Thursday, October 4, 2018

[Lake County] Supervisor Brown: 2017–2018 Civil Grand Jury Report is ‘nonsense’

In a discussion of the County of Lake’s response to the report, county supervisors took offense at its findings

LAKEPORT — At a meeting Tuesday, the Lake County Board of Supervisors discussed its response to the 2017–2018 Civil Grand Jury Report. Responses had previously been written by the board and by department heads, including County Administrative Officer Carol Huchingson, and Tuesday’s discussion provided insight into these responses.
Members of the board expressed that they had been offended by the report. The board’s written response claims that many sections of the report “demonstrate a lack of consideration for the challenges of mitigating and managing disasters in the face of the County of Lake’s unprecedented budgetary constraints and severe understaffing, and fail to appropriately recognize successes won in spite of these obstacles.”
There are 58 civil grand juries in California—one per county—and each is tasked with investigating the operations of the local government under which it operates, and making recommendations as to how those governments can improve. Though organized under the auspices of the county judge, a civil grand jury does research based on anonymous citizen input and makes recommendations to the government it is investigating based solely on independent research. While grand juries have other functions, one of which is investigating potentially criminal actions by government officials, their civil work is referred to by the Judicial Branch of California as a “watchdog” function.
All four district supervisors present on Tuesday (District 3 Supervisor Jim Steele was absent) lamented what they saw as a counterproductive result of this research, the recommendations based on which required county staff to spend too many hours reviewing.
District 5 Supervisor Rob Brown said that “we’ve got staff dropping everything to go ahead and take care of (the grand jury’s) idiotic needs, and I think that’s got to end.” Brown continued to say that he would like to tell county staff that responding to the grand jury should be of the “lowest priority” because the various departments are busy with other matters, and that “we don’t have time for this nonsense.” Brown added that “there is no value to it at this point, that I can see.”
District 2 Supervisor Jeff Smith, who said during the board meeting that “it’s been years since I put any credit in the Grand Jury Report,” told the Record-Bee later that he could indeed remember a time when the reports seemed better to him, though he did not immediately specify a year. Smith said that he has found the grand jury reports of recent years to be lacking in truthfulness, and was concerned that the grand jurors had not communicated more with department heads and board members.
Supervisor Brown said in the meeting that in the future, he would not be willing to meet with the grand jury “unless I have a subpoena in my hand.”
Supervisor Smith said of the 2017–2018 report that “a lot of it is just nonsense,” and that pursuing the recommendations it makes is “a hunt to try to find something that doesn’t exist.”
Supervisor Brown claimed that the grand jury “hides behind a cloak of confidentiality,” and that its members often take advantage of their position to push their own agendas.
Dr. Richard Smith, a grand juror who worked on the most recent report, told the board that “When I entered the grand jury last year, I was very sensitive to the fact that it might be a place for people to complain, bring up their own problems, and do witch hunts. It turned out not to be true.”
Dr. Smith denied Brown’s claims, stressing the importance of the confidentiality requirement imposed on the grand jury, and saying that “the issues brought up in the grand jury were issues brought by citizens, not by us … We didn’t look into things that were brought up by ourselves, we looked into things that were brought up by ordinary citizens who saw the grand jury as a way to bring up citizen complaints in some cases, or citizen concerns.”
Dr. Smith said to the Board of Supervisors that “the grand jury law is written by the State of California, not by you. It is an official legislation by the state for a purpose.” Smith said that the grand jury is meant to make “findings and recommendations,” which can be taken into consideration by government officials, but which do not require action.
At one point, Smith said to Brown that “you shouldn’t demean the grand jury simply because you don’t agree with their findings.”
The findings and recommendations of the 2017–2018 Civil Grand Jury Report are organized into eight areas of investigation which correspond to county departments and endeavors, including “Budget and Finance,” “Health and Human Services,” “Planning and Public Works,” “Insurance,” and “Emergency Operations Plan.”
Under “Insurance,” the report details concerns related to its summary that “Lake County Administration lost sight of its need to provide customer service to the traumatized victims of the Valley Fire who lost everything.” The report, among other things, finds that post-fire debris cleanup insurance funds were not appropriately collected from residents.
A September 20 letter written by U.S. Representative Mike Thompson and addressed to Lake County Superior Court Judge Andrew Blum, who oversees the grand jury, took issue with the report’s assessment of this insurance situation. In his letter, Thompson defends CAO Huchingson, saying that the grand jury “completely missed the mark in its blistering criticism of County Administrative Officer Carol Huchingson and her team’s actions regarding the Valley Fire Debris insurance collection. I saw firsthand how Ms. Huchingson and Lake County employees worked tirelessly to assist Valley Fire victims navigate the myriad of (sic) federal and state rules governing payment and reimbursement for debris removal.”
Dr. Smith questioned the appropriateness of Thompson’s letter. “Why is the federal government, through our representative, writing a letter in support of something that is purely a county option?”
In a public comment, Lake County resident Tom Slate said he believed the Board of Supervisors had been too defensive in its discussion Tuesday. “It’s over the top,” he said. Slate continued to say that while he does not agree with everything the grand jury recommends in its report, he respects what the jury does. Criticizing Rep. Thompson’s letter, Slate said that it was “absurd” to dismiss an entire section of the report by saying that it “completely missed the mark.”
Rep. Thompson told the Record-Bee in response to this criticism that he did not believe the report portrayed county staff appropriately. Of the report, he said he “didn’t think it was accurate,” but that “not all of the findings” were incorrect. He noted that he has brought Supervisor Brown and CAO Huchingson into other counties in his district to educate other government officials on how to respond to fire emergencies.
October 2, 2018
Lake County Record-Bee
By Aidan Freeman

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