “10 years ago I ran for district attorney  now it’s time for me to move to something new and to new challenges,” he said.
Anderson lists under his accomplishments his tenure as Lake County District Attorney for eight years, the creation of the country’s first perjury unit, and having raised $250,000 for charities while also managing $3 million budgets. He also helped to establish the Veteran’s Court while being an administrative law judge and judicial arbitrator.
For her part, Harry said she was very proud of her endorsements including U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, and Lakeport Mayor Mireya Turner, to name a few.
She added that she went out and got local endorsements from attorneys, correctional officers and others. “I have been very proud of those endorsements,” she said. “It’s the individuals that I sat down and talked to and they said ‘yea we are going to tell our friends’ that I really appreciate.”
When asked about the recent controversy regarding the Grand Jury report and whether they read it and are influenced by the report, Harry’s position was in sharp contrast to the position taken by some members of the Lake County Board of Supervisors, some who have gone on record as calling it “garbage.”
“We assist departments in answering the questions that the Grand Jury has when they make a report,” she said. “I think it’s very important to us to pay attention to what the direct Grand Jury has to say… to clearly explain what’s going on.” She added that a lot of the issues the Grand Jury touches upon are very sensitive issues to the community.
Anderson responded, “Just because you are Superior Court judge does not mean you are ostrich and  you stick your head in the sand and you don’t look to other things around you. I think a judge has to be well aware of what’s happening in the community because he is a representative of the community and he has to know a lot about it. However, when he makes decisions and decides on a case, he doesn’t decide (based on) what he’s read in the newspaper, or the Grand Jury report, or anything else he decides only upon the evidence as presented to him, and that’s something very difficult sometimes for any human being to do.”
October 12, 2018
Lake County Record-Bee
By Ariel Carmona


Saturday, October 13, 2018

[Los Angeles County] Half-million-dollar settlement offer would bar embattled director from ever returning to work at the Altadena Library

Blog note: this article speculates about a possible grand jury investigation.
A local attorney contends that an element of a settlement offer made by the Altadena Library Board of Trustees to embattled Library District Director Mindy Kittay would bind future boards in choosing a qualified person to run the library.
In a letter to Jeffrey Thompson, lawyer for the Library District, Kittay’s attorney Dale Gronemeier said his client, who is currently on administrative leave, would not agree to a $501,000 settlement offer if it included a clause prohibiting Kittay from accepting future employment at the library.
“Director Kittay does not assert an entitlement to be the next full-time director, but she will not agree to prevent the new board from bringing her back if it chooses to do so,” Gronemeier wrote.
Kittay is willing to not apply for future employment at the Altadena Library, Gronemeier said. However, Gronemeier said she will not accept an offer that prevents future boards from offering her employment.
Kittay has not been at work since January. Originally, she went out on sick leave and was later placed on paid administrative leave.
Kittay came under fire by the board late last year after she began publicly calling out its five members for violating the state’s open meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.
According to Gronemeier, the board has violated the Brown Act 96 times since May 30, 2017 by conducting illegal meetings via email and failing to vote in public. The board, Gronemeier alleges, also attempted to restrict the public’s right to speak during board meetings.
In an Oct. 26 email, board members discussed via email the possibility of limiting public comments to Altadena residents after the public began complaining about the way the library’s business was being conducted.
The Brown Act prohibits a board majority from having any meetings or discussions outside of agendized board meetings where the public can comment.
“The board was trying to manage this complicated situation without adequate guidance as to how to operate within the margins of the Brown Act, and as a result began to take some missteps,” Board President Betsy Kahn wrote in a column in Pasadena Now last month. A story about issues raised in the column appeared in this newspaper that week.
But it may have been bigger than missteps. In emails dated March 20, Kahn expressed concern that her appointment to the board may not have been legitimate because she believed the process violated the Brown Act.
Kahn was appointed to the board after four rounds of votes at the board’s March 7 meeting. The Brown Act requires certain votes by government boards to be conducted in public.
The library district’s lawyers later assured her the vote was legal.
Kahn and seven others will square off in elections on Nov. 6.
Former Board member John McDonald resigned soon after the Brown Act violations were alleged, and Board member Armando Zambrano has opted not to run for another four-year term.
Gronemeier has already informed the candidates of the board’s settlement offer and its demand that Kittay never again apply for a job with the district.
“The current board’s demand that the dead hand of the past control the next board is an unconscionable affront to the right of the Altadena community to choose the library’s elected representatives and to have the board chosen in November determine the next director,” wrote Gronemeier.
Board candidate Jason Capell said he was only aware of the situation because of Gronemeier’s emails. He said he did not support an action that would interfere with future trustees.
“Since this is not a case of termination for cause, I would be opposed to a requirement that she not be allowed to apply for any future openings,” Capell said. “The new board, and all future boards for that matter, should be allowed to consider all qualified candidates.”
When Kittay came to Altadena she was described by the board as “a strong financial and operations manager.”
She had already helped turn around the poorly performing Anythink Libraries in the Rangeview Library District of Colorado in five years. Her leadership helped the library district win the 2010 National Medal for Museum and Library Services. This achievement brought Anythink Libraries cover story recognition in Library Journal and a story in the Los Angeles Times.
Kittay has also held leadership positions within the Garfield County Public Library District in Colorado. Shortly before coming to Altadena, Kittay served as Librarian/Director for Mendocino County, where she oversaw five libraries and a bookmobile.
But when she arrived in Altadena, Kittay immediately began shaking things up, something that did not immediately have a positive impact.
According to an April 19 story by Patricia Cunliffe appearing in PW, staff members labeled Kittay as “dismissive and demeaning.” They claimed she refused to take their views into consideration, and from the first week on the job made rapid-fire changes without getting to know the district culture and fully informing the staff.
But Kittay carried on. In March 2017, the library closed for six weeks in order to do renovations, paid for with $320,000 in federal grant funds and a $75,000 donation from the Altadena Library Foundation. Kittay and library Facilities Manager Johnathan Arevalo did the majority of oversight, bringing the project in on time and under budget, while keeping the staff working on other items that needed attention.
In addition to the Second Saturday Concerts, which bring artists, vendors and the community together, the library also acquired laptop computers. Kittay also replaced the projection and sound systems in the community room, which had been broken for years, with state-of-the art equipment.
Kittay also implemented Community Conversations, a program aimed at engaging patrons in their neighborhoods. She also started a Seed Library, a county program that allows members to “borrow” seeds and then return those from food produced from the original seeds.
The board stood by her during her crisis with staff, but things took a turn for the worse after Kittay started reminding board members to obey state law.
“I suggest that you remember that you work for us. We do not work for you” wrote Board member Ira Bershatsky after Kittay urged trustees to operate in accordance with the Brown Act.
Barshatsky is running for re-election to his four-year seat.
Kittay went on medical leave in January. In April, Kittay filed a claim with the Library District, alleging that the stress she suffered from was caused by harassment in retaliation for her blowing the whistle on the board’s Brown Act violations.
After Kittay’s doctor authorized her to return to work in May, Board President Kahn ordered that she be placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.
Her contract expired on Sept. 28. According to Gronemeier, on Sept. 26 Kahn instructed Kittay to submit to an interview on five charges. All of the five charges allege that Kittay improperly disclosed confidential attorney-client communications in her April claim alleging Brown Act violations and retaliation because she blew the whistle on those violations.
Along with facing civil legal action, board members could find themselves under investigation by the Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury.
The civil grand jury has investigative powers over the operations, accounts and records of local government agencies, including school districts. Altadena is an unincorporated community governed by the county.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s field rep Sussy Nemer confirmed to local activist Rene Amy that Barger would recommend the matter to the civil grand jury.
“Additionally, we will be referring these allegations to the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Division,” Nemer wrote too Amy. “They have the ability to investigate Brown Act and other possible violations as well as other issues related to elected individuals or bodies,” Nemer wrote.
October 11, 2018
Pasadena Weekly
By Andre Coleman


[Napa County] Napa County's high-profile Bremer and Tuteur court cases delayed

Two prominent legal cases affecting Napa County – those involving Assessor-Recorder-County Clerk John Tuteur and Bremer Family Winery—continue to see red-letter court dates delayed.
As of Friday, no new dates had been set for either case by Napa County Superior Court as each case winds through various complications.
The 2017-18 grand jury accused Tuteur of four counts of “willful or corrupt misconduct” and seeks his removal from office. Tuteur court filings called the accusations a “misadventure” and a “waste of judicial and public resources.”
A court hearing for Tuteur to respond to the accusations was scheduled for April 24, then multiple times thereafter, most recently for Oct. 19. All dates were canceled amid Tuteur’s efforts to obtain grand jury materials through discovery.
The court in early May unsealed transcripts of the grand jury’s interviews with witnesses. But Tuteur also wants to obtain grand jury investigative notes, the original complaint from an Assessor’s Office employee and other materials.
Superior Court Judge Mark Boessenecker in May granted Tuteur’s discovery request and the grand jury filed an appeal with the state’s First District Court of Appeal. The wait to settle the matter has stalled the Tuteur case.
Attorney Steven Piser in a court filing on behalf of the grand jury called the sought-after notes and other materials “confidential.” He wrote that he was representing the grand jury for free and not at the county’s expense.
The state Attorney General’s Office, which brought the grand jury charges to court as required by law, had no objections to Tuteur’s discovery request.
“In order for Tuteur to exercise his right to object to the accusations, he has to be afforded the means to do so,” a May 11 filing by the Attorney General’s Office said.
Tuteur in an Oct. 4 press release said he is frustrated by the postponements caused by “the delaying tactics of the 2017-18 grand jury foreperson.”
The grand jury accused Tuteur of failing to pay back taxes following an assessment error and taking various actions involving farmland policies – possibly self-serving, since he owns a ranch – that cost the county and other jurisdictions tax money.
[Blog note: the rest of this article doesn’t relate to the grand jury.]
The other case that has seen delays is Napa County’s lawsuit against Bremer Family Winery in the mountains east of St. Helena for allegedly breaking county rules. To the surprise of county officials, the case could have larger implications for the county’s ability to restrict winery activities.
The Bremer trial after several delays was to begin in Napa County Superior Court last Tuesday. Instead, Judge Victoria Wood recused herself from the case.
Wood couldn’t be reached to state the reason for recusing herself. Court records don’t elaborate on the recusal.
Napa County in court papers called Bremer winery “a continuing public nuisance.” It accused the winery of doing everything from producing too much wine to having too many visitors.
But a tentative court ruling referred to in court papers apparently agreed with the Bremers’ interpretation of the winery’s 39-year-old use permit. Under this interpretation, the visitor limitations don’t apply because they appear only in the original winery application, not in the Planning Commission conditions of approval.
“If the tentative ruling becomes final, it would potentially have significant and widespread impact on the county and its regulation of the wine industry and zoning in general,” a county court filing said.
Judge Diane Price is to hold a trial management conference on Tuesday.
October 12, 2018
Napa Valley Register
By Barry Eberling


Friday, October 12, 2018

[Stanislaus County] Why claims of racism, grand jury probe made their way into Modesto council meeting

Blog note: the grand jury reference is toward the end of the article.
A discussion Tuesday night over the Modesto city auditor’s job evaluations led to a series of allegations, including claims of racism and illegal closed-session hearings.
Those flashpoints were part of an emotionally-charged Modesto City Council meeting that included:
  • Councilwoman Kristi Ah You’s claims that the timing of auditor Monica Houston’s job evaluations has been conducted in an illegal manner.
  • Mayor Ted Brandvold’s suggestion that city staff falsified documents and that City Manager Joe Lopez waited days before informing him of a Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury investigation into a city purchasing scandal that involved about $16 million in over-spending.
  • Councilmembers Doug Ridenour and Jenny Kenoyer asking for an investigation into Ah You’s allegations and the unrelated claims made by Brandvold.
Houston has been the ongoing subject of job evaluations since early August, the first coming just three days after she requested information regarding a large city project. Ah You called the timing “highly suspicious.” She said she considers “illegal” the manner in which the evaluations have been held.
The sparks began to fly during the meeting’s public comment period, when residents scolded officials over Houston’s evaluations. Just six months ago, she was hired as the city’s first in-house auditor in eight years.
The residents said Houston was more than qualified to uncover inefficiencies in city operations. They asked the City Council why the auditor’s performance coming into question only several months after she had been hired.
Wendy Byrd, former president of the local NAACP chapter, and others who spoke in support of Houston, who is African-American, suggested the evaluations were the result of racism and retaliation for what she might have already uncovered.
Byrd told the council that if they want to get rid of Houston after only being on the job for six months, then “you are part of the problem.”
Houston claimed Wednesday that there is an “undertone” of racism and sexism that has resulted in the call for these job evaluations. She could not identify a particular incident, but she said she is certain that she is being treated differently than a white man in the same position.
Brandvold said Houston’s job evaluations have included “hostile overtones” against her. He said “transparency” has now become common, empty rhetoric, and government needs honesty, integrity, morals, ethics and the fear of God.
“Our city is broken, and we must take appropriate steps to fix it,” the mayor said during the meeting.
Houston said she was not invited to participate in her three most recent evaluations. She doesn’t know what was discussed in those meetings.
“I do feel they are not appropriate,” Houston said about the process. “I feel that the underlying factor is retaliation.”
Thomas Reeves, a Modesto spokesman, said evaluations are called to review the merits of job performance. The city auditor is hired by the City Council as a charter officer, reporting directly to council members.
“There was no racial motivation whatsoever in calling for the evaluation of the City Council’s charter officer,” Reeves said.
Ah You said she had been cautioned not to speak publicly about Houston’s evaluations, and she has not revealed anything that has been discussed during close session. But she has raised her concerns about the process.
Councilman Tony Madigral said Ah You was just speaking up, and for councilmembers to call for an investigation into Ah You’s claims can be viewed as an attempt to silence her.
“I just have to say this feels wrong,” Madigral said. “Please take another approach. It sends the wrong message. We ought to be able to govern.”
Houston also spoke during the meeting. She said it’s her duty to investigate and report acts of fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement of public resources, and she finds strength to maintain her integrity in the standards of her profession and state law.
“However, when all else fails, there is nothing more uplifting or powerful than the letters, voices and presence of concerned citizens,” Houston read from a written statement illustrating the support she’s received.
Frank DeMattos was one of those who came to her defense. He was hired in September 2008 as the city’s first independent auditor. He was fired 18 months later by another council after a difference of opinion of what direction the auditor needed to take.
DeMattos urged the council to start working on creating an audit plan for Houston. He said she was hired by the council to find waste and make city operations more efficient.
“The city auditor is not here to get you in trouble,” DeMattos told the council members. “She’s here to help.”
There was nothing to report publicly after Houston’s fifth evaluation, which was held Tuesday afternoon in closed session. Houston still has her job, and she continued her duties Wednesday at city hall.
Grand jury investigation
Brandvold also discussed the city’s breakdown of its purchasing practices, allowing the purchase of about $16 million more in goods and services than what had been authorized. The overspending was first announced a year ago, and officials have stressed Modesto’s review did not turn up evidence of fraud.
The mayor revealed Tuesday that the grand jury had asked for documents to investigate the over-spending in a letter to the city manager. Brandvold questioned why Lopez waited a few days before informing him of the letter.
Lopez said the letter was marked confidential, so he first asked the city attorney what he should do before informing the council. He said he didn’t want to harm the integrity of the grand jury’s investigation.
The city manager also said the over-spending was a serious matter, and that he and his staff took numerous actions to make sure it didn’t happen again. He said he’s glad to review anything his office did.
“I’ve shared that information with the city auditor,” Lopez said, adding that he looks forward to hearing Houston’s perceptions.
Meanwhile, Ridenour asked for an investigation into the allegations the mayor made, which included claims that city staffers falsified documents that could affect future funding from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Kenoyer said the mayor made “severe allegations” against people who sit on the council dais, and the city needs to investigate the allegations made against the city manager. She said the over-spending is an old issue, and she questioned the mayor’s motives for discussing it Tuesday.
The council did not vote on Ridenour and Kenoyer’s request for investigations into Ah You’s claims or the mayor’s allegations.
“We’re clearly doing more than council comments and reports,” the mayor said during the meeting. “We should move on.”
October 6, 2018
The Modesto Bee
By Rosalio Ahumada


[Riverside County] Prosecutors end probe of Norco’s SilverLakes park, say city did nothing ‘criminal’

Riverside County’s district attorney has cleared Norco of wrongdoing in connection with the controversial SilverLakes Equestrian and Sports Complex on the city’s north side.
In a report released late Tuesday, Oct. 9, the district attorney’s office said it investigated complaints brought in a Riverside County grand jury report critical of the city’s handling of the 122-acre project and “no criminal conduct was discovered.”
In May, the grand jury called on the office to probe how SilverLakes came to feature a full-service restaurant and bar and to charge people for parking and admission.
The report contended SilverLakes is “not a public park” as was envisioned in a federal court order restricting the use of the property along Hamner Avenue, near the Santa Ana River. And the grand jury alleged the city misled a Riverside County court when it sought — and ultimately received — the court’s blessing for its SilverLakes development plan several years ago. The jury maintained that a different, highly commercialized park emerged, instead of what was planned.
The district attorney concluded the city did not furnish misleading documents and “fully informed” the court of “the nature of the park.” Those documents “made repeated reference to the sale of merchandise as well as food and alcohol,” the office wrote.
The district attorney also wrote that the city informed the court of plans to charge parking and admission fees.
A county civil grand jury is different than a criminal grand jury. It reviews the operations of county, city and local governments and issues reports but has no binding power.
Norco Councilman Kevin Bash praised the DA’s conclusion.
“We’ve been vindicated,” Bash said. “As we’ve said all along, we’ve done nothing wrong.”
Norco resident Nita Hiltner said she was not surprised by the district attorney’s finding, though some in town have concerns about the project.
“A lot of people in Norco expected something different than what came out,” Hiltner said.
Many were anticipating a public park that they could use freely on a regular basis, she said. And they were expecting the permanent equestrian center to have been completed by now.
“I don’t think they expected so many soccer fields. I think they were surprised by that,” she added. “I didn’t expect a big restaurant that’s pretty expensive.”
Objections to project details aside, the project has been criticized for its lengthy delays. Finally, after those delays and a crippling 2010 flood, SilverLakes opened in September 2015.
Today it hosts concerts, equestrian competitions, soccer tournaments and regional cross-country meets, among other events, which drew 1.4 million visitors in 2017, according to the city. The complex has 24 soccer fields, five equestrian arenas, a 12,000-square-foot outdoor cafe, a 10,000-person-capacity concert venue called The BackYard and a 150-seat restaurant called The FieldHouse.
Much has been made, said Bash, about the lack of a permanent equestrian center — but that is on the way. An environment impact study is being done for the complex, which would include facilities for equestrian-style camping, he said.
Kathy Azevedo, a former Norco councilwoman who handles public relations for SilverLakes and runs horse shows there under a contract, said the plan is to build the permanent center next to the river bottom, away from the soccer fields. An effort is under way to purchase eight to 10 acres to make the equestrian facility bigger.
“We will have a phenomenal, first-class equestrian center,” she said.
Azevedo said the center will feature covered arenas — the existing five arenas aren’t covered — as well as a permanent show office and 250 horse stalls.
Bash suggested SilverLakes is already “an economic juggernaut.”
“I am very proud of that place,” he said. “Is it perfect? No.”
October 10, 2018
The Press-Enterprise
David Downey


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

[San Francisco County] City easing onerous approval process for accessory dwelling units

Blog note: this article references a recent grand jury report.
San Francisco’s program to permit accessory dwelling units, or in-law units, has resulted in just 81 new homes, a low rate city officials are keenly aware of, and trying to fix.
The low number of units is blamed primarily on the onerous process applicants have had to go through and the challenges associated with fire codes of building units within old buildings.
A Civil Grand Jury report issued in July identified the challenges and recommended fixes — most of which city departments have or will implement — and that was followed by a directive from Mayor London Breed issued on Aug. 30 to streamline permitting and clear the backlog.
The program allows units within existing structures like garages or basements. It began in 2014 in just two neighborhoods but was expanded citywide in 2016 as the pressures of a housing crisis prompted San Francisco to try new strategies.
The San Francisco Examiner first reported in February the lack of unit approvals and complaints about the permitting process.
“We acknowledge that the lengthy permitting process and strict building codes are one reason more ADUs have not been built,” Breed wrote in a Sept. 3 response to the civil grand jury report. “Through better coordination between City departments, permitting times have already fallen significantly.”
Breed said in the letter that “from this point forward, it should only takes four months for the City to review a completed application to construct an ADU and only six months to clear the 900 unit backlog of permits.”
The Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee held a required hearing on the civil grand jury report last week.
P Segal, who sat on the civil grand jury investigating ADUs, told the committee there were two reasons building owners weren’t more interested in the program.
“The two things that stood in the way the most was the permitting process that has taken a very long time and the cost of permits,” Segal said. “In three other cities where permit costs have been lowered the number of ADUs under construction increased dramatically.”
Supervisor Aaron Peskin said during last week’s hearing that “the permitting process has been streamlined to a great extent.”
But Peskin didn’t agree with the recommendation by the grand jury to reduce or waive fees to encourage more participants.
To construct an ADU can cost about $200,000, depending on the complexity of the job, and permit fees are about 10 percent.
“It’s a relatively small percentage of the entire package,” Peskin said. “I agree that lower fees are an incentive but I don’t know that this is where the bottleneck is occuring.”
Instead the committee recommended the City Controller’s Office study the permit fees and report back in six months to determine if its influencing homeowners whether to pursue them.
Peskin pointed to another challenge for property owners and that was to secure financing. He said he was in talks with the San Francisco Federal Credit Union and believes they will offer a loan for ADU projects within 45 days.
He said many of applicants have been “large apartment owners who know the system and have access to financing.”
“The part of the potential market that we are not exploiting is the 125,000 single family home owners,” Peskin said. “The largest barrier to entry is getting a loan product that would allow them to recoup that over the life of the rental property.”
Segal agreed financing was a challenge. “This was not in the report, but it would be great if we had a city bank to offer loan interest loans to people who would like to do this,” Segal said. “There is very little available financing through conventional banks.”
The City is exploring opening a public bank that could help.
To date, the program has resulted in 81 accessory dwelling units, Marcelle Boudreaux, who manages the program for the Planning Department, told the committee last week. Another 393 units were approved for construction she said. The demand is high. She said overall the program has received nearly 900 applications for one or more units.
The Planning Department has estimated the program could yield as many as 16,000 units over the next two decades.
October 8, 2018
San Francisco Examiner
By Joshua Sabatini


Monday, October 8, 2018

[Kern County] More upsets at Rand Communities Water District

Blog note: this article references activitites of the Kern County Grand Jury.
The shifting leadership at the Rand Communities Water District took another turn this week when Carl Dorey announced he was still general manager for the small agency.
Dorey on Wednesday, and again on Friday, told the Daily Independent that decisions made by the board of directors at a special meeting Friday, Oct. 28 are not valid because the meeting was not properly noticed.
“It appears that it was unlawful because it wasn’t given proper notice,” Dorey said.
Under California’s Ralph M. Brown Act, a special meeting requires at least 24-hour notice to board members and the public. Agendas need to be posted in a place the public can easily access.
The RCWD board met at the district office in Johannesburg, but delayed the start because directors could not access either the main office or the boardroom. Efforts to contact someone with a key to the office failed.
A staff member managed to gain access to the rear maintenance rooms and the board decided to call the meeting to order on the porch before a small crowd of the public. During that meeting, the board decided to:
Swear in Bret Ballinger, who takes over the remaining two months of former board member Leon Tudyk’s term.
Appoint director Ghulam Din as the new board president
Reinstate David Williams as office manager following a closed session meeting.
Terminate Dorey as the general manager and opt to put out a notice for a new general manager.
The board had a quorum of three when the meeting started, including Din, William Liebscher and John Kittelll; Ballinger was sworn in after the meeting started. Board member Cindy Brown was absent.
Dorey, however, said that he wasn’t properly notified until around 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 27. He added that Debbie Jones, the person he hired after he terminated Williams, had contacted Kern County officials for information and was advised to either cancel the meeting or not show up.
“I decided not to go because it would cause less confrontation,” Dorey said.
On Monday, Dorey said he arrived at the district office to find Williams and board member William Liebscher present in the office. The Kern County Sheriff’s Office had been contacted and a deputy was sent to the scene.
Dorey said on Wednesday that the deputy was placed in contact with the Kern County grand jury, who is conducting a report on the small water district. The determination, he said, was that Dorey was still the general manager and asked how to handle the situation.
“I asked to have Will and Dave removed from the office and that I had control of the property,” Dorey said Wednesday.
Dorey added that there likely would be no board meetings until the grand jury issues its report.
“There has been notice that there will be no more board meetings until the grand jury has concluded its work and issued its report,” Dorey said.
Liebscher, however, disputes the claim that the meeting wasn’t properly conducted. He said Friday that he posted the agenda in public areas 24 hours in advance, and noticed the directors by hand-delivering the agendas.
The places he said he placed them at included: the Texaco station in Johannesburg, the Randsburg General Store, and the district office in Johannesburg.
“We haven’t broken any laws. We are very careful not to do this,” Liebscher said. “Some day it wall catch with us.”
He added that the district bylaws dictate that directors be in person or by mail of any special board meetings. He had previously stated at the Sept. 28 meeting that he had called, emailed and text messaged Dorey about the meeting.
He said in Brown’s case, she was not home, so he posted it on her home door.
The Daily Independent wasn’t notified of the meeting until 11:52 a.m. that day.
“Sunday comes along and we change the locks,” Liebscher said. He confirmed that he and Williams were in the office, going through records to see where the district stood when the sheriff’s deputy arrives along with a small group of people he said decided not to attend the Friday meeting.
“Poor guy, he doesn’t know what the rules of the special district are,” Liebscher said. “He didn’t know what to do. He had Carl contact the grand jury, and the grand jury told him to have us leave and turn the building over to him.”
He said that Din “wrote and faxed a letter to the grand jury, and they called him and they told him to keep the general manager.”
He called the decision crushing.
“The grand jury has diluted our authority by keeping us that we have to keep Carl and by telling us to get out of the office,” Liebscher said.
A call to the Kern County grand jury Friday was not returned.
However, the grand jury admonishes those it deposes or speaks with from discussing what they were interviewed about. Grand jury reports operate on conditions of anonymity at times.
The small water district has seen its leadership tossed on its side over the last several weeks. The board decided in August to terminate its longstanding general manager Mike Powell, followed by the debatable dismissal of Williams as office manager.
Dorey was hired in August as first operations manager and then general manager, coming from Inyokern Community Services District.
At a meeting in August, the board debated about whether accepting a resignation letter by Williams was ethical and valid; a vote by four board members would re-instate him at an emergency meeting the next day, according to board secretary Carrie Hoerauf.
Then between the period of that meeting and a Sept. 12 board meeting, Dorey terminated Williams again.
Dorey said Wednesday that he was initially reluctant to terminate Williams, but then after some observation, decided to make the decision, and replaced him with Jones. He declined to provide further information.
At the regular board meeting on Sept. 12, the board decided to remove Cindy Brown as board president.
The board decided to form an ad-hoc committee made up of Din and Liebscher to discuss Williams’ termination and whether it violated the district bylaws. According to Liebscher, the bylaws state that the general manger can only hire and fire after consultation and consent by the board.
The board voted on Sept. 28 to re-instate Williams to his role as office manager.
Arguments over the past few months for keeping Williams on were that he was familiar with the district’s finances and should be given a chance to show whether he will be reliable. Some board members have argued that Williams’ dismissal wasn’t properly conducted and could warrant potential legal liability.
However, after the fallout from Monday’s incident, Dorey said that this isn’t the case.
“He is terminated, he cannot be behind the counter,” Dorey said Friday, adding that Jones still retains her role in the office.
In addition to leadership angst, the district has fallen afoul to rumors that circulated on social media back in August. A post went around claiming that thousands of dollars had been stolen, along with a district laptop containing information, and that there were missing district meters.
At a Aug. 16 meeting, Din clarified that there was no missing money, but that the district had been in a structural deficit for the past four years. Din would later report on Sept. 28 that the district had lost more than $280,000 over last four fiscal years, but hoped to rectify it.
Calls to Din were not returned as of Friday.
The Aug. 17 emergency meeting revealed that the laptop in dispute belonged to Williams, not the district. However, it had been used to conduct district business, including some financial matters.
An internal audit conducted by Hoerauf, the board secretary, revealed that the district’s records and documents are in disarray. Corey had reported that district customers reported errors in their billing, or had not received bills at all.
Dorey himself made recommendations at the Sept. 12 meeting to overhaul the billing system and outsource the payroll, as well as request the purchase of a new laptop. The board decided to table the discussion on those topics and form an ad hoc committee on whether those requests would benefit the district.
On Friday, Dorey said that a few things have since been implemented.
“The billing has been updated to a new system and it’s been a very smooth transition,” Dorey said. “Payroll is going to stay in house. I have full confidence that Debbie can handle it.”
He said a meeting was arranged on Friday between him and Din to hopefully hammer things out.
“I do have a feeling with the grand jury’s involvement that things are going to pull together,” Dorey said. “We are trying to get everyone to get along.”
October 6, 2018
The Daily Independent
By Jack Barnwell