Thursday, November 29, 2018

[Marin County] Ross Valley considers partnership to oversee school bus program

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report. More and more reporters are citing grand jury reports. Have you noticed? 
After years of success, Ross Valley officials are strengthening a yellow bus program aimed at relieving school-related gridlock.
The San Anselmo Town Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to act as the lead agency in what’s called a joint exercise of powers agreement between the Ross Valley School District, the county and the town of Fairfax.
The agreement allows officials to form a governing committee to oversee and provide feedback to Marin Transit, which manages the yellow bus program. Each jurisdiction is expected to take a vote on the agreement in the coming months.
San Anselmo Town Manager David Donery is a parent of a White Hill Middle School student who rides the bus.
“Not only does the program help relieve traffic congestion along the (Sir Francis Drake Boulevard) corridor in the morning hours,” Donery said, “but it also greatly helps families with the occasionally frantic early morning dance of getting everyone up and out and to where they need to be.”
So far, the yellow bus program in the Ross Valley runs six buses to and from White Hill middle and Hidden Valley elementary schools with the county, San Anselmo and Fairfax contributing funds to reduce the cost of bus passes. The program was designed to free up Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, the major thoroughfare connecting Highway 101 traffic in Central Marin to West Marin.
This year, 930 one-way bus passes have been sold at $395 each, according to Marin Transit.
In an email, Rick Bagley, the Ross Valley superintendent of schools said, “we are grateful our county provides this long-standing service to the community … and in doing so, they are undoubtedly helping mitigate some of the congestion both residents and visitors would otherwise experience on Sir Frances Drake Boulevard.”
Mill Valley and Tiburon/Belvedere also provide the yellow bus program for K-8 students, with Marin County and those municipalities contributing funds to reduce the cost of passes.
The Reed Union School District, serving families on the Tiburon Peninsula, was the first district to work with Marin Transit to develop a yellow bus program designed to get cars off Tiburon Boulevard during the morning and afternoon commute, said Robert Betts, Marin Transit’s director of operations who helped develop the program.
In 2016, officials with the school district, Belvedere and Tiburon formed the Tiburon Peninsula Traffic Relief Joint Powers Agency. After several years in operation, it has been pointed to as the example of a successful bus program, unclogging the roadway leading to Highway 101, Betts said.
This year Reed Union has sold 1,328 one-way passes for $315 each. The program operates seven buses to and from its three campuses.
Building off the model set by Reed Union, the Mill Valley School District began its own bus program with two buses serving two schools. At $360 each, 172 one-way annual passes have been sold this year.
“Clearly, the three yellow bus programs have been valuable in not only getting kids to school safely, but getting cars off the road,” Betts said.
For years Marin Transit has had a deal with school districts across the county, offering a youth pass to students in an effort to get cars off the road. A six-month pass costs $175 and a year pass is $325. It allows pass holders to board local routes to schools without paying the additional fare. But that program caters to older students, specifically high-schoolers, Betts said.
Earlier this year, the Marin County Civil Grand Jury released a report saying that Marin Transit should take the lead in creating a countywide school bus program that would be funded by the county and its cities and towns.
Betts said Marin Transit has formed an ad hoc committee that is studying where they can expand. But the agency is limited in what it can do because there is no existing facility suitable to house the yellow buses in Marin. What they’re left with is contracting bus companies from out of county, Betts said.
Marin voters earlier this month passed a renewal of a half-cent sales tax that funds transportation projects, and money from that tax could be used to bolster plans.
Measure AA replaces Measure A and comes with a new spending plan that includes about $1.35 million annually to support school bus programs. The original spending scheme that came with Measure A earmarked about $1 million annually for such programs.
“This is more money; it’s not a lot more, but it will help,” said Dianne Steinhauser, executive director of the Transportation Authority of Marin, which manages and distributes Measure AA funds.
“We know from the examples already in Marin that removing school trips from congested roadways is a great way to reduce traffic,” she said. “It’s an important investment for traffic reduction and it’s good for greenhouse gas emissions reduction.”
November 28, 2018
Marin Independent Journal
By Adrian Rodriguez

[Butte County] ‘This fire was outrunning us’: Surviving the Camp Fire took bravery, stamina and luck

Blog note: this article references a Butte County Grand Jury report on the 2008 fire and recommendations for change. Many media sources are citing this report in their coverage of the Camp Fire. 
The sun had not yet crested the Sierra Nevada range in Butte County on Nov. 8 when a Cal Fire radio channel crackled to life.
A fire was burning under high-voltage power lines near the Poe Dam, part of a hydroelectric network owned by PG&E along the Feather River in Northern California.
At 6:46 a.m., a firefighter who was one of the first to spot the blaze radioed that it was small: “Probably 10 acres from what I can see,” he said. Pushed by wind gusts topping 50 mph, it tore across the rugged, brushy Plumas National Forest. The fire grew to thousands of acres within hours.
Flames ate through the secluded communities of Pulga and Concow of before reaching the larger towns of Paradise and Magalia. By the end of the day, it was an inferno that would be seared into record books as the Camp Fire: California’s most destructive and deadliest wildfire.
Now nearly contained, it has killed at least 85 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes. More than 50,000 people were evacuated in a twelve-hour stretch of terror, bravery, confusion and turmoil that overwhelmed a public-safety plan designed for a fire that would gradually progress across the pine-covered communities. The Camp Fire moved at speeds no one – not residents, firefighters nor public officials – could handle.
Brandon Hill was six miles away in Concow when the fire started, driving four of his kids to school. At around 7 a.m., he saw a plume of smoke billowing up from the northeast. He wasn’t alarmed.
Every summer, red Cal Fire engines race to stomp out fires in the river canyon on Concow’s eastern edge. Hill, 38, said he’s seen a dozen fires there the last decade.
“It looked like it was way off in the canyon, like what’s happened 100 times before,” Hill said.
He drove only a few miles when he realized the fire had raged through miles of trees and brush and was barreling toward Camelot, his Concow subdivision. His wife, Sara, was still there with their 8-year-old son, Nathan.
“I literally hit my (emergency) brake and flipped a big old power turn in the middle of the highway,” he said. By the time he got back minutes later, his neighbors’ homes were burning. Embers flew sideways in the heavy winds “like the worst snowstorm you’ve ever been in,” he said.
Sara Hill was inside packing, oblivious of the threat.
“’What’s wrong?”’ Hill said she asked him when he blew through the door.
“I said, ‘We need to go now.’ She tried to grab more things, and I screamed at her at the top of my lungs. I still won’t forgive myself how I talked to my wife. God, I told her to ‘Get the f--- in the truck because it is here. It’s already here.’”
Three roads out
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea was sipping coffee at home in Chico when the fire started. His wife, a sheriff’s dispatcher, called to tell him Pulga, 10 miles from Paradise, was burning.
Honea wasn’t yet concerned Paradise was at risk.
But by 7:45, about 45 minutes after Hill saw the plume, firefighters were reporting much of Concow, three miles west of Pulga toward Paradise, was on fire, according to audio files archived online and reviewed by The Sacramento Bee. Officials began evacuating eastern Paradise.
Honea headed up Skyway, the main road between Paradise and Chico. The traffic heading toward Chico was crawling but the lanes going into Paradise were empty. He grabbed his flashlight and directed drivers to use the inbound lanes as well.
Later, California Highway Patrol officer Logan Callahan discovered downed power lines and a tree had fallen across two of Skyway’s lanes, blocking traffic. Flames closed in on both sides of the road as motorists sat trapped. Escape routes became so congested first responders couldn’t get into town.
“Turn around!” a firefighter shouted over his radio near Concow Road and Highway 70, the route out of mountain towns east of Paradise, at 7:54 a.m.
“They’re just plugging up the roadway, and making it hard for first responders to get through,” he yelled.
Around the time Honea was headed up Skyway, Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter received an alert on his cell phone in Paradise telling him an evacuation order was underway.
Like the Hill family in Concow, Teeter was acquainted with wildfire, having evacuated his home in the eastern side of town at least three times. Teeter’s wife Pamela had just dropped their two kids at school. Faced with leaving again, the couple gathered important belongings – tax records, computers, clothes – and took separate cars. Pamela Teeter left first to get the children, heading down Pearson Road, a meandering two-lane route that cuts between Skyway and Pentz Road, two of only three arteries going south out of Paradise.
Teeter was a few minutes behind her — enough to make a difference with traffic. He found himself inching along, embers landing all around as he headed into a wooded canyon.
“That canyon’s a death trap,” Teeter thought.
A few miles away, CHP officer Nick Powell was ferrying three evacuees, two of them disabled, when a panicked driver smashed into his SUV hard enough the airbags popped.
Powell abandoned the SUV, loaded his passengers into passing vehicles and ran on foot, eventually hitching a ride to safety with firefighters, said Callahan, a fellow CHP officer.
Powell was just one of dozens of local emergency personnel who lost homes to the fires while they were frantically trying to save their neighbors’ lives, and who found themselves fighting for their own survival.
Stuck in the same traffic, Teeter ditched his car in a driveway and tried to make it home to get his motorcycle, but he was too late to get out. As the fire blew near, he crammed onto a mowed field about 300 yards wide with about 20 others.
The fire roared past.
Later, rescue workers would find the burned-out hulls of cars on nearby Edgewood Lane, bodies inside, aluminum rims melted onto the asphalt.
Infrastructure is burning
Unlike Teeter, Dorthy Burns, 94, never received an evacuation alert, she said.
Burns lived alone alone with her black miniature poodle, Smokey, in a mobile home in the Camelot subdivision not far from Hill.
She was getting dressed when her phone rang. It was a neighbor telling her she needed to evacuate. Another neighbor called with more urgency.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to get out right now. The fire is in the back yard,’” she said.
Butte County contracts with a private company, Florida-based OnSolve, for an opt-in emergency alert system called CodeRed that can call landlines, as well as send texts, emails and smartphone messages, according to county officials.
The county has held drives to get Butte residents to enroll in CodeRed. OnSolve said it made 75,000 phone calls to people in the path of the Camp Fire, and “tens of thousands of additional emails and text messages” on Nov. 8, according company spokesman Brian Lustig.
It’s unclear how many of those alerts went through. Multiple people interviewed by The Bee said they did not receive an alert.
The initial notification — aimed at 10,000 phone numbers — reached only about 60 percent of its intended recipients, said Troy Harper, an OnSolve general manager. Too many people were on the cellular network and it was overloaded by traffic, Harper said.
“Neighborhoods are burning, friends are calling friends,” Harper said. “Infrastructure is burning.”
After her neighbors’ warnings, Burns loaded Smokey into her Mazda.
“The wind was so strong, the embers were blowing horizontally,” Burns said. “I thought, ‘This is no place for me.’”
Driving through impenetrable smoke, she lost the road and went through a lawn before driving over a retaining wall. Her car became stuck on top of it.
Hill was heading out of Camelot with two neighbors in his Ford Focus when he saw Burns. He had already sent his wife and kids ahead, but had tried to save his home before realizing it was hopeless.
He jumped out to help.
“She must have weighed 90 pounds soaking wet,” said Hill, who stands nearly 6 feet tall and weighs 270 pounds. “I grabbed her by her purple puffy jacket, and I just lifted her up off that wall and put her down.”
The men loaded Burns and Smokey into the Focus and drove to Hill’s mother’s house nearby in Concow. There, Hill and about 12 neighbors spent the day using garden hoses to douse spot fires, wet handkerchiefs covering their faces to filter out the choking smoke. Hill cut fire lines with a tractor as embers pockmarked his shirt with burns.
Soon after, a man ran up, soaking wet. The drenched stranger said he and others jumped into nearby Concow Reservoir to escape flames. There were still people trapped on an island, including a 90-year-old man, he said.
Hill’s 14-year-old son, Daniel, grabbed an old canoe from a nearby workshop with some other people. They headed to the reservoir and paddled out to rescue the shivering survivors.
The 90-year-old, whom Brandon Hill knew only as Bruno, was in bad shape, he said.
“He had hypothermia bad. He was barely conscious, and he could barely communicate,” Hill said. “I didn’t have much hope for him.“
They stripped Bruno of his wet clothes and put him in a warm bath in Hill’s mom’s house. Hill said the man survived.
Just insane
Across the ridge from Concow at Feather River Hospital on the eastern edge of Paradise, surgeon Ruth McLarty started her morning in the emergency room. She was finishing a gall bladder surgery when fire alarms howled.
Her patient was loaded into ambulance. McLarty headed down the hill in her car.
“Fire was coming all around us, and it was obvious we weren’t going to make it out,” she said.
Traffic wasn’t moving as the flames touched her doors. A woman whose car caught fire jumped in with her. McLarty called her 16-year-old daughter and started to pray.
“I’m sitting there imagining burning to death,” McLarty said. “And I’m going into this wide awake.”
A bulldozer rumbled past McLarty’s car just then and through the flames, clearing a path wide enough for her to turn around and head back to the hospital. There, she found 20 or so patients who hadn’t evacuated. They had been pushed outside on gurneys and in wheelchairs. When a hospital outbuilding caught fire, the group retreated to an asphalt helipad.
“We just watched everything burning,” McLarty said.
The main hospital building survived the fire, but 13 other buildings burned down or were severely damaged.
Teeter, the county supervisor, had made his way to the hospital by then, he said. He didn’t know if his wife and kids were safe.
He watched as sheriff’s deputies brought more people, many of them elderly, to the parking lot. Hospital workers brought bedside toilets outside.
“All the people in hospital gowns,” he said. “They’re confused. They’ve got pets. It was just insane.”
Send me an angel
Just up Pentz Road from the hospital, Sheila Craft had been up before sunrise, making sure backup generators would kick in if needed at Cypress Meadows, a skilled-nursing and rehabilitation home. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had warned two days earlier that it might shut off the power that morning as a fire-prevention precaution.
The planned blackout didn’t occur. PG&E officials later said the weather conditions “didn’t meet the criteria.” The company has already been sued by several Paradise residents who blame faulty transmission lines for starting the fire. Cal Fire has yet to announce a cause.
A little after 7 a.m., Craft drove home to take her children to school. Like Hill, she saw smoke but paid little attention.
“We live in the mountains, so when we see a plume of smoke, we don’t think it’s imminent,” said Craft, Cypress Meadows’ director of admissions and marketing.
Before long, she realized flames were going to reach the nursing home. She went back. Nurses and assistants were bundling clothing, medicine and supplies for the 91 patients. Craft and others started making calls to find a place to take them.
“It was raining ash,” she said. “Charred bark was landing in our parking lot.”
Craft found a facility in Chico, Roseleaf Senior Care, with vacancies. She herded three patients into her Chevy Suburban — a stroke victim and two people with dementia — and headed out. It was not quite 10 a.m.
Joe Zarate, a Cypress Meadows maintenance worker, put four patients in his Ford F350 pickup. An amputee rode shotgun, a bed-bound patient lay in the back seat and two elderly women in wheelchairs were placed in the truck bed, along with a nurse. Following a sheriff’s van, Zarate’s truck crawled through flames and gridlock.
About a mile later, Zarate heard the women in the truck bed praying. He grabbed rosary beads hanging from his rear-view mirror and passed them back. Zarate’s truck approached a barricade of flames across Neal Road on the southwest edge of Paradise.
“Put it to the floor, baby. Let’s go,” said the amputee next to him. Zarate said he sped through, then turned to tell the woman laying in the back, who seemed to have passed out at one point, they’d made it.
She spoke her first words of the morning: “I knew we would,” he recalls her saying.
In her Chevy Suburban, Craft was panicking in a Safeway parking lot. The SUV had a flat tire. She asked a man in a PG&E truck to help her fix it. He said he couldn’t.
Her husband Jeremy was on the phone, in tears, “asking God to send me an angel,” she said. Moments later, a Safeway employee named Nate Reich pulled up in his Ford sedan. He loaded everyone into his car.
They made it to Chico.
30 extinguishers and a hose
Fire planning paid off at the Paradise Alliance Church, designated by town officials as one of two assembly points to shelter in place. During the Camp Fire, it became a last stand.
Dave Roberts, the head of maintenance at the church for 10 years, showed up at the facility on Clark Road around 7:30 a.m. He could see smoke in the distance, but began setting up tables for a fundraiser the church was hosting that night for young pregnant women.
A half hour later, flames were behind the church, he said.
Roberts and others grabbed hoses and began spraying spot fires. A group of teachers from a neighboring middle school joined in, as a mobile home behind the church went up in flames.
Tim Bolin, the church pastor, drove up and told Roberts to lock the church and evacuate. Roberts started to leave, but Clark Road was gridlocked. He went back to the church, where about 100 people were seeking refuge in the large open space between the pines. Many in the lot were elderly, including a parishioner who had just turned 100. One woman was barefoot, with a nearly empty oxygen tank, he said.
Embers hit the church lawn. Roberts and others rolled out a line of sprinklers. The water pressure began to fade, so Roberts passed out 30 fire extinguishers, and they began spraying the foamy retardant.
“It was like fighting a fire with a squirt gun,” he said.
Two redwood trees and a juniper burst into flames.
“I remember just praying, ‘God, I can’t do anymore; it’s up to you,’” Roberts said.
A fire truck pulled up and the crew “extinguished everything,” Roberts said. But there was no place to go. The survivors stayed in the field as others joined. Hours passed. Propane tanks kept exploding in the distance.
Around 4:45 p.m. a fire crew arrived to take the group out. Their caravan arrived safely at Butte College in Oroville a few minutes after 5 p.m.
A lost race
“The Ridge,” as locals call the Paradise area, has been through big fires before.
In 2008, two fires burned down more than 200 buildings. After those fires, a Butte County grand jury issued a report finding the region’s roads weren’t adequate for a fast evacuation.
“Additional evacuation routes are necessary,” the grand jury wrote. “All roads out of Paradise and the Upper Ridge, with the exception of Skyway below Paradise, have significant constraints, limiting their use as evacuation routes during a major event.”
The town responded with a new evacuation system. Paradise, population 27,000, was divided into zones, which would be evacuated as needed to keep roads clear. In 2016, officials turned all four lanes of traffic on Skyway to one-way traffic during the morning rush hour to practice a mass evacuation.
The area added other fire safety measures. Crews cut fire breaks through timber and brush to protect portions of Concow, home to about 800. Officials created safety zones in Paradise such as the Alliance church where people could shelter in place, and determined staging areas for fire personnel and rescue workers.
As the Camp Fire drew near, radio dispatches show evacuation orders were being issued every few minutes according to plan. But quickly the orders covered larger and larger swaths of Paradise. Finally, at 9:03 a.m., about two-and-a-half hours after the fire started 12 miles away, the call went out to empty out the entire town.
“Mandatory evacuations, all of Paradise,” an unidentified fire battalion chief said in radio transmissions.
As Concow burned and Paradise evacuated, Honea, the sheriff, was directing traffic on Skyway. His radio brought troubling news. His deputies were calling for fire engines and begging for planes to drop retardant.
“The response is, ‘There are no more resources,’” Honea recalled. “I honestly believed that we were going to have dead law enforcement officers.”
Honea spotted his daughter, Kassidy Honea, 23, a Paradise police officer, directing traffic on the other side of Skyway. A call came in: Deputies and residents were trapped in a hardware store. The sheriff had to go, wondering if he would see her again.
“I gave her a hug and told her ‘bye’ and off I went,” Honea said.
Honea said he hasn’t looked into the events of Nov. 8 deeply enough to know if the zone system was the right way to evacuate Paradise, or if anything could have prepared the town for a fire moving as quickly as this blaze. But he believes a single, mass evacuation probably would have created “even more pandemonium.
“The rapid rate of progression of the fire outpaced the plan,” he said. “This fire was outrunning us before we realized we were in a race.”
Frozen in fear
Hill and his band of survivors had a restless night in Concow. They tried to sleep in shifts on spare beds, couches and bare floors so there was always someone awake to watch for spot fires.
“All night long people were waking each other up because there were flare-ups behind my mom’s house in the woods,” he said.
The next morning, Hill took a chainsaw and went with another man to look around on an ATV. The man wanted to check on his godmother.
“He just knew she was there,” Hill said.
They sawed through downed trees and power poles blocking a road and found the woman, Stephanie Rowe, 75. She was frozen in the driver’s seat of her car, her hands clutching the steering wheel.
Hill thought she was dead.
“I will never forget the look on her face when I opened up the door,” Hill said. “She kind of tilted her head to the side, completely expressionless with blank eyes, and just stared at us.”
The men ran into a sheriff’s deputy who escorted Rowe to safety. The deputy told Hill he should leave what had now become the Camp Fire evacuation area, or he could face arrest.
Hill said he doesn’t hold any hard feelings for the threat. He knows the deputy had a rough 24 hours.
He did, too.
November 25, 2018
Sacramento Bee
By Ryan Sabalow, Ryan Lillis, Dale Kasler, Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks, Phillip Reese

Friday, November 23, 2018

[Butte County] Paradise narrowed evacuation route ahead of fires despite warnings

Evacuation brochures encouraged residents to ‘shelter in place’

Blog note: this article is one of many in and outside the state citing a 2008 Butte County grand jury report that called for wider evacuation routes. We posted one earlier. 
Despite a grand jury report calling for wider evacuation routes, Paradise town leaders did the opposite and reduced travel lanes on a key evacuation route.
A Butte County Fire Safe Council brochure explaining evacuation routes also recommended people living along those routes to "shelter in place."
In 2008, a wildfire near Paradise destroyed hundreds of homes and caught thousands of residents in snarled traffic trying to evacuate.
A grand jury report following the fire recommended improving evacuation routes so it wouldn't take people fleeing a fire three hours to get out of harm's way.
Around the same time the grand jury report was issued, the council members in the town of Paradise began studying renovations to Skyway Road and began considering traffic calming methods. Consultants even acknowledged it would impact the use of Skyway as an evacuation route.
In 2014, the town removed one lane of traffic in each direction, added parking and bike lanes, as well as curbs which jut out at intersections.
The Butte County Fire Safe Council created a brochure to explain how drivers could use center turning lanes in emergencies. The brochure stated "Residents who live along a one-way evacuation route that is being used are encouraged to shelter in place at your home."
People fleeing the fire on various evacuation routes described being stuck in gridlock.
The mayor of Paradise, who was vice-mayor at the time the decision was made to reduce lanes on Skyway Road, did not respond to questions from KCRA.
November 22, 2018
KCRA 3 Sacramento
By Kevin Oliver

[Marin County] Dick Spotswood: Readers offer suggestions on how Marin can prepare for wildfire

Blog note: opinion writer Dick Spotswood is a big supporter of the grand jury system.
We’ve now seen Marin’s worst-case scenario. The incineration of Paradise, population 26,000, and adjacent Butte County communities is a lesson no Marin resident can ignore. As the Marin County Civil Grand Jury says, it’s “not if, but when.”
Paradise’s demise is on top of what we learned last year about climate change and poor vegetation management when Sonoma and Napa counties were aflame.
With the Camp Fire still raging and resulting smoke making Northern California air the worst in the world, there are more immediate tasks than banging local politicians for inaction or finding fault with negligent utilities.
I’ve received suggestions from IJ readers related to the Camp Fire’s aftermath and the loss of at least 79 lives and thousands of homes obliterated.
Novato’s Fred Runner, noting 50,000 Butte County residents are homeless and jobless, has a common-sense idea: “How about taking the 5,000 troops Mr. Trump assigned to the U.S./Mexico border and sending them to California’s Central Valley, where the government, state or federal, could lease land and build a camp to house Camp Fire victims for the winter. … This is an excellent moment for a massive effort with military speed and scale to build a camp for nearly 10,000 homeless former residents of Paradise. I suggest a housing camp that could stand for two years. It will easily take that long to begin to rebuild.”
Ruth Snyder, past Mill Valley mayor and current Santa Rosa Press Democrat Editorial Board member, suggests both Marin and Sonoma mimic ideas from the Oakland Fire Safe Council: “Create a regional wildfire prevention management agency. Such an agency would have jurisdiction over both public and private land, be adequately funded and staffed with a science-based plan of action and have the authority to implement the plan.”
The big difference from our top-notch Fire Safe Marin program is that a new state-authorized countywide wildfire management agency would have direct independent authority to act. The crucial question left unanswered: Who pays for it?
Tamalpais Valley’s Doug Scherf makes a no-cost suggestion: “If individuals discover a fire near their homes any time during the day or night, after calling 911, they should immediately set off their home burglar and automobile theft alarms to alert their neighbors.”
I’ll offer that every fire professional I’ve consulted indicates controlled burns — fires intentionally set for forest management — must be in the vegetation management toolbox. We’ve cut back on controlled burns because persnickety citizens and Bay Area Air Quality Management District staffers objected. The complaint: controlled burns produce too much smoke. Note: The BAAQMD board’s vice chair is Marin Supervisor Katie Rice.
Instead of micromanaging some poor soul with a fireplace in Ignacio, look at the big picture. Either prudently manage controlled burns or face the reality that air quality in BAAQMD’s bailiwick will, after the next big fire, be worse than in Beijing and Delhi. That’s the definition of professional failure. We need to encourage controlled burns as prudent vegetation management.
November 20, 2018
Marin Independent Journal
By Dick Spotswood

[Contra Costa County] LAFCO rejects Los Medanos health district’s request to stay in business

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report on the future of the agency. This is the latest of many media articles referencing the grand jury report in following the resolution of this issue.
A Contra Costa County healthcare district that has long outlived the Pittsburg hospital it once operated — Los Medanos Community Hospital — will dissolve unless advocates submit enough verifiable signatures by Nov. 30 to put it to a popular vote or stop the process outright.
The embattled district has survived several attempts at dissolution since the hospital closed in 1994, but last week the Local Agency Formation Commission, an independent agency that oversees the expansion or dissolution of local governments, rejected its request to reconsider the ordered shutdown.  A protest hearing has been set for Nov. 30, when petitioners can present signatures and appeal.
If at least 10,500 signatures are certified, the issue will go to a public vote. If the district collects roughly double that many signatures, it can stop the dissolution proceedings.
Itika Greene, Los Medanos Community Hospital’s interim executive director, urged the commission at its Nov. 14 meeting to save the healthcare district, calling it a community asset.
“The county should be supporting the local community efforts, see it (district) as a strength and work collaboratively with that,” she said. “… Keeping the control local indicates that you respect the voice of the community, that you respect the efforts by people who live in the community and serve the community. Why not put it to a vote, let the community decide?”
District board member Patt Young called the dissolution and the transfer of the district to the county, which the commission approved in mid-September,  a “power grab.”
“If you truly respect the voices of the district’s residents, you will stop the dissolution,” she said.
Los Medanos Community Healthcare District, which has served Pittsburg, Bay Point and parts of Antioch, Concord, Clayton and Clyde since 1948, is the last survivor of three county health care districts. It operated the Pittsburg hospital from 1948 until 1994, when it declared bankruptcy and shuttered the facility. In 2000, a residents’ petition called for the district’s dissolution, saying it wasted taxpayers’ money, but LAFCO rejected it.
Seventeen years later, in the fall of 2017, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors applied to LAFCO to begin the dissolution process and transfer all of the district’s assets and debts to the county. Despite its past financial problems, the district still owns the former hospital building on Leland and Loveridge roads, though the county has leased it and operated a health clinic there since 1998.
Questions about what would happen to the county’s largest clinic, the Pittsburg Health Center, and myriad health and social programs operated by the district dominated the two-hour Nov. 14 LAFCO hearing, which saw more than a dozen speakers present their cases for and against dissolution. But because LAFCO already approved the dissolution on Sept. 12, the commission could only reconsider the matter based on new information that was previously unavailable.
Even so, Elizabeth Calciano of the Hensley Law group, special counsel for the district, urged LAFCO to reverse its decision, noting 11,000 signatures already had been collected in an effort to force a public vote on the dissolution.
“We ask you to slow it down and provide more time to really study this. What will be lost with this dissolution?”
Calciano also suggested there’s a conflict of interest because the district’s attorney went to work for LAFCO’s general counsel in September and did not resign from the district until October.
But Kara Ueda of BB&K, LAFCO’s general counsel, noted a firewall had been set up, the attorneys worked in different cities and the LAFCO voted for dissolution before the attorney went to work for the same firm the commission was using.
Others also urged LAFCO to allow voters to decide, noting they fear local health programs would be lost without the district.
Jeanette Ortiz of  Pittsburg said she goes to the Pittsburg Health Center on a regular basis, and fears what will happen if the county takes over.
“You want the building?” she asked. “Where is the healthcare going to go? We need a place to have our healthcare clinic. Stop this and let the community vote — give it back to the people because we are the ones supporting our communities — this is not a democracy —  this is more of a dictatorship.”
County Supervisor Federal Glover, however, assured her and others that the clinic was not going away.
“The grant program is part of the agreement of dissolution of the district,” he said. “…The services will still be provided — hopefully, a major enhancement of services will be provided.”
Supervisor Diane Burgis echoed that sentiment, noting that under the county, 85 percent of the grant funding will go toward nonprofit health programs and only 10 percent for administrative costs and 5 percent to reserves.
“We will be able to increase local funding to nonprofits by 70 percent,” she said.
As part of its Sept. 12 resolution dissolving the district, LAFCO expanded the number of local representatives from five to seven on a new citizens’ committee that would advise the county on the grants, and also stipulated that if the former Los Medanos Community Hospital hospital building were ever sold, proceeds would have to be used in the Pittsburg area for healthcare programs.
Earlier this year, a Contra Costa Grand Jury recommended that the beleaguered healthcare district be dissolved, noting it spends more on administrative costs than it allocates in grants, and no longer runs a hospital. The April 19 report also detailed what the jury called fiscal mismanagement, duplication of services and a lack of transparency.
The report was the fourth one critical of the district’s operations.
Former district board member Allen Tatomer said the district has had an “ongoing pattern of controversy” and “protectionistic behavior that spanned the past 20 years.”
“The district has refused to consider dissolution as an option for their future and has dedicated vast sums of money to (fight) efforts to call for its dissolution,” said Tatomer, who served from 2000 to 2005.
“It’s really time to close these superfluous and redundant healthcare districts, which seems to be a trend in this state,” he said. “They are no longer serving to manage the hospitals that they were created to serve.”
Commissioner Don Blubaugh said he understood the passion residents have for the healthcare district, but added that he stood by the earlier decision to dissolve it.
“When the county application came in — the district does not have clean hands — we had to look at the district’s history, the grand jury report,” he said. “What really matters is people who are being served by health care and not the bureaucracies that provide that service.”
November 20, 2018
East Bay Times
By Judith Prieve

[Santa Cruz County] Officials say around-the-clock liaisons unlikely

SANTA CRUZ — While crisis-intervention training has generated positive outcomes for county law enforcement, authorities do not believe existing mental health liaisons should be spread to all jurisdictions at all hours.
This week, a Santa Cruz County grand jury report generated responses — by five law enforcement agencies, Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency and Santa Cruz Regional 9-1-1 — to a report published in September that called on improved integration among law enforcement, behavioral health and telecommunications officials addressing mental health crises.
Authorities said it is too soon to assess the effects of newly implemented crisis-intervention training designed to reduce risks when police respond to mental health crises.
“While the goal of (the training) is to increase safety encounters for the public and law enforcement officers, we do not yet have sufficient data to make conclusions about whether the training has yet resulted in less use of force,” Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills wrote in his response to the grand jury report.
Most 911 calls regarding behavioral health crises involve people who pose no threat to others, the grand jury reported in September in Mills also recommended that law enforcement continue to be called to emergencies that might involve behavioral health problems.
“We would not consider dispatching an officer to be overuse of resources should the call turn out to require a strictly clinical response,” Mills wrote.
The grand jury recommends the county’s Behavioral Health Mobile Emergency Response Team expand services to include 911 calls. The idea: Allow the response team to send staff with a officer to 911 calls for non-threatening crises, a classification that would need to be established the Santa Cruz Regional 911 system to reduce the burden on law enforcement.
The grand jury report also called for Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency, the behavioral health oversight for services and contracted care providers, and the county’s five law-enforcement agencies to create a plan to make mental-health liaisons available to respond to 911 calls at all hours in all jurisdictions. Five liaisons work with Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, and Santa Cruz and Watsonville police.
The county launched a program in 2013 for liaisons to accompany peace officers on 911 mental-health calls. The county funds half of the program; each law enforcement agency covers remaining expenses.
Mills, in response, said law enforcement should be able to continue to improve services and did not agree that the liaisons should be dispatched to all jurisdictions at all hours as needed.
“We will continue to make data-driven staffing decisions in conjunction with our partners and should the need for re-evaluation occur, we will do so,” Mills wrote.
Scotts Valley Police Chief Steve Walpole wrote that there is not an “overuse” of law enforcement hours without the Mobile Emergency Response Team being dispatched through 911. Watsonville Police Chief David Honda made the same point in his response: “It is difficult to determine the level of threat or imminent threat to life until someone who is trained arrives on the scene to evaluate. So, from a safety perspective an officer will most likely be dispatched to a call with MERT until the threat level has been determined, not changing or lessening the use of law enforcement.”
Behavioral Services Director Erik Riera, in his response, disagreed with the grand jury’s recommendation for a hired contractor to operate the county’s behavioral health unit to enhance transparency of services.
“The contracts for operation of the behavioral health unit and crisis stabilization program are approved by the board of supervisors and available to the general public, and include provisions for state-required disclosures, complaint processes and more,” Riera wrote. “Contracting for medical services is not unusual in Santa Cruz County or in any other county. We believe this provides medical expertise and improved care for clients as well as reducing costs for taxpayers, including future retirement obligations.”
November 20, 2018
Santa Cruz Sentinel
By Michael Todd

Thursday, November 22, 2018

[Tuolumne County] Sonora Council Seeks More Time And Options Related To TCEDA

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
Sonora, CA — The Sonora City Council will continue discussion about potentially leaving the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority at its meeting on December 3rd.
This evening the council gave consensus that it would like staff to come up with an initial list of alternatives to continuing the economic development joint powers agreement with the county. In addition, the city plans to ask the county to reduce the period of time required to give notice for exiting the TCEDA. The JPA agreement calls for 180 days notice before the new budget starts on July 1st, but it was noted tonight that financial and management audits being conducted following the recent Grand Jury report may not be completed before then. The city plans to request the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors reduce it to either 90 or 120 days.
Three members of the public spoke at tonight’s meeting. Ken Perkins, who filed a transparency lawsuit against the TCEDA, argued that no additional information should be necessary following the Grand Jury Report and urged the council to move toward exiting the TCEDA. Next, former council member George Segarini praised the benefits of staying in the JPA, and took offense to the argument that the Grand Jury report was “bad.” He stated that procedural changes should and would be made. The final speaker was Diana Cooper, an instructor at Columbia College, who stated that the financial cost of being in the TCEDA has not brought relative economic benefits.
The council consensus to seek alternatives, and additional time, was unanimous, 5-0. A majority of council members indicated that if the county declines the request to reduce the required time, it would increase the likelihood of the city leaving the TCEDA. The JPA has been in place since September of 2008. The city currently funds about $103,000 and the county covers $345,000.
November 19, 2018
By BJ Hansen

Sunday, November 18, 2018

[Tuolumne County] Sonora officials to discuss leaving TCEDA

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report on the TCEDA. The report has been the subject of much public attention and many local media reports.
City officials are going to ask Sonora City Council members Monday if they want to consider ending the city’s involvement with the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.
If so, a decision on the matter would be made at a meeting in December.
The council has until Dec. 31 to notify the county if it wants to split from the TCEDA before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.
“We’ll be asking to see if there’s consensus from the council to consider their future participation in the EDA and what information the council will want to make that decision,” said City Administrator Tim Miller of what’s planned for the regularly scheduled meeting on Monday.
County Counsel Sarah Carrillo, whose office provides legal advice to the TCEDA, recently said the agency and its governing board would effectively be dissolved if the city opts out of the agreement with the county.
Choosing to leave the TCEDA would save the city nearly $103,000 a year that it contributes to the agency’s $460,000 annual budget. The money comes from the city’s General Fund that pays for services like police, fire, public works, and employee salaries and benefits.
The TCEDA is a joint powers authority formed in 2008 as a partnership between the city and county aimed at fostering economic development and growth in the area.
Some citizens have urged the city to leave the TCEDA following the release of a report by the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury in June that raised concern about how the agency conducts business.
Defenders of the TCEDA who have spoken at public meetings since the release of the jury’s report say they’ve received assistance from the agency that’s helped their businesses thrive.
Any decision the council makes about the TCEDA will likely have to come before the completion of a pending management audit that was recommended by the jury. Some on the council, including Mayor Jim Garaventa, have expressed a desire to review the results of the audit prior to deciding whether to stay or leave.
The jury’s report on the TCEDA noted concerns related to transparency and measuring outcomes, use of public funds, the terms of TCEDA Executive Director Larry Cope’s contract and its structure as a JPA with its own rules of governance that don’t always reflect the best practices followed by the city and county.
Some of the more controversial findings in the report were that Cope was allowed to sign his own expense reports, claim all but four days as work time while he was in England for a month last year, cash out 720 hours of vacation time from 2015 to 2017, and spend more than half of the TCEDA’s meal expenses in 2017 on board members, elected county supervisors and government employees.
The jury’s concerns about a lack of recordkeeping to track the TCEDA’s performance over the years also closely matched the claims of a lawsuit filed against the agency that was filed several weeks prior to the release of the report by Ken Perkins of Sonora.
Perkins sued the TCEDA for withholding information he requested under the California Public Records Act that would support a November 2017 report by Cope that stated the agency was involved with nearly $400 million in capital investment projects, creating more than 2,000 jobs at an average wage of about $21 an hour.
The TCEDA released spreadsheets that stated it had provided assistance to business projects within the city limits totaling $58 million in capital investment and creating more than 400 jobs over the years.
All of the names of projects and businesses in the spreadsheets were redacted because the TCEDA said revealing them would compromise the confidentiality of the private companies it has helped.
Cope said in an interview with The Union Democrat after the documents were released that they did not account for all of the projects the agency has worked on, but only those he could remember when he created the spreadsheets starting in 2016.
The TCEDA settled the lawsuit with Perkins earlier this month after agreeing to pay about $7,000 for his attorney fees. The agency has also already paid $16,500 to an outside law firm for legal representation in the lawsuit, while the County Counsel’s Office has clocked about 135 hours dealing with the matter.
Some detractors have questioned the value that the TCEDA has provided to the city over the years and feel the money could be better spent on other priorities. The city has provided a total of nearly $760,000 to the agency since 2009.
The TCEDA’s annual budget has almost doubled from $232,000 in 2009, while Cope’s annual base salary has increased from about $93,600 to about $163,000. Tracie Riggs is set to make an annual base salary of $160,400 when she becomes the first female county administrator in Tuolumne County history next year.
November 16, 2018
The Union Democrat
By Alex MacLean

[San Bernardino County] San Bernardino County Grand Jury Receives Excellence in Reporting Award for its 2016-2017 Report Titled “Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department”

(Victor Valley)– 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 2-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 October 1st 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, member of the 2016-2017 Grand Jury, attended the conference and accepted the award on behalf of the San Bernardino County Grand Jury.
October 9, 2018
High Desert Daily
Staff reports
October 24, 2018
San Bernardino American News

Blog note: these are the second and third media articles this year on this CGJA grand jury report award.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

[Napa County] It's official - Napa Superior Court dismisses grand jury's charges against Assessor Tuteur

Assessor John Tuteur is officially free of the threat of removal from his elected office stemming from 2017-18 grand jury charges of “corrupt or willful misconduct.”
Napa County Superior Court Judge Mark Boessenecker on Thursday dismissed the case. He had said during a Nov. 9 hearing that he was inclined to take this action, but had some concerns with the wording of the dismissal order submitted by Tuteur’s attorney.
Tuteur on Thursday said the state Attorney General’s Office submitted a dismissal order and that is what Boessenecker signed.
“It’s unfortunate this process took place,” Tuteur said. “I’m glad it’s over. The time and money spent was wasted, but the results are what I had hoped for and expected.”
Court hearings in the Tuteur case lacked drama, given the accusations, Tuteur’s defense and the Attorney General’s Office response all came through court filings. Several hearings focused for the most part on whether the grand jury had to release investigative materials and transcripts.
Even the Nov. 9 hearing that focused on the charges themselves proved short and without tensions, given the Attorney General’s Office had already decided the evidence presented to the grand jury didn’t warrant prosecution.
The grand jury made four accusations against Tuteur last March after an Assessor’s Office employee approached the grand jury with complaints against Tuteur.
One grand jury charge involved a 2008 error assessing a cell tower lease on the Tuteur family’s south Napa County ranch. The Assessor’s Office found the error in 2016. The grand jury accused Tuteur of failing to pay $20,000 in back property taxes.
Tuteur’s defense said the chief appraiser continued working on the complicated corrections until this year. The ultimate back tax ended up being $1,453.
The dismissal order says the count “fails to allege willful misconduct by the defendant and is not supported by sufficient admissible evidence.”
Other accusations involved how Tuteur has administered the state’s Williamson Act, which provides a tax break to farm owners in exchange for keeping land in agriculture.
For example, 80 percent of vineyard property owners and 40 percent of grazing land owners failed to return complete questionnaires with agricultural income information in 2016. Tuteur failed to take action to make these Williamson Act beneficiaries comply, the grand jury charged.
The dismissal order says the count “fails to allege a mandatory duty of the defendant and is not supported by sufficient admissible evidence.” It uses similar language for the remaining two counts.
Tuteur has been Napa County Assessor since 1987 and won another four-year term last June. The office also includes the Recorder/County Clerk office that has Tuteur overseeing elections as the Registrar of Voters.
The grand jury also brought up Williamson Act issues in a separate report not involving the Tuteur charges. The county Board of Supervisors disagreed that the agricultural tax breaks have lax local oversight, cost taxpayers and do little to buttress existing laws protecting wine country farmland from development.
November 16, 2018
Napa Valley Register
By Barry Eberling