Wednesday, January 31, 2018
A recent San Diego County Grand Jury report shed much-needed light on the broken and outdated method of electing pre-K-12 school board members in the city of San Diego. During a primary election, a candidate competes at what’s known as the sub-district level and the winner reflects the will of the people. But the winner may go on to lose to the runner-up in a general, citywide competition.
That’s not only unfair, it’s expensive and it disadvantages candidates without endorsements or financial backing. As the grand jury’s report noted, citywide school district elections place “an enormous financial burden” on the candidate, and the outcomes don’t always reflect the diversity within the San Diego Unified student population.
Allowing board members to serve without any limitations on terms, the report also noted, is ineffective. When term limits are in place, an elected official is much more likely to focus on what’s best for the people who elected them, rather than focus on the politics of being re-elected. While I believe our school board members care deeply about our students, the current election system also forces them to split their time every couple years between the governance of the school district and running again for office.
Change, in this case, can only be implemented by the San Diego City Council because the school district’s election rules are controlled by the city charter. It’s my sincere hope that the City Council — including my fellow Democrats — will reconsider its recent decision and put proposals on the 2018 ballot that institute term limits and district-only elections, and place weight on the recommendations coming from the community as heavily as those coming from the school board members.
I imagine that smart and sensible reforms like these already enjoy wide-spread support throughout our community, particularly as they mirror the ways in which we currently vote for city council members and county supervisors.
I’ve worked in education for more than nine years and I grew up in San Diego, but it wasn’t until I became a teacher on the other side of the country that my eyes were opened to how crucial a strong pre-K-12 school system is to the future of a community. The United States has fallen among reputable publications, which doesn’t surprise me given that our literacy and math rates have dramatically descended — from first in the world to below the top 20 or 30, depending on the metric.
The success of our schools is inextricably linked to the future shape of our economy, and anyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to the state of public education in our city and across our country will know that our system is in need of some repair.
It’s disconcerting that our council members appear to want nothing to do with this responsibility, turning to political party lines for guidance in how to move forward, rather than to educators and the community. They spend a lot of time talking about the economy, the homelessness and public health crises, and offer ideas for tackling the housing shortage. But they say little about a strong pre-K-12 strategy.
In 2015, the San Diego County Office of Education’s Achievement Gap Task Force found that only 26 percent of our students are projected to complete a post-secondary education opportunity. I’m not an economist, but I don’t see how our economy can outpace others if our leaders don’t invest the next generation of thinkers, dreamers, and innovators.
I’m not advocating for elected city leaders taking over schools. I’ve never seen an effective example of that system. But ensuring that our region has quality schools for all students needs to be atop the priority list for our mayor, council members, and other elected representatives.
This can be accomplished by having educators on their staffs, by visiting schools, by asking tough questions of school board officials and learning from parents and students, and by working more closely in developing a regional strategy alongside our educational leaders. They should be informed, demonstrate a desire to hold themselves and elected school board officials accountable for the success of our schools, and invest more funding into quality pre-K-12 education programs.
Rather than run away from problems, they should do everything they can to be informed by teachers, students, parents, community members and experts, with the goal of improving the school system overall while keeping an eye towards the future of our regional economy.
That begins by re-thinking the way we elect our representation.
January 25, 2018
Voice of San Diego
Opinion by Andrew Simmerman
Monday, January 22, 2018
January 18, 2018 – Last month, we briefly introduced you to the members of the Nevada County Grand Jury. This month, we would like to discuss what we do and generally how it’s done. Consider the following two Points:
Point A: In July 2016, 19 volunteers were sworn in to serve for one year on the Nevada County Grand Jury. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds and seemed to have little in common other than a desire to serve the community. About half had previously served on grand juries. They went through training during July and started to discuss how to proceed. Few had any experience with county government other than as a citizen and observer.
Point B: About ten months later, the same Jury issued ten detailed reports on Nevada County institutions, covering subjects including cooperation and coordination among teachers in Nevada County schools, poll worker training, peace officer training and the functioning of a fire district.
How did those 19 people get from Point A to Point B, from randomly selected volunteers to informed commenters on vital County functions? Two essential elements of that journey can be found in their choice of subject matter and manner in which they learned about the subjects of interest.
The primary source of subject matter for Grand Jury investigations is public complaints. Public complaints are given the highest priority and often lead to full-blown investigations and reports. In addition, such investigations can be challenging because they have to be investigated in a way that conceals the identity of the person making the complaint. Accordingly, an independent witness may be asked numerous questions that have nothing to do with the actual subject of the investigation in order to keep sources and subject matter confidential. It is not unusual for a 30 minute interview to only include 3 or 4 questions pertinent to the actual investigation. The witness’s time is not wasted, however, since other subjects inquired into may give rise to additional areas of inquiry.
In the absence of public complaints, sources of subject matter include suggestions from prior grand juries, online research, past reports of other California grand juries, personal interest, newspaper articles, and informal complaints. Such subjects first are discussed in committee and, if there is sufficient interest, further research is done to understand the nature of the issue. Are there statutes or regulations that prescribe action? Are there organizations that compile best practices and approaches? Does the department or entity to be investigated have its own rules and operating procedures? Once that background is established, one may ask if the entity being investigated is operating in compliance with such statutes, regulations, manuals or best practices.
Such investigation involves review of relevant entity documents, found online or requested from the entity, interviews with employees and independent witnesses, and further research into what standards should apply. Each witness and each document can both inform on the subject being investigated and present other possibilities for inquiry.
At each point of the process, investigative committees regularly report on the status of investigations to the entire grand jury and seek input concerning other possible witnesses and documentation from fellow jurors.
The process is not complicated but simply one of figuring out how things are supposed to work and then determining if they are working as required or expected. If necessary, an investigative report may be written to document the issue and recommend correction. Each report involves the intense work of five to eight grand jurors and the review and approval of the full panel of 19, plus a lot of hard work. But that’s largely how Point A becomes Point B.
January 18, 2018
By Nevada County Civil Grand Jury
County crime lab navigates DNA regulations, expectations
Blog note: this article references a 2016 grand jury report.
It had been nearly 40 years since authorities found the denim jacket soaked in the victim’s blood. But in the decades since, the technology behind DNA testing improved, a federal database was created and juries have grown to expect this type of evidence.
Hidden on the jacket was a small sample of another person’s DNA and today, the case is no longer cold. But while the San Mateo County crime lab has recently uncovered leads in a number of cases, it, like many others, has a backlog.
An uptick in submissions from nonviolent property crimes tend to be pushed to the backburner while cases of homicide or sexual assault rise to the top. A sample that hasn’t been tested within 30 days after receipt is considered backlogged.
It’s now a matter of triaging, prioritizing and keeping up with increasing demands for this type of unique evidence, said Alex Karagianes, director of the Sheriff’s Office Forensic Laboratory. They’re also navigating new state laws and changes to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. Last week, the county accepted a two-year $150,000 federal grant through the DNA Backlog Capacity Enhancement and Reduction Program, which will be used to train technicians and purchase supplies, according to a Board of Supervisors staff report.
“We’re putting a lot of resources into it, and rightfully so,” Karagianes said. “We don’t have any backlogs in major crimes against persons.”
Homicides and assaults are prioritized and the local lab is proud to say there is no longer a backlog of rape kits — a national issue that made headlines several years ago. Court necessity, or samples from cases in the midst of prosecution, also rise to the top of the hierarchy, he said.
But in a county with relatively low rates of violence and where property crimes are on the rise, the lab has seen an increase in the number of samples being submitted for testing, according to Alice Hilker, a supervising criminalist who oversees the lab’s forensic biology and DNA section.
House keys, pens, baseball caps, clothing, water bottles and a variety of other “touch case” items are frequently submitted for DNA sampling, Hilker said. That’s aside from samples of blood and bodily fluids. Over the last seven years, submissions have more than doubled. Not including cold cases, the local crime lab received 1,780 DNA requests in 2017, up from the 801 samples in 2010, according to Karagianes and Hilker.
“Submissions are on the rise because people are more aware of DNA. Juries expect it now,” Hilker said. “We have more information so people expect more information.”
But unlike the television shows, testing DNA is a much more laborious process than some might think. It takes time to lift a sample that might be used to match a known suspect or be ran through CODIS. If the federal database returns a hit, a second sample is taken from a suspect to confirm the match. Then, cases undergo technical, administrative and quality review by three others in the lab, Hilker and Karagianes explained. On average, it takes about two weeks, they said.
“Everybody has a backlog, I think it’s just the nature of it. It’s just trying to have a priority [system],” Karagianes said. “It takes longer to test than people think.”
The influx of samples related to property crimes, has led to a total backlog of about 390 cases, according to the report and Karagianes. While some less urgent samples might sit for up to a year, such as a case of a felon in possession, the average turnaround is about 81 days, according to Hilker and Karagianes.
“A high priority is given to sexual assault cases, and to homicide cases that come,” Karagianes said.
Wiping away the backlog of sexual assault kits became a public focus following national news reports and a 2016 report by the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury. Between fall 2015 and mid 2016, the grand jury found the local crime lab cleared a backlog of nearly 70 untested rape kits, which was down from a previously reported 138 in 2014.
New state laws seek to address backlogs in sexual assault cases by requiring evidence be sent to the lab within 30 days, then ran through CODIS within 120 days. The local crime lab implemented policies that prepared it to meet the requirements. Instead of waiting for a law enforcement agency to submit samples, the lab picks them up directly from the county hospital. It’s also complying with a bill that, starting this month, began requiring information about rape kits be submitted to a state database within 120 days, said Hilker and Karagianes.
“I think it’s trying to get a bigger picture of sexual assault cases in the state,” Hilker said of the new rules.
With a growing database of DNA, the FBI has also implemented changes criminalists must navigate. To make the searches more robust, the CODIS platform expanded to consider 20 genetic alleles, up from 13 markers; and it moved to a frequency-based system, which considers how rare the alleles are, Karagianes said.
“DNA has become so large and so applicable to so many things,” Karagianes said.
But while the field of forensics has expanded, triggering a growing number of samples submitted, DNA testing continues to provide new opportunities in a timeless effort to solve crimes.
“We’ve had a lot of success with cold cases, but it takes longer to process,” Hilker said. “You’re looking at so much evidence that people have already looked at over the years, so you have to think outside of the box.”
DNA evidence recently led authorities to suspects in several cold cases, it’s also cleared one person who was serving time for a wrongful conviction in Nevada. Whether it’s a decades-old blood soaked jacket from a homicide case, or a baseball cap left behind at the scene of a burglary, Hilker said the lab is motivated by helping to provide answers for victims and their families.
“That’s why a lot of us do it,” Hilker said. “As a whole, we are very proud of what we do because we know that.”
January 17, 2018
San Mateo Daily Journal
By Samantha Weigel
Blog note: this article references a July 2011 grand jury report.
At the end of 2017, it was announced the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Central Subway manager, John Funghi, was leaving his post for the $1.6 billion project to work on Caltrain electrification. His departure came shortly after Tutor-Perini, the station contractor, released a report Nov. 1, 2017, showing that the project is more than two years behind schedule and burdened with more than 1,300 construction contractor claims outstanding — only 73 of which had at that time been addressed by the SFMTA — leaving the remaining 94 percent awaiting “processing.”
As things stand, the trains won’t be rolling into Chinatown before Spring 2021, at least 29 months behind schedule.
The true extent of the project’s construction cost and delay problems are now revealed: The Tutor-Perini report submitted to Supervisor Aaron Peskin lays out the problems in detail and asks Peskin, who is also chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, to help resolve the hundreds if not thousands of outstanding issues between it and the SFMTA. In view of the many months of the Federal Transportation Administration’s Project Oversight Reports repeatedly warning of unfilled SFMTA positions and other staffing problems, and of accumulating contractor claims and accruing project delays, this came as no great surprise.
Yet, as recently as three months ago, the leadership of the SFMTA was still contending that, although the actions of the contractor had delayed things by nine months, the project was still within budget. That was before the 1,300 claims came to light; it is now clear the project is both way behind schedule and way over budget. From what has been revealed to date, it appears that because of a “head-in-the-sand” response to serious Central Subway design and construction problems, the ultimate cost of the project has increased substantially, thereby placing the SFMTA and San Francisco taxpayers in financial jeopardy.
When a project turns sour, as the Central Subway project most certainly has, municipal sponsors sometimes try to blame the problems on the construction contractor. In this case, however, it appears the contractor has the better of the argument: When a construction contractor submits a false, inflated or unjustified claim, alert sponsors summarily reject it, as they should. On the other hand, when sponsors make design mistakes or otherwise cause unanticipated construction delays and cost overruns, especially if they result from sloppy administration, judges will almost always place the responsibility for the resulting extra costs squarely on the sponsor, as they should.
The problems with the Central Subway started way back in 2007, when the SFMTA began to frantically oversell its overpriced, marginally beneficial project to unsuspecting politicians and the public. In rosy-sounding statements issued between March 3, 2007, and Dec. 8, 2010, various SFMTA spokespeople put the anticipated Central Subway 2030 ridership between 76,000 riders a day and 93,000 riders a day. That was false. During that same time period, in reports being quietly sent to the FTA, the SFMTA was showing a 2030 anticipated daily ridership in the 41,450 to 42,200 range, with only about 5,000 new riders a day. We were also told trip times would be drastically cut — which was also not true — and that Muni’s operating costs would drop by a startling $23.9 million a year. In a 2012 report to the FTA, after the project had received all its necessary local approvals, the actual impact on Muni’s annual operating costs was quietly revealed as being $15.2 million a year added, as opposed to the much-ballyhooed $23.9 million a year saved — a spread of almost $40 million a year.
In addition to these wildly varying claims about the benefits of the project, a number of flaws in the conceptual design were described and made public in public hearings dating back to Fall 2008. Included were the selection of a very deep subway that greatly increased costs and precluded an effective transfer connection between the Central Subway and the Market Street subways, the lack of consideration given to placing the Stockton Street trolley buses as well as the light-rail vehicles in the subway (as is successfully done in Seattle), and the shortsighted decision to accommodate only two-car “trains.”
These early findings were subsequently agreed to and repeated by members of the U.S. Congress, as well as by Quentin Kopp, Dennis Herrera, Aaron Peskin, the Sierra Club, San Francisco Tomorrow, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, assorted news publications and many other organizations and individuals. They were further confirmed in a San Francisco Civil Grand Jury Report on July 7, 2011.
On May 28, 2013, Peskin sent a letter to SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin citing the agency’s lack of experience in managing such a large and complex engineering project and warning that the assigned Central Subway project manager lacked the qualifications and experience to do the job. By 2013, it had become clear that the SFMTA’s Central Subway was heading toward serious financial and transit operating difficulties.
Some readers will remember hearing that the construction of the Central Subway would hardly be noticed: “We’ll be underground and out of sight.” Ask the residents and shoppers of Chinatown and Union Square how well that worked out.
As indicated, the Central Subway project has had design and management problems from the outset. Recent disclosures show the SFMTA has been in a state of denial about the extent of the project’s budgetary and scheduling problems for many months and that, consequently, the SFMTA and taxpayers of San Francisco are now vulnerable to major financial loss. For the SFMTA’s Central Subway project, the chickens have come home to roost.
January 14, 2018
San Francisco Examiner
By Gerald Cauthen
Saturday, January 13, 2018
In the aftermath of the December arrest of the former Visalia Public Cemetery manager on charges of embezzling more than $1 million, former members of a Tulare County Grand Jury from a decade ago are questioning why nothing was done after they uncovered evidence of financial impropriety and illegal activity.
"We could have saved the (cemetery $1.3) million," said George Patterson of Visalia, who served on the 2006-2007 Tulare County Grand Jury.
Authorities arrested former Visalia Public Cemetery manager Dona Shores Dec. 22 on charges of embezzling and laundering as much as $1.3 million over a five-year period between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2016.
Through an attorney, she has denied all charges and claims she's been targeted because she filed a workers' compensation claim.
Attorney Kris Pederson, who represents the Visalia Cemetery, said she now believes the embezzlement dates back to 2005 when a new accounting system was adopted — and that more than $1.3 million was stolen.
In 2007, Patterson and other grand jurors released a scathing report alleging Shores misused district money, directed employees to rebury old bones and reuse graves, went to casinos during work hours and sold old cemetery equipment to friends instead of putting it up for public bid.
"We found out what we needed. We had good, solid findings," Patterson said. "I thought we had one person who had broken the law."
Jackie Fletcher, the forewoman of the 2006-2007 grand jury, and member Kathleen Harris also told the Times-Delta/Advance-Register they believed there was serious wrongdoing at the cemetery.
Back in 2007, Patterson and the other grand jurors wanted further investigations into the Visalia Cemetery but were stymied by Tulare County officials, he said.
"The county was afraid of getting sued. They didn't help any," Patterson said. "We couldn't go to the DA's office."
Phil Cline was Tulare County District Attorney at the time of the grand jury investigation. Cline was elected in 1992 and served as the county's DA's until Dec. 2012, when he retired. He did not return phone messages for comment.
Dan Underwood, Tulare County current chief deputy district attorney, said the grand jury can use resources from the DA's office during investigations, including prosecutors who can interview witnesses or staff who can serve a subpoena.
There's a contact between the two entities while the grand jury completes an investigation, Underwood said.
"We do have a loose relationship with the grand jury," he said.
If needed, the DA's office can provide information on legal or possible criminal matters when the grand jury has questions, Underwood said.
But if criminal conduct is discovered, the next step is simple.
"The investigation will be turned over to our office," he said.
The DA's office reviews the annual grand jury report, Underwood said, but did not launch its own investigation or file any charges in 2007.
The 2006-07 investigation
The 2006-2007 grand jury investigated "double burials" at the Visalia cemetery after receiving anonymous information.
During the investigation, the committee interviewed witnesses, attended board meetings, analyzed documents and reviewed state codes.
In the 2007 report, the grand jury found the "double burials" had been going on for many years at the Visalia Cemetery.
As described by the Tulare County Grand Jury, a double burial is when human remains are uncovered while digging new grave sites and the remnants are covered and placed in the same location. Then, vaults are placed on top to allow future burial.
Shores, in a letter she sent to the grand jury, said Visalia cemetery followed health and safety codes. She also said the practice, what she described as "reclaiming graves," is commonly used in public cemeteries around the state.
"The actions taken by the Visalia Public Cemetery District were not only proper but also followed in accordance with the laws governing public cemetery district operations," she said. "The Visalia Public Cemetery District is most respectful of any opening of the grounds."
The grand jury also reported at least one instance in which used surplus cemetery equipment was sold without going to a public bid.
In addition, the grand jury requested reviews of the Visalia Cemetery's investment portfolio, including all cash and cash equivalent investments.
In her 2007 response letter to the grand jury, Shores denied all charges and said she always followed cemetery policies.
The elected cemetery board later decided to take no punitive action against Shores because of "inconclusive" evidence.
Geneva Philpot, the chairwoman of the Visalia District Cemetery Board of Trustees, told the Times-Delta/Advance-Register she insists the 2006-2007 findings by the Tulare County Grand Jury are not connected to the current case against Shores.
Philpot has been on the elected board for 20 years. She said a then cemetery worker wanted Shores out of her job and there was no proof of wrongdoing stemming from the allegations that triggered the 2006-2007 investigation.
As for the cemetery district's own attorney alleging the embezzlement stretched back to even before the 2006-2007 Grand Jury investigation, Philpot said it's difficult to know how long the suspected money mismanagement went on.
"There's no way to know unless the forensic audit is complete," she said. "We have nothing but respect for attorney [Pederson]. She has guided us through this. We have nothing to hide."
Shores was arrested on Dec. 22 on suspicion of embezzlement and money laundering charges after a year-long investigation by Visalia Police.
Pederson, the district's attorney, said Shores was getting ready to retire at the end of 2016. Ahead of her retirement, Shores handed in the cemetery's accounting books and a forensic audit revealed the allegedly missing funds, she said,
Shores, who managed the Visalia Cemetery for nearly 20 years, was fired in late 2016 before she could officially retire.
Citing the forensic audit's findings, Pederson, the attorney for the cemetery, said cash funds had been recorded as received by the district for services, but the money was never deposited into the cemetery's bank account.
Despite Philpot's argument that the current charges are not related to the 2006-2007 grand jury investigation, Shores is facing money laundry allegations, stemming from the accusation the former cemetery manager sold old equipment to acquaintances instead of using a higher-bid process, prosecutors say.
In their investigation, the grand jury said they found at least one instance of equipment being sold without going to public auction.
In her letter, Shores wrote the equipment was first offered to cemetery staff using a bidding process. She also wrote the "equipment sold is so prehistoric that a value is almost impossible to obtain."
Brief court appearance
Earlier this week, Shores appeared before Tulare County Superior Court Judge Brett Alldredge.
During the quick hearing, Shores spoke only once, saying she agreed to a delay on the court procedures.
Attorney Charles Magill, who's representing Shores, denied all charges.
"I believe there's a government conspiracy against Ms. Shores," he said. "I believe it's politically motivated."
Magill, whose office is in Fresno, said the conspiracy against Shores includes the Visalia police officers investigating the case.
Magill also lamented Shores' arrest timing.
"There's no reason to arrest her on the Friday before Christmas," Magill said. "She spent Christmas in jail. That was punitive."
There's also no evidence that proves the embezzlement, Magill said.
"At no time was her accounting ever out of balance," he said. "They have no evidence of money she received. Where's the money?"
Shores' arrest was retaliation for a workers' compensation case the former manager has filed, Magill said.
Shores was injured on the job when she was struck by a vehicle, Magill said.
Magill plans to have a new forensic accounting investigation into the cemetery's finances to help clear his client.
"I will try this case and then sue the board, the cemetery and the county for malicious prosecution," he said.
January 5, 2018
By Luis Hernandez