Wednesday, October 31, 2018
Blog note: this editorial suggests that the grand jury could examine the issues addressed. We have seen an increasing number of articles over the past few years where the media and are proposing grand jury investigations on specific topics.
Marin residents are fortunate that among them are citizens willing and ready to step forward and serve their communities on public boards, councils and commissions.
Most do it as a public service, volunteering their time, talent and energy to help make their community a better place.
Some do so with almost no public attention. Local fire and sewer board meetings, for example, draw scant attendance, save an occasional public uproar, typically over raising taxes or rates.
But most of the time, even those decisions are made in boardrooms with few or no members of the public in attendance.
They also often don’t get much media attention. Nor do they do much to seek greater citizen awareness about their pending decisions, or those they may have already made.
Online postings of agendas are an improvement. Public notices meet a necessary legal requirement, but are not written in a way to encourage public interest.
But, for example, if more public agencies had done more to fully explain to taxpayers the short- and long-term costs of pension benefits and retiree medical coverage — or even the cost of staffing requirements — that were buried in worker contracts, they may have been able to avoid the costly fiscal quandaries taking a large toll on their budgets that also are leading to higher tax bills.
Yes, these public servants are relied on to do the heavy lifting of democracy. But a decision by members of the Central Marin Sanitation Agency to vote themselves a pay raise — more than doubling their per-meeting pay to $225 — put a spotlight on what Larkspur resident James Holmes calls “exploiting their obscurity.”
The agency staff recommended the pay hike, maintaining the job has grown to be more complex and time-consuming than in the past.
And to be fair, Central Marin’s higher paychecks are not at the top of the list of the best-paid board members. Ross Valley Sanitary District directors, for example, pay themselves $314 per meeting.
Sure, there is homework and reading to do before the monthly and often twice-monthly meetings, but the job of serving on a sewer board is less involved and takes a lot less time than serving on a council or a school board, where in many cases around Marin the pay is less.
In addition, on some of these “obscure” boards paychecks are sweetened with medical care, a benefit that may be worth a lot more than their per-meeting paychecks.
In Central Marin’s case, three of its five board members are serving as delegates from city and town councils, posts for which they are already getting paid.
The problem is there is little rhyme or reason for what is fair or appropriate compensation for board members. Is it the geographic size of the agency? The size of its budget? The average amount of time the job demands? The length of its meetings?
Who knows? Given the range paid across Marin, it’s hard to tell.
And given the “obscurity” of these boards and their below-the-public-radar handling of the public’s business, they have decided their own pay and benefits without much outreach to taxpayers.
Many school board trustees, for example, spend more time dealing with more complex and sometimes emotion-packed decisions than sewer board directors. Most often, they are donating their time.
Perhaps the Marin County Civil Grand Jury can research the issue and come up with appropriate guidelines for board members’ compensation.
Marin’s special districts are not new territory for local grand jury reviews. Often, jury reports have pressed for merging or consolidating these smaller agencies as a way to save taxpayer money and improve services.
Some mergers have taken place, but more could be pursued, and possibly taxpayers could learn what “obscurity” is costing them.
October 28, 2018
Marin Independent Journal
By Editorial Board
[Marin County] Dick Spotswood [opinion]: A year after North Bay firestorm, is Marin County prepared?
Blog note: this opinion piece references a grand jury report.
A rule of thumb is there’s a one-year window after a disaster to make changes to prevent the next big one. After that, time passes, people forget and the sense of urgency is lost.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the October 2017 Tubbs Fire that devastated much of Napa, Lake and Sonoma counties and destroyed a good chunk of Santa Rosa.
I marked that event by touring wildlands in the Sleepy Hollow-Terra Linda Open Space Preserve in Supervisor Damon Connolly’s San Rafael-based 1st District and meeting with Santa Rosa Councilman Jack Tibbetts.
My four-wheel-drive trip included Connolly, Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber, San Rafael Fire Chief Chris Gray and Marin County’s Open Space District’s Sarah Minnick. Like I saw on my excursions with Supervisor Katie Rice and Marin Municipal Water District staff and director Jack Gibson, it’s clear fire and land management professionals fully understand the risk Marin faces.
There’s no denying the fuel load on our open lands is similar to that of Sonoma and Napa. Nor can we ignore that climate change is making our weather similar to historically fire-prone parts of the state.
It was reassuring to see multiple ridgetops being managed to isolate fast-moving fires, preventing them from crossing to the other side. The effort, partially funded by Pacific Gas and Electric, creates defensible areas where potential fires can be attacked by ground forces and from the air. Brush was removed using goats, followed by manual laborers cutting lower tree limbs to keep flames out of tree canopies.
Some know-it-alls claim nothing can be done to stop a Sonoma-scale wildfire once it gets going. This is nonsensical. Small fires of 10 acres or less constitute 99 percent of wildland fires. The strategy is to prevent those fires from morphing into fatal firestorms.
Is Marin doing enough? Certainly not. The scope of what needs to be done to mitigate Marin’s fire risk is daunting. The Tubbs Fire was a wake-up call that we face the same risk as Sonoma County. As the Marin County Civil Grand Jury’s report says, the issue is “when, not if” a big fire hits.
Local government’s job one is public safety. That’s not just fire suppression – in which Marin excels – but fire prevention, where Marin lags. Vegetation management — clearing brush, thinning the forest — isn’t a one-shot deal. It needs to be a major annual component in every city, county and water district budget. If it isn’t, Marinites need to aggressively ask why not.
Everyone loves the idea of goats attacking flammable brush, smaller invasive plants and grasses. A 400-head goat herd costs $825 a day. Not bad. Depending on topography, they can cover three-quarters to two acres every 24 hours. The county spends $300,000 a year on goats, which will increase to $400,000 next year. Even if bumped to $1 million, we’d still have a huge unmet need.
Marin relies on California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) aerial tankers to assist in an emergency. Cal Fire fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters are strategically situated around the state, the nearest base being at Santa Rosa’s Charles M. Schulz Airport, 10 flying minutes from Marin.
That seemed reassuring until Santa Rosa Councilman Tibbetts recounted that on the night of the Oct. 8, 2017 Tubbs Fire, no aerial tanker came to protect Santa Rosa for 48 hours after the event began. That’s a sure way for a big fire to get out of control. Cal Fire operates on a first call, first served basis and Santa Rosa didn’t call first. Windy, dry Oct. 8 saw eight massive fires pushing the department past its breaking point.
If a big fire hits Marin, we’d better pray there aren’t simultaneous disasters. If there are, we’re on our own.
October 27, 2018
Marin Independent Journal
By Dick Spotswood
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report on the subject.
Each week, volunteers help make tails wag and cats purr at the Salinas and Monterey County animal shelters.
As the shelters consider merging into one, some say a renewed focus on organizing and adding volunteers will be essential to finding new homes for pets caged in their facilities.
The two municipalities have been exploring merging some, or all, services since both the city council and board of supervisors approved it in November.
The Monterey County Grand Jury endorsed the move earlier this year, noting that it could simply mean both agencies report to the same director or a complete merger.
But that won't involve closing one shelter and consolidating services in the other, said Cynthia Burnham, the administrator of the county's Animal Services who is also preparing a report on merger possibilities.
Neither of the shelters, which are neighbors on Hitchcock Road, has the room for all of the animals, she said.
Many details are yet to be nailed down as she's still preparing her report. But she stressed that a volunteer coordinator is "essential" during a joint meeting with the Salinas Animal Services Advisory Committeee and the Monterey County Animal Control Program Advisory Board Thursday.
One committee member asked about volunteers versus paid staff positions, but Burnham said volunteers augment staff by doing smaller tasks, such as walking dogs or transporting animals.
That frees up time for the staff to focus on animals' food, medical needs and socialization, she said.
Salinas has a part-time volunteer coordinator but Monterey County's shelter doesn't, said Burnham.
Because of that, Salinas has at least 25 regular volunteers per month who put in about 3,000 hours a year, she said.
But Monterey County has about five volunteers, said Burnham, who used to be a volunteer coordinator.
"You're left with staff that want to do it but don't have the bandwidth," she said.
At the SPCA of Monterey County, which is separate from the municipalities' shelters, a group of 300 to 400 volunteers augment staff there, said Scott Delucchi, its executive director.
The organization's volunteer coordinator is "essential" to recruiting and training volunteers, he said.
"We almost look at it as an HR director for volunteers," he said.
Combined, they perform tens of thousands of hours of duties that individually may seem small, Delucchi said. But those duties, such as walking the dogs or grooming them, helps them deal with shelter life and become more likely to find a home, he said.
"Some dogs develop stress after being in the environment the first day," he said.
But those volunteers haven't replaced trained staff, he said.
"As the volunteer corps has grown at SPCA, we haven't eliminated any position," he said. "Having more volunteers hasn't kept us from hiring staff."
But paying for a coordinator means a tough look at the budgets: Both Salinas and Monterey County face rising pension costs eating up a larger portion of their budgets.
Monterey County even looked at cutting its animal services payrolls by half earlier this year. The supervisors decided to fund the positions using marijuana tax revenue.
The county's shelter also has six vacancies, due in part to retirements, resignations and a now-lifted hiring freeze, Burnham said.
So, she doesn't anticipate any new revenue to pay for the position, instead relying on savings for it.
She said she expects her report to be presented to the council and supervisors in December.
October 26, 2018
The Salinas Californian
By Joe Szydlowski
[Humboldt County] O is the New Z: A Look at the Ballot Arguments For and Against County’s ‘Essential Services’ Sales Tax Measure
Blog note: this opinion piece references a grand jury report on the 2014 sales tax increase approved by the voters. The entire article is not reproduced here. To read it, go to: https://lostcoastoutpost.com/2018/oct/26/o-new-z-look-ballot-arguments-and-against-countys/.
Measure Z, the countywide half-a-percent sales tax approved by voters in 2014, seems pretty popular. It passed with 56 percent of the vote, and a survey of 500 likely voters conducted in April suggests that support has only grown in the years since.
The question is whether it’s popular enough for voters to approve it indefinitely.
Measure O, which appears on ballots countywide this midterm election, asks voters to remove the original sunset date for Measure Z (March 31, 2020), leaving all other provisions intact. In effect, this would make the tax permanent — unless voters repeal it down the line with another ballot measure.
Z was sold to voters as a way to fund public safety and “essential services,” though the emphasis was definitely on public safety. And that’s where the largest portion of revenues has gone. (Annual revenues from Measure Z, by the way, have been significantly higher than the $6 million originally predicted.)
For the 2018-19 fiscal year, more than half of the projected $12.89 million in revenues has been allocated to “law and justice” efforts, including $4.87 million to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, $1.24 million to the District Attorney’s Office and more than half a million to the Probation Department.
This year’s Humboldt County Grand Jury examined how Measure Z has “measured up” thus far, and while it had some concerns about transparency and accountability, the final report found Z to be “generally well implemented and successful” in its goal of enhancing public safety and essential services.
According to county staff, more than 70 new public safety projects have been funded by Measure Z and nearly $34 million has been spent since it took effect. Nearly 60 agencies around the county have received funds, including 35 volunteer fire districts.
The authors of the “Yes on O” ballot argument — who include the Fortuna fire chief, the president of the Humboldt Deputy Sheriff’s Organization, and the chair of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Measure Z, which makes funding recommendations to the Board of Supervisors — again highlight the public safety stakes. Approving the measure, they say, will help fight drug use, protect abused children, maintain 911 emergency response times, and repair crumbling roads.
Taking up the “No on O” argument is Kent Sawatzky, Humboldt County’s most prolific public commenter and Vice President of the Humboldt County Taxpayers League. His case involves some confusing math as he invokes Measure S, the cannabis cultivation tax passed by voters in 2016, noting that it, too, was sold as a means to fund essential services and public safety.
Sawatzky suggests that the projected $7.8 million in revenue from the weed tax renders the Measure Z revenues somehow redundant or unnecessary. However, Measure S was also intended to cover “environmental cleanup/restoration; children/family mental health; drug rehabilitation; [and] other County services.”
Sawatzky’s numbered argument brings up some of the same criticisms as the Grand Jury report, including inadequate transparency and accountability as well as the lack of specific definitions for what constitutes “public safety” and “essential services.”
The Grand Jury began examining Measure Z processes following a citizen complaint about the Board of Supervisors’ 2016-17 allocation of Measure Z funds to the Boys and Girls Club of the Redwoods.
“The complainant asked how staffing the club in McKinleyville was an appropriate use of public safety funds,” the Grand Jury report notes. “The organization’s application, which cannot be located on the Measure Z website, was not recommended to the [Board of Supervisors] by the [Measure Z Citizens’ Advisory Committee].”
While the report found that there was no clear consensus on what programs and services qualify for Measure Z funding, it also notes, “For the most part, recommendations made by the [Citizens’ Advisory Committee] have been indisputably related to public safety/essential services … .”
Sawatzky mentions another Grand Jury report finding: that voters were told in 2014 that Measure Z “would be subject to annual independent audits, but no such audits have taken place to date which compromises transparency and public trust.”
Sean Quincey, public information officer with the County of Humboldt, said that the county budget, including Measure Z funds, are already independently audited every year, as part of the county’s routine budget audits. But he said the Board of Supervisors agreed with the Grand Jury’s call for even more clarity.
“As a fiscally responsible county, our Board agrees the more transparency the better and voter-approved funding will be audited separately moving forward,” Quincey said via email. He also pointed out this tidbit from the Grand Jury report: “A loss of Measure Z funds could be catastrophic for Humboldt County since the anticipated revenue is necessary to maintain our current level of public safety.”
The county produces a report each year describing each of the projects funded through Measure Z and describing the outcome. The eighth point in Sawatkzy’s argument says, “Humboldt County taxpayers pay a high [sales] tax with only 12 of 58 California counties paying more.” While his figures are correct, this is misleading.
Here’s why: The dozen counties with a higher sales tax rate than Humboldt’s 7.75 percent have a combined population of more than 19 million people. Their rates go as high as 9.5 percent, and even higher when you tack on the municipal taxes applied in many cities. Meanwhile, the 29 counties with a lower rate than ours all charge at least 7.25 percent (the state minimum) and have less than a quarter the population — about 4.6 million people. So we actually pay a lower sales tax rate than most Californians.
Sawatzky notes that Measure Z (and, by extension, Measure O) is a “regressive tax,” meaning poor people pay disproportionately more of their income than rich people do. This is a concern that’s been brought up by others, including the Humboldt & Del Norte Central Labor Council. But the Labor Council wound up endorsing Measure O — albeit “reluctantly” — with organization President Mike Hetticher explaining, “[W]e also understand the immediate and substantial impacts to essential services that the citizens of the county at-large would face if Measure O is not passed.”
One last element of Sawatzky’s argument that we want to examine: He says Eureka’s not getting its fair share of the spoils. This is a point that’s been made by Eureka’s own staff and elected representatives. Eureka City Councilmember Austin Allison said talks between the city and the county have been ongoing, and the county has encouraged Eureka to submit more applications.
“They definitely want this measure to be equitable for everyone,” Allison said.
Councilmember Natalie Arroyo said the city will indeed apply for more funds in the next cycle and “push a lot more heavily to have those projects be funded.”
While Arroyo has not endorsed Measure O, she has stated publicly that she intends to vote for it.
October 26, 2018
Lost Coast Outpost
By Ryan Burns
Friday, October 26, 2018
Blog note: this article references grand jury reports.
The number of dogs hanging out on Haight Street has residents growling, according to Supervisor Vallie Brown.
While she has heard no reports of dogs biting people, or other dogs, since she became supervisor of the neighborhood in July, Brown said people are complaining that they are having a hard time navigating around the dogs and are wary of them.
“I have complaints probably every week from Haight Ashbury residents, a lot of them are seniors and disabled that are going into the streets to get around the large group of people with their dogs,” Brown said during a Board of Supervisors hearing last week. “How can we really address this and be much more effective?”
Residents complaints come whether the dogs are leashed or not. In some cases the dogs are leashed but no one is holding it or the leashes are very long.
Virginia Donohue, director of the Animal Care and Control Department, told Brown at the hearing that she shares her concerns. “Actually, we were just out at Haight Ashbury yesterday where I believe there were about 14 people detained in this massive leash law incident,” Donohue said.
The department told the Examiner Friday in an email that Donohue was referring to an incident when “Park Police called ACC about the dogs; dogs were leashed when officers arrived; SFPD arrived too; one dog was impounded by ACC for SF’s pit bull spay/neuter ordinance.”
Donohue said that “When the dogs are actually on leash but still blocking the sidewalk, I am not sure what the answer is there. That is something I can talk with SFPD about, what can we do about them blocking the sidewalk.”
One resident who has noticed a dog problem is Deborah Hall, who was out walking her one-year old Border Collie named Sage across Haight Street Friday afternoon.
“Homeless street people have pitbull type dogs that are poorly trained and aggressive and sometimes I go out of my way to avoid walking past them with my dog because I’ve had them lunge at her,” Hall told the Examiner. “Most of the dogs are on leash but sometimes the leash isn’t attached to anything. Sometimes they are just kind of ignoring them. I was thinking we should probably provide free dog training classes for the homeless people.”
She added, “The pitbulls are the ones I worry about the most.”
The Examiner didn’t observe any pitbulls in the area, but Hall said at the intersection where she was, Haight and Clayton streets, “Sometimes there are half a dozen on this corner.”
Animal Care and Control Department was unable to provide data by press time about the number of reported dog bites in the Haight. In 2017, there were 814 reported dog bites citywide, the department said. Of the total dog bites, about 300 were dogs biting people, according to the civil grand jury report that investigated ACC and was the subject of last week’s board hearing.
The department was also unable to provide data by press time how many off-leash citations were issued in the Haight area.
The civil grand jury found that in 2017 there were “over 2,000 cases of dogs reported off leash, of which 500 were followed up and or responded to by authorities. Of the reported cases, 24 resulted in citations to dog owners.” The grand jury recommended stepping up citations, but the agency disagreed.
Hall and several homeless persons interviewed in the area Friday said the problem isn’t with dogs not on leashes, but with the temperament of some dogs and their owners.
“I think it’s a poorly trained dog owner issue, and owners that haven’t properly raised their dogs,” Hall said. “Some of the street people, which are most of the people I see with dogs hanging out in the Haight, their dogs are well behaved and they are fine. But there is a lot of them that aren’t.”
Daniel Davis, 23, who said he was transient, was hanging out Friday afternoon on Haight Street with “Just. J.” Davis said his dog Billie Jean, a four year old Schnauzer mixed with Terrier, is well behaved and he keeps her on leash.
“For me, she helps me with my anxiety and also I help her with hers, because she does have anxiety with loud noises,” Davis said, noting that she was hit by a car when a puppy.
“Just. J.,” 50, who is traveling around the West Coast and sleeps in a nearby park, said that “here on this little strip you have a conglomeration of street kids and a lot of them have animals, and some of them are not treating their animals very well so those animals get grumpy because they are not getting fed and water.”
“Just. J” said that “the only ones that keep their dogs off the leash are the rich people. They can do whatever they want.”
“Normally all the [street] kids are good,” he continued. “There are a couple rolling around where they teach their dog to be aggro, that f—-s it up for everybody.”
Brown told the Examiner she didn’t get the answers she wanted from the hearing, which focused on a civil grand jury report about the Animal Care and Control Department, and is still trying to figure out the best strategy. She said she isn’t considering any legislation to address it.
“I’m just trying to figure out how to make the street safe,” she said.
October 26, 2018
San Francisco Examiner
By Joshua Sabatini
[Alameda County] Borenstein (opinion): DA secret-taping report shows why two Alameda council members must go
Report puts lie to claim that city manager violated the law; reveals new evidence of Oddie’s and Vella’s actions
Blog note: this opinion piece mentions civil grand jury jurisdiction in the matter.
A new district attorney report not only exonerates former Alameda City Manager Jill Keimach for secretly recording a meeting last year with Council members Jim Oddie and Malia Vella, it also shows why the two elected officials should be removed from office.
The investigation findings put the lie to their claim that Keimach violated the law — a narrative Oddie has tried to peddle in his current re-election campaign to distract from his own violation of the city charter.
The Aug. 16, 2017, meeting was held as Keimach was in the middle of recruiting a new fire chief and under political pressure to hire Alameda Fire Capt. Dominick Weaver, the preferred candidate of the firefighters’ union.
District Attorney Nancy O’Malley’s report, released Friday, provides the first public account of what’s contained in the secret recording of the meeting.
That account provides new evidence to bolster the case that Oddie improperly meddled in the city manager’s hiring of a new fire chief. And it shows that during the meeting Vella, who has two years left on her term, encouraged hiring the firefighter union’s preferred candidate.
Under the city charter, the city manager has the sole discretion for hiring department heads and the City Council is expressly prohibited from trying to influence the decision.
Yet that’s exactly what Oddie and Vella did.
The meeting, according to the report, “did concern the selection of the Fire Chief and during the meeting both Councilmember Vella and Councilmember Oddie supported and recommended Captain Weaver as the next Fire Chief.”
Rather than acknowledge their actions to influence the city manager’s decision, the two council members have tried to blame Keimach — and make the city foot the bill for their legal expenses.
Grand jury referral
It’s all further evidence of why voters should oust Oddie in the Nov. 6 election, and why the county civil Grand Jury should investigate Oddie’s and Vella’s conduct.
While the district attorney does not have clear authority to investigate violations of the city charter, the Grand Jury’s powers include oversight of public officials’ actions. And, according to O’Malley, questions in this case about possible charter violations have already been referred to the Grand Jury.
The Grand Jury has authority to file an accusation, a legal charge that could lead to removal from office for willful or corrupt misconduct.
Since it wasn’t in her legal purview, the district attorney drew no conclusions on whether Oddie or Vella violated the city charter. But a prior city-commissioned investigation found that Oddie did just that.
That report, by investigator and Manhattan Beach attorney Michael Jenkins, found that Oddie told the police chief that Keimach’s job was on the line if she didn’t make the right selection — a threat that was predictably relayed to the city manager.
Oddie also wrote a letter to Keimach on city stationary supporting Weaver, the firefighters’ candidate, and “to provide him with the highest recommendation.”
But, when it came to the Aug. 16 meeting, Jenkins relied on the accounts of the participants rather than listening to the tape. As a result, he dismissed Vella’s role as merely wanting to discuss the fire chief hiring process.
The district attorney investigation, which included listening to the tape, provides a very different account, noting that the two council members supported and recommended Weaver.
Oddie did not respond to an email request for comment. Vella did, issuing a statement that doesn’t address the new information about what she said in the meeting.
The purpose of the meeting was not to demand that Keimach appoint Weaver, Vella says in her statement, which lambasts Keimach’s secret recording as “Nixonian.”
However, the district attorney’s report concludes that Keimach’s decision to secretly record the meeting was permitted under a state law that allows her to do so if she believes she might be extorted or bribed.
At the time, Keimach was feeling political pressure from multiple fronts to hire Weaver; the City Council’s evaluation of her job performance was going on concurrently; and she had already heard from Police Chief Paul Rolleri that Oddie had said she would be fired if she did not select the union’s preferred candidate.
Although the district attorney found that Vella and Oddie did not try to extort or bribe the city manager, “Ms. Keimach’s belief that recording the meeting may gather evidence related to such conduct was not unreasonable considering all of the circumstances,” O’Malley concludes.
Keimach never caved to the political pressure. She conducted an open and rigorous recruitment and hired a far-more-qualified person, the former fire chief of Salinas, to manage the 111-person fire department and its $35 million annual budget.
So here we are: A city investigation found Oddie violated the city charter. A new district attorney investigation found Keimach did nothing wrong. And the DA’s investigation provides new information that could support a determination that both Oddie and Vella violated the charter.
Those two helped create a toxic environment that set off this chain of events and Keimach’s departure with a separation agreement that cost taxpayers about $900,000.
Yet, Vella remains in office and Oddie is seeking re-election. Adding insult to taxpayer injury, Vella has filed a claim against the city for more than $10,000 for her legal fees and damage to her reputation, while Oddie seeks at least $63,000 from city taxpayers to cover his legal bills for his $500- and $900-per-hour attorneys to defend him during the city’s investigation.
Are these the sort of leaders voters want? Let’s hope not. Oddie, and eventually Vella, have got to go.
October 23, 2018
The Mercury News
By Daniel Borenstein
Blog note: this article references grand jury reports going back to 2011.
James Holmes was surprised when he saw a legal notice this month that said Central Marin Sanitation Agency’s directors would be voting to more than double their own pay.
He wasn’t surprised to hear that no residents showed up at the Oct. 9 board meeting when that vote passed.
Intrigued by regulators’ suggestions over the years that sanitation districts should consolidate, the Larkspur resident said the pay increase illustrates what some say is the issue with those organizations — “exploiting their obscurity,” Holmes called it. A lack of public participation and community oversight, he argues, allows the agencies to fly largely under the radar.
“This reinforces the narrative that these special districts are unaccountable, out of control and taking unreasonable actions that largely escape notice because of the obscurity of these agencies,” he said.
Roomy, red chairs assembled in neat rows were empty the night of Oct. 9 inside the Central Marin Sanitation Agency’s board room. A plate of oatmeal, chocolate chip and sugar cookies sat out untouched while the five present board members approved their own pay raises without much debate.
“This would put us pretty much in the middle — not the highest, not the lowest,” board President Diane Furst told her fellow directors, whose stipends have now jumped from $100 to $225 per meeting.
The agency operates wastewater treatment infrastructure for four of Marin County’s sanitary districts. Its six-member board meets monthly and, unlike other wastewater agencies whose boards are elected by voters, directors for Central Marin Sanitation are appointed by officials from each of its member agencies.
The board — which discussed an appropriate amount to raise the stipend at a prior meeting — hadn’t altered its pay since 1987, and some officials say the increase was, by all means, justified.
“Over the years, our business has become more involved and heavily regulated and complex, and definitely includes more board member involvement,” said Jason Dow, the agency’s general manager since 2002. “I understood why they were receiving (a raise) and I thought their change was warranted.”
Dow, one of 44 full-time employees, has a base salary this year of $270,227.
“I’d say the board members probably spend a couple hours reviewing our agenda packets before the meetings, they call me and talk about things, their meeting is a couple hours, and then some follow up,” he said. “So it’s a lot of time.”
But Holmes said he thought the board members were, essentially, making the case against their own agency.
“The more exorbitant the benefits, the more compelling the argument for consolidation because of the resulting need to eliminate all of that excessive administrative overhead,” he said.
Other special district directors in Marin make more money for each meeting they attend. At Ross Valley Sanitary, board members are paid $314, the highest of any special district in Marin.
Felicia Newhouse, interim general manager for that district, said the stipend is higher than others because, under a previous policy, it had periodically increased automatically. Directors ended that policy last year.
“There was a recognition by our board of directors last year that we had really a pretty generous meeting compensation rate so we’ve frozen it just recently,” she said. “They decided we were outpacing inflation and other agencies around us and we needed to rethink this.”
At some agencies, including the Bolinas Fire Protection District, board members are volunteers.
Chris Martinelli, a battalion chief with the Marin County Fire Department who serves on the Bolinas fire board, said he serves as a director because it’s a good way to give back to his town.
“I just like helping the community out,” he said.
‘Flush and forget’
The Marin County Civil Grand Jury, which has repeatedly urged sanitation districts to consolidate, said in a 2011 report that the lack of oversight is, in part, a result of the public’s tendency to shy away from the topic of wastewater.
“No one wants to think about sewers or pipes or overflows,” the report states. “They want to flush and forget.”
The grand jury in April recommended immediate consolidation of some of Marin’s smallest wastewater agencies and the eventual creation of a single, countywide sanitation district.
Consolidation, the jury said, would allow the districts to better prepare for the effects of climate change by pooling funds needed to protect infrastructure in areas prone to floods and sea-level rise. It would also benefit taxpayers by reducing administrative overhead.
“One administrative department supporting one board of directors should cost less than several administration offices each with a board of directors,” the report states.
Last year, Marin’s Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCo — tasked with regulating the physical development of cities, towns and special districts — released results from a study it conducted of Central Marin wastewater services, which provides a blueprint for the consolidation of some sanitation districts in that area. The 393-page document recommends the agencies reorganize around boundaries defined by watersheds and dissolve districts with especially small service areas, including Murray Park Sewer Maintenance District, a 0.1 square mile residential area between Larkspur and Kent Woodlands, and San Quentin Village Sewer Maintenance District, which is 0.01 square miles.
Jason Fried, who became interim executive director of LAFCo in June after eight years leading the same agency in San Francisco, said he’s perfectly comfortable working with districts that want to consolidate and his commission is prepared to take on those processes. But he doesn’t like the idea of demanding mergers.
“You don’t necessarily want to force it on people,” he said. “It leaves a bad taste in their mouths.”
In its April report, the grand jury recommended county officials allocate more funding toward LAFCo so the agency can get to work on consolidations — not just among sanitation agencies but also the numerous other special districts in Marin, including those that oversee police, water, fire and community services.
Fried is LAFCO’s only active staff member. An additional full-time employee is on disability leave and the agency is currently hiring for an open position.
When fully staffed, Fried said, his commission would be prepared to accomplish what it needs to. But the grand jury fears otherwise.
“Handling an influx of requests for consolidations, annexations and other boundary changes will most likely require additional resources,” the April report states.
LAFCo has just begun the planning process for a merger between Ross Valley Sanitary District and Murray Park Sewer, according to Fried. But the agency hasn’t received any other merger applications, which some say is for the better.
Opponents of the push to consolidate special districts say the smaller agencies provide more local control and that mergers wouldn’t save as much money as some groups tout.
“It’s an easy sell to say you can consolidate, but you’re not saving a whole lot and you’re losing control,” said Ronald Kosciusko, who is on the board of directors for the Richardson Bay Sanitary District. “You can get rid of the boards, sure, but then what happens is you’re dealing with a bureaucracy. … It sounds like roses but it isn’t.”
Kosciusko in 2013 opposed a ballot measure struck down by voters that would have consolidated four Southern Marin sewer districts into one agency.
“At the time, we had a $10 million reserve,” he said. “If I’m one of those other boards, I’d say I’ll agree. But that doesn’t work for our $10 million. … They were talking about taking over our plant and our trucks and everything the district has paid for over the years.”
The director said he’s kept up with the various reports urging consolidation, but hasn’t ever felt the specifics have been addressed.
“If those people who talk about consolidation can come up with a reasonable financial and administrative concept that works, I’d be glad to listen to it,” he said.
Marin’s many special districts, some say, weren’t formed with a master plan in mind.
Many who lived in Marin during the late 19th century were opportunists who hadn’t had luck in the California gold industry, according to Marcie Miller, a local historian with the Marin History Museum.
“What they discovered was the valuable range land we had,” Miller said.
According to Miller, dairy ranchers along with cheese and butter makers were able to capitalize off that land and sell their products to consumers in San Francisco, which, prior to the 1937 opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, was only accessible by ferry.
As small, isolated communities sprang up during late 19th century and early 20th century, agencies formed to meet the needs of residents, including fire, sewer and police. Development over the years has connected Marin’s communities, but the special districts have remained — for better or worse.
In a 2014 report titled, “The Scoop on Marin County Sewer Systems,” the grand jury wrote: “In total, there are 17 special districts, 2 municipalities, 2 JPAs, the National Park Service and the California State Park Service providing wastewater services to a population of 256,000 in an area just over 100 square miles.”
The Central Marin Fire Department hopes it jumped through the last hoops this week in its years-long consolidation process which merged firefighting resources between Corte Madera and Larkspur.
City and town council members from both jurisdictions approved a compromise this week with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, in which both parties agreed to share equal responsibility for pensions of Central Marin fire employees in case the agency disbands.
The retirement system is exercising extra caution after it cut the pensions of about 200 former employees of a disbanded job-training agency in Los Angeles County because the four cities that formed that agency denied responsibility for those payments.
The formation of a joint firefighting agency in Central Marin is one of the first consolidation efforts in California since CalPERS began requiring pension liability agreements, and some say the merger will set a precedent throughout the state.
But despite the hiccup, which is preventing the full, legal formation of Central Marin fire, officials say the agency is already successfully operating as one entity.
“If you’re a member of the public, you already think we’re done,” said Dan Schwarz, Larkspur’s city manager. “That, to me, is a testament that it’s going really well.”
Larkspur and Corte Madera aren’t strangers to the concept of sharing emergency response services. The two cities began sharing a police force in the early 1980s and in 2013 formed the Central Marin Police Authority, which also includes San Anselmo.
“I think it’s been a tremendous success,” Schwarz said of the resource-sharing initiatives. “If you look at the police for example, none of the towns could have a full detective bureau on their own, but we now have an investigative bureau in Central Marin. … Our residents are getting a very high level of service at a cost we can manage.”
Scott Shurtz, chief of the Central Marin Fire Department, said the de facto centralized fire agency has already provided its service area with better quality emergency response without raising costs.
“We hope this success encourages other, similar consolidations,” he said.
Marin board pay examples
Almonte Sanitary District: $80/meeting; or $100 for president
Alto Sanitary District: $100/meeting; $125 for chair
Bel Marin Keys Community Services District: $100/meeting
Bolinas Community Public Utility District: $250/month
Bolinas Fire Protection District: none
Homestead Valley Sanitary District: $100/meeting, $125/meeting for president and secretary
Inverness Public Utility District: none
Kentfield Fire Protection District: $100/meeting
Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District: $252.70/meeting, $200/month health care reimbursement
Marin City Community Services District: $150/meeting
Marin Municipal Water District: $200/meeting
Marinwood Community Services District: none
Muir Beach Community Services District: none
North Marin Water District: $200/meeting
Novato Fire Protection District: $100/meeting
Novato Sanitary District: $225/meeting, $200/month health care reimbursement
Richardson Bay Sanitary District: $125/meeting plus dental insurance
Ross Valley Sanitary District: $314/meeting
Sausalito-Marin City Sanitary District: $160/meeting
Sleepy Hollow Fire Protection District: $150/meeting
Southern Marin Fire Protection District: $100/month
Stinson Beach Water District: $100/meeting
Strawberry Recreation District: $75/meeting
Tamalpais Community Service District: $100/meeting
Tiburon Fire Protection District: $75/meeting
Tiburon Sanitary District No. 5: $100/meeting
Tomales Village Community Service District: $50/meeting
October 20, 2018
Marin Independent Journal
By Matthew Pera
The California Grand Jurors’ Association has presented the Grand Jury Reporting Award to the San Bernardino County Grand Jury for its 2016-2017 report titled “Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department.”
The California Grand Jurors’ Association is a statewide nonprofit organization of former grand jurors with the mission “to promote, preserve and support the grand jury system through training, education and outreach.” The annual Grand Jury Reporting Award recognizes reports of high quality, have had a positive impact on the community, and increased awareness of the California grand jury system.
From January 2014 through December 2016, the Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department (AVUSD-PD) ordered an inordinate number of vehicles towed from public roadways during a two-year period of time. In most cases the violations were outside of the department’s authority. All were towed by a single tow company. During the same period, there was a decline in student-related interactions and on-campus activity by the police. The investigation led to corrections in policy.
The award was presented on Oct. 1 at the association’s 37th annual conference held in South Lake Tahoe. Norma Grosjean, San Bernardino County Grand Jury assistant; Sharon Bragg, San Bernardino Superior Court administrative services supervisor; and Ron Zurek, a member of the 2016-2017 Grand Jury, attended the conference and accepted the award on behalf of the San Bernardino County Grand Jury.
October 19, 2018
Fontana Herald News
The state Attorney General’s Office has decided not to oppose Napa County Assessor John Tuteur’s request to dismiss four grand jury accusations against him of “willful or corrupt misconduct.”
All four counts against Tuteur either fail to state a claim of willful misconduct or lack sufficient evidence, the Attorney General’s Office said in court papers filed Friday. The 2017-18 county grand jury is seeking to remove Tuteur from office.
“I am pleased that the California State Attorney General agreed with my position that all claims in the accusation were unfounded,” Tuteur said in a press release.
A Napa County Superior Court hearing on the grand jury accusations is scheduled for Nov. 9 and the judge will consider Tuteur’s request to dismiss the charges—a request that apparently will meet no opposition from the state.
The grand jury made the accusations earlier this year. The Attorney General’s Office, as required, brought the matter to court, after the Napa County District Attorney’s Office recused itself.
One grand jury count accuses Tuteur of failing to pay $20,000 in back property taxes on land his family leases out for a cell tower. An Assessor’s Office error discovered in 2016 led to the back taxes.
“The evidence showed that the defendant was notified of the error and believed steps would be taken to do what was necessary to correct the error,” the Attorney General’s Office filing said.
Tuteur in a court filing disputed the $20,000 figure, saying the Assessor’s Office employee in charge of the matter ultimately concluded this year that Tuteur owes $1,453 in back taxes.
The grand jury accused Tuteur of not forcing property owners receiving Williamson Act agricultural tax breaks to return questionnaires that would help calculate their taxes. Nor did he tell the Board of Supervisors, District Attorney or Planning Department about the noncompliance.
But, the Attorney General’s Office filing said, evidence shows Tuteur’s office tried to gather the information from landowners and informed other county departments of the low response.
“He (Tuteur) testified that over the years, he discussed with the Planning Department whether they felt it was worthwhile for the Planning Department given their workload to pursue any kind of remedy addressing the non-reporting and the response had been ‘no,’” the filing said.
Evidence presented to the grand jury shows that the Assessor’s Office understood its duty was to assess properties and not enforce landowner compliance for information requests, the filing said.
The grand jury accused Tuteur of testifying about the Williamson Act before the Board of Supervisors in 2011, even though he has ranch land that receives the tax break and could benefit from the board’s decision. He illegally used his official position to influence the outcome, the accusation said.
But the Attorney General’s Office said the conflict-of-interest allegation isn’t supported by evidence. The board’s ultimate decision had the same effect on Tuteur’s property taxes as any other Williamson Act property owner.
The grand jury said Tuteur failed to determine the actual value of ranch land and instead used a formula adopted by the county in 1969 and never updated. If the minimum value rose, the property taxes for his ranch would also rise.
“There is no evidence of intent,” the Attorney General’s Office said. “Rather, defendant testified that he believed the actual/fair rent was below the imputed income and therefore the imputed income was applied.”
Nor is there evidence that Tuteur intended to harm the county or gain personal advantage, the filing said.
Another section of the Attorney General Office’s filing dealt with the standard for establishing a willful or corrupt misconduct charge. It must be proven that the public officer knew the act performed or not performed was required or prohibited by law and then willfully failed to comply with the law.
Tuteur could not be reached for comment on Friday.
October 19, 2018
Napa Valley Register
By Barry Eberling