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
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors at its board meeting earlier this week accepted a report from the Juvenile Hall Ad Hoc Committee that recommended the county keep open Mendocino County juvenile hall.
The board also approved a resolution directing county staff to prepare future county budgets with funding to operate juvenile hall and to continue looking for ways to fully utilize the juvenile hall campus. The resolution is a positive sign for the continued operation of juvenile hall and comes after discussions and consideration earlier this year that the board might decide to close the facility to save money.
One of the turning points in deciding if juvenile hall should close was a Mendocino County grand jury report earlier this year that recommended that the county keep the Juvenile Detention Facility on Low Gap Road open. The grand jury worried about the long-term effects of the closing and the troubling sign that the proposed closing prioritized cutting costs rather than helping kids in need.
The grand jury found that juvenile hall closing would increase cost and hassles for the county. Mendocino County juveniles would have to go to a neighboring county’s juvenile hall, incurring extra costs and making it more difficult for Mendocino County juvenile hall staff, court-appointed attorneys and families.
Supervisor Georgeanne Croskey, a member of the Juvenile Hall Ad Hoc Committee alongside Supervisor Dan Gjerde, said it makes sense for the juvenile hall to remain open at this time.
“Given the cost-cutting of the juvenile hall and for a variety of reasons we all agreed that the best course of action was to keep the juvenile hall open as long as the funding and need was there,” Croskey said.
The cost of possibly reopening and the expense of moving to Sonoma County were factors in the ad hoc committee’s decision to recommend keeping juvenile hall open, but the board still wants to figure out ways to make juvenile hall more financially feasible for the county.
“What we need to do next though is, if we decide to keep it open is how do we continue to make that budget something that is doable for the county. We’re not ever going to be making money on juvenile hall, and that’s not the point,” Croskey said. “But we can’t keep spending as much money as we are for just the 12 to 14 kids, so we need to try and repurpose juvenile hall that we are currently not using.”
Mendocino County Chief Probation Officer Izen Locatelli said that while the juvenile hall is $29,000 over budget in initial budget reports, that is mostly due to staff turnover and resignations. Fewer people working in juvenile hall means more overtime and costs for the county.
The board also passed a resolution that disbanded the Juvenile Hall Ad Hoc Committee but with the intention of creating a new ad hoc committee in the coming months for further discussion on how to make juvenile hall more cost-effective. Gjerde said that having a new juvenile hall ad hoc committee would help juvenile hall staff save money.
“It may well be appropriate for the board next year when it’s looking at committee assignments and forming ad hoc committees, we will have two new board members, to possibly create an ad hoc to look not at closing the hall but at still working with staff who are already looking at other ways to more fully utilize the portion of the hall that is not used and also just bring in additional funds,” Gjerde said.
November 15, 2018
The Ukiah Daily Journal
By Curtis Driscoll
[Butte County] Grand Jury Report in 2009 Highlighted Fire Risk in Paradise, but Evacuation Plans Still Fell Short
The vulnerability of the people living in and near Paradise, California, to a major wildfire was made clear in a 2009 investigation. Still, the warning and evacuation process — including steps taken since the report — failed to prevent dozens of fatalities in the fast-moving Camp Fire that ripped through the city Nov. 8.
As of Wednesday evening, the fire was 35 percent contained after having burned across more than 215 square miles (138,000 acres). The Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, with at least 56 fatalities and at least 10,321 structures destroyed.
One of the biggest problems in evacuating the Paradise region is sheer geography. As NPR reporter Paige St. John put it, “The problem in Paradise is that you can't get out. ... Once they needed to move and you had an entire town that needed to get out all at once, the roads quickly turned into parking lots.”
Much of Paradise was built during a growth spurt in the 1960s and 1970s, when the city’s population tripled from about 8,000 to around 24,000.
The most populous part of Butte County’s higher terrain includes Paradise (population around 26,000 as of 2008) and a set of smaller communities just to the north (total population about 18,000 as of 2008) that are known collectively as the Upper Ridge.
A route called the Skyway connects the Upper Ridge to Paradise, then continues toward the Central Valley as a broad, four-lane divided highway. Many people used the Skyway as an escape route from the Camp Fire.
The multi-pronged wildfire risks of Paradise and surrounding areas were studied in 2009 by one of the grand juries that are routinely impaneled each year to investigate civil and criminal matters for Butte County. In 2008-09, the county’s grand jury looked into wildfire and safety considerations in response to devastating fires in June 2008 across the Sierra foothills that make up the northeast half of the county.
The 2008 blazes, including the Humboldt Fire, burned more than 93 square miles (59,500 acres) in Butte County and destroyed at least 74 homes in the Paradise area. The only fire-related fatality was a woman who died of a heart attack while trying to flee, although her home was not in an evacuation zone, according to SFGate.com.
In contrast to the Camp Fire, which moved into Paradise from the northeast, the Humboldt Fire approached town from the southwest.
“By some miracle, the Humboldt Fire Incident did not cross the West Branch of the Feather River,” the jury noted in its report. “Had this occurred, property damage could have been huge and thousands of lives could have been threatened in Paradise and the Upper Ridge.”
Highway Evacuation Options Are Limited in Rugged Terrain Near Paradise
Although hundreds of people successfully escaped the 2018 Camp Fire via the Skyway, some did not make it. Three other paved routes extend south from Paradise—Neal Road, Clark Road, and Pentz Road—but they are far less suited for escaping a wildfire.
The 2008-09 jury noted that all three of these two-lane routes had narrow or absent shoulders, moderate to sharp curves, and fire hazards adjacent to the roadway (steep slopes and dense fire fuel).
In the Upper Ridge area, Skyway is the only major evacuation route leading south from the foothills. The jury noted that current building requirements specify at least two exit roads from any developed area.
During the 2008 Humboldt Fire, the Skyway, Neal Road, and Clark Road had to be closed in that order, so all of the traffic evacuating through Paradise was forced onto Pentz Road, whose posted speed limit was 40 mph.
“It took three hours for vehicles to travel from the intersection of Pentz Road and Skyway to Highway 70, a distance of about eleven miles,” the jury observed. “This is an effective speed of approximately 4 mph.” During the Camp Fire, the Pentz Road area was part of the first zone to be evacuated, at 8:03 am, about 90 minutes after the fire was first spotted.
Among the jury’s recommendations in 2009 were that the county work on creating emergency evacuation plans for all of its high-risk fire areas. Paradise did develop just such a plan, and the city tested it in June 2016. “We even took one of our peak morning hours and made the road a contraflow…so we could show our citizens how it was going to work,” Paradise mayor Jody Jones told NPR.
“What happened, though, is typically you are evacuating a zone or two or three zones. You're not evacuating an entire town all at the same time.”
Communications Limited as Fire Swept Toward Paradise
As the Camp Fire grew rapidly and spread toward Paradise and the Upper Ridge on Thursday morning, evacuation messages were reportedly sent to both land-line phones and cell phones through the county’s CODE RED mass notification system. However, it appears that officials sending the CODE RED messages and going door to door were hard-pressed to keep up with the fire’s pace.
“I wish we had opportunity to get more alerts out, more warning out,” said Sheriff Kory Honea in a community meeting on Monday night, as reported by the Bay Area News Group. “We try to use any many systems as we can… But in the heat of this, it was moving so fast, it was difficult to get that information out.”
Moreover, residents with cell phones had to have signed up in advance in order to receive the phone alerts. A state law passed in September will allow counties to automatically sign up residents whose cell-phone numbers are associated with utility bills.
The overarching Wireless Emergency Alert system (WEA) for cellphones was not employed in Butte County during the Camp Fire, reported the San Jose Mercury News. The WEA sends certain emergency messages such as tornado and flash flood warnings to newer cellphones as long as the phone owners have not opted out of the service.
Some California counties have hesitated to use the WEA for fire evacuation out of concern it would serve as a blunt instrument, alerting too many citizens outside precise evacuation zones and causing traffic tie-ups. Sonoma County officials chose not to use the WEA during the catastrophic fires that struck in October 2017, including the Tubbs Fire—the state’s most destructive blaze on record prior to the Camp Fire.
Another option not employed in the Camp Fire is a “fire weather warning," a seldom-used product that can be disseminated by the National Weather Service at the request of local officials.
“Such a warning must be requested by someone outside of the National Weather Service, such as an emergency manager, rather than being initiated by Weather Service staff themselves,” Andrew Freedman noted in Axios. “That's the rule even if forecasters can see on Doppler radar or by looking out the window that a fire is headed for a populated area.”
The upshot is that many residents of Paradise apparently saw and heard little to nothing about the fires until the last minute.
“We didn’t get a robo call, announcement or any notice from Cal Fire or city," one resident told the Mercury News. "We had to find out about it second-hand.”
November 14, 2018
The Weather Channel
By Bob Henson
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
LAKEPORT — At a Thursday Nov. 8 meeting, the Lakeport Unified School District board reported after closed session that a new principal had been chosen to fill the position left vacant after former principal Rachel Paarsch was demoted for undisclosed personnel reasons.
The district is hiring Scott Johnson, who until June 2018 was principal of Lawrence E. Jones Middle School in Rohnert Park. According to his resume, Johnson taught the 7th and 8th grades in Somerset from 2001 to 2011, at which point he moved into administration at Rohnert Park as an assistant principal. Johnson received his bachelor’s and teaching credentials at CSU Stanislaus, and later obtained a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at CSU Sacramento.
According to Johnson’s resume, his work as a principal has been focused, at least in part, on improving attendance. During Johnson’s three years as principal at Lawrence E. Jones, his resume states that he “led the school’s reduction of truancy by 72 percent and chronic absenteeism by 84 percent.”
As described in the Lake County 2018 Grand Jury Report, chronic absenteeism and truancy figure as a major financial blow to school districts around Lake County—having potentially cost public schools $5.4 million in the 2016-2017 school year alone. According to the Grand Jury Report, the Lake County Office of Education has ‘indicated they had an ongoing concern for this issue” of absenteeism.
Public comment at the meeting Thursday urged the board not to make what was seen by some in the audience as a hasty hiring decision, but to wait to make the call until the new board—which will include three new members—has assembled at its December meeting.
Thursday’s meeting marked the stepping-down of former board president Dennis Darling and former board members Tom Powers and Lynn Andre following the election of Dan Buffalo, Carly Alvord and Jen Hanson to the board.
In another item Thursday, the LUSD board approved an action to post signs in seven parking lots on LUSD property that will notify drivers of the possibility of having their cars searched by school officials. The approved signs will read, pursuant to California Vehicle Code Section 21113(a), that “by entering this area the person driving any vehicle is deemed to consent to a complete search of the vehicle, all its compartments, and contents, by school officials for any reason and at any time.”
Casting the only negative vote, board clerk Phil Kirby likened the signs to “big brother.” and added that he found the action “too over encompassing.” The signs will be posted in parking lots at the District Office, the Transportation Department, Clear Lake High School, Terrace Middle School, Lakeport Elementary School, the Lakeport Alternative Education Center/Student Services, and the Instructional Support Office.
November 13, 2018
Lake County Record-Bee
By Aidan Freeman
Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
Some members of the public say the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority Governing Board could be more welcoming and less defensive if it wants more people to attend and provide input at its meetings.
County Supervisor John Gray, chairman of the TCEDA board since 2014, got into a tense interaction with Barbara Dresslar, an outspoken critic of the organization, Friday morning at the board’s regular monthly meeting after telling her she couldn’t give a three-minute speech she had prepared regarding the 2018 Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury’s report on the agency.
The meeting agenda included an “update on grand jury response activities” to discuss and give possible direction on eight recommendations made by the jury, each of which were listed individually.
After the first item — a nearly 30-minute review of the TCEDA’s website — Dresslar tried to argue with Gray to let her give her speech in whole, but Gray said she would limited to talking about each specific topic individually after the board discussed them.
“I am the chairman, I will decide how we run this,” Gray said in a stern voice. “You’re going to discuss these items as we discuss them. If not, we’re going to be all over the board. So if you have a comment on number one, the website, please make those statements now. Thank you.”
Dresslar went back to her seat and left the meeting moments later. Gray also called for the board to take a 10-minute break after the confrontation.
In the hall outside of the county Board of Supervisors chambers, where the meeting was held, Dresslar said she felt the TCEDA board was trying to “compartmentalize the discussion” despite saying at recent meetings that it wanted more involvement from the public.
One former TCEDA board member rebuked critics last month for not attending the board’s meetings and providing input prior to the release of the jury’s report at the end of June.
“I feel like I’ve been shut out, and feel like that’s unfortunately typical,” she said. “It’s emblematic of how the TCEDA is treating public input.”
Dresslar said she didn’t believe she would be allowed to give her full speech during a time at the start of the meeting set aside for public comments because they aren’t allowed to be related to anything on the agenda under the rules of the Ralph M. Brown Act, a California law that governs open meetings of public entities.
The law also requires entities to allow some time for members of the public to give comments on each agenda item while it’s being discussed.
County Counsel Sarah Carrillo, who was in attendance throughout the roughly two-and-a-half-hour meeting, said Gray’s denial of letting Dressler give her speech in full wasn’t a violation of the Brown Act, because the agenda delineated each topic that was to be discussed related to the grand jury report.
Carrillo said the law allows the board to use its own discretion and could have allowed her to give the speech, however.
After the meeting, Gray defended his decision to not give Dresslar a few minutes. He said he prefers to stick to what’s on the printed agenda when he runs public meetings, which he also does as the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.
“I’m a pretty nice guy, I don’t browbeat people, but I’m never going to be one to be browbeaten,” he said. “If it offends you that I run a structured meeting, that’s your problem.”
Gurbax Sahota, president and CEO of the California Association for Local Economic Development, later gave a presentation to the board during a discussion about a pending audit of the TCEDA’s management practices.
Sahota suggested four economic development agencies in other counties that could be used by MGO, the independent auditing firm hired to conduct the audit, to compare with the TCEDA’s practices.
The board decided to select all four agencies, which are located in Siskiyou, Madera, Mariposa and Stanislaus counties.
The management audit was recommended by the jury after it identified potential concerns related to management oversight, such as budget control, terms for the chief executive officer’s contract, and board personnel evaluation processes.
Among the findings were that Cope was allowed to sign his own expense reports, claim work time telecommuting during a month in England last year, and used public funds intended for entertaining clients and business prospects to pay for the meals of county supervisors and TCEDA board members.
Other potential concerns identified in the report included balancing the needs for public openness with private industry needs for confidentiality and having unique policies that don’t align with the best practices followed by the county and City of Sonora.
The county and city formed the agency in 2008 through a joint-powers agreement. About $103,000 of the TCEDA’s $460,000 comes from the city, while the county funds the most of the remaining amount.
Several people, including Dresslar, have urged the Sonora City Council at recent meetings to break from the agreement and stop funding the TCEDA. The city would have to give the county six months notice before the start of the next fiscal year under the terms of the agreement, which would be Dec. 31 this year.
Carrillo clarified at the meeting that if the city were to leave the TCEDA, the agency would effectively be dissolved. The county could then decide whether to form a new entity on its own.
Sahota noted the agency in Stanislaus County is a nonprofit organization, which she suggested could be a model worth exploring considering the current questions over the city’s continued involvement.
County Administrator Craig Pedro also gave a lengthy speech at the meeting about the various public and private organizations in the county and provided a nine-page document that listed the types of ways each contributes to economic development.
“This is a really valuable document,” said TCEDA board member Barry Hillman, executive director of the nonprofit HealthLitNow. “One of the concerns that I have is that while many of us who have been on the board for a considerable period of time recognize this aspect, unfortunately the agenda in the public eye has been controlled by a very narrow focus on what economic development is.”
Eileen Mannix, who serves on the Twain Harte Community Services District Board of Directors, thanked Pedro for including the agency she represents among those in the document.
Mannix then suggested that the TCEDA board should look at the recent attention being paid to it as a positive opportunity and “not be defensive and critical of the public.”
“The public is very interested, but it would be helpful if they were treated with respect and welcomed when they gave their comments,” she said. “I don’t feel that is always the case here.”
Earlier in the meeting, the two county supervisors and two members of the city council unanimously appointed Ron Patel as an at-large member after Jim Gianelli stepped down last month because he recently moved to another county.
Patel, who retired as chief executive officer of Black Oak Casino Resort in July, will serve a four-year term beginning next year.
He said in an interview as he was leaving the meeting that he applied for the position because he believed his experience working on the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians’ economic development projects over the past 17 years would be helpful to the board.
“I think I have the experience to contribute and help it move forward,” he said.
Another at-large seat on the board will be vacated at the end of the year by Dave Thoeny, who decided not to seek re-appointment due to time constraints from his jobs as executive director of Mother Lode Job Training and the Central Sierra Economic Development District.
The other three people who applied for a seat were Ryan Land, area manager for timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries, Marianne Wright, owner of Tar Flat Sonora and Servente’s Saloon in downtown Sonora, and Rob Hoerntlein, owner of Rainbow Communications in downtown Sonora.
Sonora Mayor Jim Garaventa and Mayor Pro-tem Matt Hawkins, the city’s representatives on the TCEDA board, suggested doing interviews with all of the candidates prior to approving Patel’s appointment.
“For fairness and to be on a level playing field, I would like to see some sort of interview process,” Hawkins said.
Gray and County Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who also serves on the TCEDA board, said they personally know both Patel and Land and suggested appointing the latter to the other remaining open seat.
“I think they would do a good job,” Gray said.
Garaventa and Hawkins suggested appointing Wright, because they felt she would be good for the position after having worked with her in the past, such as on the city’s former homeless task force, and said they didn’t know Land very well.
Brennan and Gray said they didn’t know Wright.
The city and county representatives on the board ultimately voted 3-1 to schedule interviews with the remaining three candidates at a future meeting, with Gray in opposition.
After that, the board approved a form that will be distributed to all local schools to request equipment from the TCEDA’s now-defunct InnovationLab.
Equipment that will be available includes computers, 3D printers, and other high-tech devices.
The Columbia Union School District previously requested the equipment, which is worth nearly $30,000, for a planned science, technology, engineering and math program.
Jo Rodefer, president of the Columbia Union School District Board of Trustees, was seated in the audience and left shortly after the discussion about the InnovationLab equipment. She is married to County Supervisor Karl Rodefer.
At the end of the meeting, the board members then held a separate meeting as the Economic Prosperity Council of Tuolumne County, which serves as the nonprofit arm of the TCEDA.
The council approved moving $29,500 from the nonprofit’s reserves to the TCEDA’s reserves, which came from two grants the council received to purchase equipment for the InnovationLab.
Larry Cope, executive director of the TCEDA and CEO of the council, has explained that the money to purchase the equipment was taken out of the TCEDA’s operating funds prior to the lab’s opening in 2014 and the grants were put into the nonprofit’s reserves.
Cope later suggested that the council members consider dissolving the nonprofit, with all of the remaining funds being moved to the TCEDA’s reserves for use at the board’s discretion.
Gray directed Cope to make a list of pros and cons for having the nonprofit and bring it back for the council to consider at its next meeting.
November 12, 2018
The Union Democrat
By Alex MacLean
[San Diego County] San Diego Voters Overwhelmingly Favored Measure J — Here’s What It Took To Get There
Blog note: this opinion piece references a grand jury report.
More than 85 percent of the San Diegans who voted Tuesday on Measure J approved it. That means billions of dollars in city contracts, purchases, sales and leases with private companies will become more transparent. Again.
It’s a long story.
Measure J was on the ballot because inewsource spent more than two years reporting that the city was ignoring its own charter — and had been for more than 24 years.
Our first story about this detailed how in 1992 a transparency law passed with more than 86 percent of the vote after the San Diego City Council almost entered into a real estate deal with an alleged mobster. (He also is the alleged godfather to Michael Jackson’s son Blanket, FYI).
The law, called Section 225, mandated every company doing business with the city disclose the name and identity of everyone involved in the transaction, along with the nature of those interests.
It was a way for the city leaders to know exactly who they were doing business with, and a way for taxpayers and journalists to monitor conflicts of interest, self-dealing and other possible malfeasance.
Except the law was never followed.
Through records requests, inewsource obtained the disclosure paperwork behind more than half a billion dollars in city business contracts. None of them had all of the information required under Section 225.
City officials blamed the language in the charter, telling inewsource it was “too vague” and nearly impossible to enforce. It needed cleaning up. Yet three city attorneys had previously pointed that out and recommended the council do something about it. None ever did.
inewsource asked repeatedly at that time to speak to Mayor Kevin Faulconer and all nine council members about the problem. Only Councilman David Alvarez and then-Council President Sherri Lightner agreed to talk. Lightner sent a memo to the City Attorney’s Office asking for specific recommendations and analyses on the topic.
Jan Goldsmith, the city attorney at the time, did just that. And nothing happened.
So inewsource again published a story. A month later, the San Diego County grand jury issued a report – “Stop Kicking the Can Down the Road: San Diego’s 1992 Transparency Law Must Be Enforced.” A jury member told inewsource our reporting was “a key element” in the grand jury’s research.
Over the next year, Councilwoman Barbara Bry helped shepherd a short-term fix into place, because a full resolution to the problem required adding clarifying language to the city charter, which meant a public vote. That vote – Measure J – passed Tuesday with more than 211,000 people in support.
And more than 36,000 people voted “no” for more transparency. Which seems weird.
If you were one of those “no” votes, we want to hear from you. Was the language confusing? Or did you see the measure as an unnecessary regulation? Email the reporter here.
We’d like to thank our readers and supporters for showing an interest in this series the whole way through, and for emailing and calling their council members, showing up to meetings and making their voices heard in the interests of transparency and good government.
Journalism alone can’t affect change. It also takes you.
P.S. There’s a lot we’re glossing over in the interest of keeping this brief. To see all the stories, radio features, TV appearances and related media in this investigation, go to this page. The overall series also picked up the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists’ First Amendment Award in 2018.
November 9, 2018
By Brad Racino
Monday, November 12, 2018
Assessor John Tuteur walked out of Napa County Superior Court with the cloud of possible removal from office, though not officially gone, rapidly dispelling.
Judge Mark Boessenecker said he’s inclined to dismiss the accusations of “willful or corrupt misconduct” by the 2017-18 grand jury against Tuteur. But the wording on paperwork describing the reasons for dismissal must be finalized.
Boessenecker during Friday’s hearing set the next court date on Nov. 19, with that hearing to be canceled if he grants the order for dismissal before then.
The state Attorney General’s Office would prosecute the case to remove Tuteur from elected office, if the case moves forward. But the Attorney General’s Office last month decided not to oppose Tuteur’s request for dismissal. Deputy Attorney General Caroline Chen held to that view during Friday’s hearing.
After leaving the courtroom Tuteur said he felt “wonderful,” despite the slow-motion court case conclusion.
“This is one of the highlights of my 40-year career, to be able to withstand unfounded accusations and show my service to the public has always been above-board,” Tuteur said.
Indeed, since the charges surfaced last March Tuteur has been energetic and upbeat during public appearances, whether he’s addressing the Board of Supervisors on assessor matters or, as the county clerk, urging young people at a high school to vote. He hasn’t looked like a man with a sword hanging over his head.
“It’s actually been an invigorating process,” Tuteur said.
Before Friday’s hearing, Tuteur sat on a bench in the courthouse lobby and chatted briefly with a grand jury member. The Assessor’s Office employee who brought the accusations against Tuteur to the grand jury watched the short court hearing.
One of the grand jury charges said Tuteur in 2008 performed an assessment of his income stream from a cell tower lease on family property. That represented a conflict of interest.
In addition, Tuteur made a mistake in the assessment that wasn’t discovered until 2016. He then failed to pay $20,000 in back taxes, the accusation said.
The Attorney General’s Office in an Oct. 19 court filing said the conflict-of-interest allegation isn’t supported by evidence. Furthermore, the statute of limitation for charges involving such conduct in 2008 has run out.
Evidence shows Tuteur was notified of the error and believed steps would be taken to correct it, the Attorney General’s Office filing said. The chief appraiser testified to the grand jury that Tuteur told him “to do what he had to do because it’s passed onto my tenant,” the filing said.
Tuteur’s defense in July said the final calculations show Tuteur owes $1,453 in back taxes, not $20,000. Tuteur on Friday said he has begun making payments.
The grand jury made three other accusations against Tuteur that it said warranted removing him from office. All involved how he handles Williamson Act contracts, which provide tax breaks for agricultural land. In each case, the Attorney General’s Office concluded the evidence doesn’t warrant the grand jury charge.
In separate action, the grand jury in March asked the Attorney General’s Office to file a civil lawsuit against Tuteur and his family to recover approximately $20,000 in back taxes it alleged resulted from the cell tower incident, plus penalties. Tuteur on Friday said no suit has yet been filed.
Tuteur served on the Board of Supervisors from 1973 to 1980. He became Assessor in 1987 and today is Assessor-Recorder-County Clerk.
November 9, 2018
Napa Valley Register
By Barry Eberling
Thursday, November 8, 2018
Blog note: this opinion piece references a grand jury report.
Big change is coming to Marin City’s Golden Gate Village low-income housing complex. It’s about time.
The present 300-unit complex is in a sad state. It has deteriorated due to lack of proper maintenance and simple old age. It’s not just a Marin failing. American investment in public housing under both Democratic and Republican administrations has been abysmal. That neglect has now resulted in $38 billion in capital needs to bring American public housing into conditions compatible with 21st century standards.
Public housing is considered a federal responsibility with day-to-day management conducted by local agencies such as the Marin Housing Authority.
Marin City as a home for a predominantly African-American population started as a World War II phenomenon. It initially provided homes for workers at Sausalito’s Marinship at a time of legally enforced residential discrimination. In the post-war era there were moves to build large low-income housing “projects” to provide subsidized homes for a burgeoning population. In 1960, Golden Gate Village opened as one of those federally backed developments.
Theoretically, the first public housing developments were designed as temporary homes until residents adjusted to the post-war environment and moved out. That rarely happened. Instead, the huge housing complexes became governmentally ignored ghettos of folks struggling to enter the middle class but effectively trapped in an underclass.
Society created this failed model and now it needs to deal with the real-world residents of those antiquated projects. The Marin Housing Authority has plans which, with a few important caveats, is a move in the right direction.
The Marin County Civil Grand Jury’s recent report, “Golden Gate Village, The Clock is Ticking,” reminds us: “Doing nothing is not an option.” The jury says it’s not just a lack of funding but distrustful residents. “The people living in this housing project suffer from a unique trauma stemming from multiple sources, including poverty, living conditions in these communities, a high level of unemployment, a mistrust of public policy, and a fear of displacement.”
There’s one fear that needs to be off the table. Current residents, if they continue to meet criteria for subsidized housing, need guarantees that, as the grand jury report said, “no tenants in good standing are displaced from the GGV property while their homes are rehabilitated.” The county has made this commitment, but it needs to be iron clad.
Golden Gate Village’s 380 residents are no different from other Marinites: they resist change. Despite that legitimate emotion, Golden Gate Village needs to go in a different direction.
The 32.5-acre Marin City site has ample room for an entirely new three- or four-building complex with vastly improved apartments. Build them first, and then current residents could seamlessly move into their new homes when construction is complete. Phase two would include complete rebuilding of the old “historic” complex, including 120 new units of both market-rate and affordable varieties. Including a mix of units not only makes the potential $120 million project more doable, but perhaps as important, integrates Golden Gate Village economically, racially and culturally.
November 6, 2018
Marin Independent Journal
By Dick Spotswood
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
Several people want the City of Sonora to depart from the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority before ongoing financial and management audits of the agency are completed.
The comments were made to the Sonora City Council at a public meeting on Monday night, during which the council also approved what will be the city’s first officially permitted medical cannabis dispensary.
“The Sonora City Council should put this issue on the agenda to vote now to separate from the TCEDA and insist on higher standards for future use of taxpayer funds,” said Barbara Dresslar, of Sonora.
If the council wants to stop funding the TCEDA, it must notify the county by Dec. 31 because the agreement between the city and county that created the agency in 2008 requires one of the parties to give the other notice at least six months before the start of the next fiscal year.
Fiscal years start on July 1 and run through June 30 the following calendar year.
The controversy stems from a Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury report released at the end of June that detailed a monthslong investigation of the TCEDA’s practices and effectiveness.
One of the recommendations made by the jury was to conduct a management audit based on potential problems identified in the report related to a lack of transparency, accountability, budget control, and effective oversight.
Among the findings were that the TCEDA Governing Board had allowed its executive director, Larry Cope, to sign his own expense reports, spend a month in England while claiming most of the time as remote working and comp time, and purchase meals for TCEDA board members and elected county supervisors with money from the agency’s budgets that’s intended for entertaining clients and business prospects.
The jury also reported that the TCEDA’s unique policies as a joint-powers authority don’t necessarily follow the best practices of either the city or county.
Dresslar noted that the county’s General Plan stated that it had the second-lowest rate of growth of the surrounding six counties between 2009 and 2013.
Dresslar also cited a 2017 Caltrans socio-economic assessment that the population has declined at an average rate of 0.3 percent between 2011 and 2016, and projected that it would continue to decline through 2022.
“Over the forecast period, the population of Tuolumne County is expected to continue to decline, placing the county at serious risk of economic stagnation,” the Caltrans assessment stated. ”Average salaries in Tuolumne County are not expected to keep pace with the statewide average, and the local economy will become increasingly reliant on the government sector to provide new jobs.”
Some said they didn’t believe the city was getting a good return on investment for the amount of funding it provides to the agency, which has been $103,000 annually for the past two fiscal years.
The agency’s annual budget is about $460,000, 77 percent of which comes from the county.
David Morgan, of Sonora, said the city’s sales tax increased about $47,000 per year over the period Cope has been at the helm of TCEDA from 2009 to 2017.
Marvin Keshner, of Sonora, said he’s worked for major companies that would decide whether to invest in an area by looking at things like the conditions of roads, schools and recreational opportunities, such as arts and entertainment.
Keshner said the city should focus on improving those types of things before spending taxpayer money to fund an economic development authority.
Ken Perkins, of Sonora, also spoke to the council about his lawsuit against the TCEDA that was recently settled after the agency released redacted versions of public records it had initially claimed were confidential.
The TCEDA agreed to pay Perkins’ attorney’s fees amounting to about $7,000 as part of the settlement, in addition to about $16,500 in fees to an outside law firm that was hired to defend the agency.
Perkins said his lawsuit was no longer an issue, but the findings of the grand jury report still loomed large. He also urged the council to vote to exit the TCEDA before Dec. 31 and the findings of the audit are released.
“Remember that the citizens of that grand jury took an oath to the court system and said they would be honest and true to their investigation and report,” he said. “To think that an outside financial audit would find anything different than that grand jury achieved, I just think the results will be the same.”
The council did not respond to the comments made during a time set aside in the meeting for people to address the council on matters not on the meeting agenda.
November 5, 2018
The Union Democrat
By Alex MacLean
Wednesday, November 7, 2018
[Orange County] Federal Lawsuit Alleges Inmate Suicide Caused by Poor Jail Policies and Mental Health Care
Blog note: the article about a federal lawsuit references a county civil grand jury report.
A federal lawsuit over whether Orange County jail personnel failed to prevent the suicide of an inmate by providing inadequate psychiatric care will proceed to a trial, after Judge Cormac J. Carney issued a ruling throwing out some of the lawsuit’s claims but finding legal reasons to go ahead with several others.
The lawsuit, brought by the mother of inmate Ryan Hall, alleges the jail violated Hall’s rights to due process by failing to address Hall’s high suicide risk with adequate medical care and training for deputies on how to monitor and supervise mentally ill inmates. They also allege the county acted “with objective deliberate indifference” to Hall’s medical needs despite awareness of his severe mental illness.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun and Health Care Agency spokeswoman Jessica Good both declined to comment on the allegations of the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.
Hall was arrested in November 2014 for attempted murder and resisting arrest, and during his initial medical intake exam was found to be “gravely disabled and a danger to others,” according to a summary of the facts in the judge’s Nov. 1 ruling. He was housed in a mental health unit, known as Module L, for a day, and then moved to general population housing after another nurse cleared him for rehousing.
Five days later, Hall was hospitalized after a first suicide attempt and attempted to kill himself again at the hospital. Lawyers for his mother, Vilma Germaine-McIver, point to a five-week period between February and March 2015 after he returned to the jail, during which no psychiatrist met with him. During that time, he was visited by a licensed psychiatric technician about once a week, according to the judge’s summary.
The unit’s senior psychiatrist, Nabi Latif, was on leave during those five weeks, and as a result, Hall and other inmates in the units did not receive psychiatric care.
“Most problematically, HCA had no way to account for a psychiatrist’s absence. When a psychiatrist took leave, there was no policy to make sure that psychiatrist’s patients still received care,” Carney wrote. “Dr. Latif simply assumed others would notice.”
Hall was classified with a yellow band, meaning he had assaulted other inmates or deputies, and was as a result not allowed to attend group therapy. He repeatedly asked to be placed in housing with the general population because of the social isolation, but staff concluded he was “at high risk” and regular housing would not be safe, according to the judge’s summary.
Hall died in April 2015, while awaiting trial, as a result of his third suicide attempt in jail. Hall was seen around 7:10 a.m. leaving his cell for the dayroom and three minutes later told a jail staffer he was finished, returning to his cell. The door was remotely locked by the staffer.
At 7:15 a.m., an inmate spoke briefly to Hall; ten minutes later, that inmate alerted staff to Hall’s cell where several deputies, nurses, a psychiatrist and other staff found him hanging from a bedsheet stuck in the door, without a pulse and not breathing. He died days later at a hospital.
Four Orange County inmates committed suicide while in custody between 2011 and 2015, according to the judge’s ruling, with Hall’s death the most recent.
Attorneys for Germaine-McIver allege deputies could have prevented Hall’s death by checking on inmates more frequently. Deputies conducted a check on Hall’s cell between 6:45 and 6:50 a.m., and if cells had been checked every half hour, the next check would have occurred at 7:15 a.m., around the time of his suicide attempt.
State law requires jail personnel check cells once an hour. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice, in concluding an investigation into the 2008 death of inmate John Derek Chamberlain in a beating by fellow inmates, recommended safety checks be conducted every half hour. The DOJ also identified “systemic deficiencies” in jail medical care.
In response to the DOJ, the department did change procedures for safety checks, but at the time did not change the frequency of the checks, according to a letter from Hutchens to the DOJ filed as a court exhibit.
Problems with safety checks were recently raised in the January 2016 escape of three violent inmates from the Central Men’s Jail and the July 2017 killing of inmate Danny Pham by his cellmate.
In the jail escape, failures to conduct regular inmate checks were a major factor in the nearly 15-hour head start the escaped inmates had before their absence was noticed, according to an Orange County Grand Jury report.
Pham, who was close to finishing a six-month sentence for a non-violent auto theft, was injured around 7:20 a.m. on July 3, 2017, but it wasn’t until 11:10 a.m. that a jail employee noticed he wasn’t breathing and began administering CPR, according to a claim submitted by Pham’s family against the County.
The District Attorney later concluded it was Pham’s cell mate, Marvin Magallanes, who killed him. Magallanes has confessed to killing a homeless man.
Carney’s Nov. 1 ruling found there’s enough evidence for many of the plaintiff’s claims to go before a jury, including arguments that failing to perform safety checks put Hall and other inmates at risk of serious harm.
“In 2014, the DOJ recommended that staff on segregation units conduct rounds at least every half hour, but OCSD had not yet increased the frequency of safety checks in 2015,” Carney wrote. “A reasonable jury could find that the County was on notice that these practices would likely deprive constitutional rights and acted with deliberate indifference by continuing to employ them.”
The judge rejected a claim that the county failed in responding to Hall’s suicide in a timely manner, writing that despite his history of suicide attempts, “there is no evidence that the deputies knew or had reason to know that Hall was committing suicide at that particular moment.”
“Hall spoke with jail personnel and other inmates less than thirty minutes before his suicide attempt. There is no evidence that Hall indicated a desire to take his own life at that time,” Carney wrote.
The lawsuit alleges Kimberly Pearson, the deputy director of HCA responsible for correctional services, and Hutchens acted with “deliberate indifference” to Hall’s safety, intentionally making policy decisions that put him at risk and failing to act to reduce those risks.
Carney’s ruling limited the scope of the Pearson and Hutchens’ liability, however, to issues where the courts have established “clearly defined rights.”
“There is no clearly established right to the proper implementation of suicide prevention protocols, such as safety checks every thirty minutes or supervised lockdowns,” Carney wrote. “The existing precedent is not ‘sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood’ that these policies violated the Constitution.”
In other words, while these failures can amount to constitutional violations, they don’t necessarily amount to deliberate and intentional indifference to those rights, Carney wrote.
The trial is scheduled for Dec. 11, although trial dates are often subject to change.
November 5, 2018
Voice of OC
By Thy Vo
Blog note: the article references a grand jury report.
OC Supervisor Todd Spitzer is running head-to-head against District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for the DA’s job Tuesday, in one of Orange County’s most closely-watched races.
The face-off, years in the making, pits Rackauckas against his former heir apparent. The two had a very public falling-out in 2010, have feuded ever since, and the race is considered to be highly competitive.
Spitzer was about 3 percentage points behind Rackauckas in the June primary, and split the non-incumbent vote with two other challengers. Spitzer has spent more than twice as much campaign money as Rackauckas: $2.2 million to Rackauckas’ $984,000.
However, Spitzer’s spending and name recognition is far from a guarantee of winning. Incumbents traditionally have a strong built-in advantage to hold onto office, and Rackauckas has built a base of support among elected officials and business owners.
Whoever wins will lead the county prosecutor’s office, which has more than 850 employees and handles more than 60,000 criminal cases each year. The office has about 260 prosecutors and 120 investigators.
Both candidates have been elected officials in OC for decades, and their reputations are well-established.
Rackauckas was first elected DA in 1998, and over the last several years his office has faced accusations of cronyism and misconduct, especially as a number of criminal prosecutions were derailed by illegal misuse of jailhouse informants, known as the “jailhouse snitch scandal.”
A unanimous appeals court ruling found DA prosecutors systematically violated the constitutional rights of defendants through an illegal informants network, and failed to turn over evidence that was favorable to the defense, as required by law.
Illegal use of informants in Orange County has so far resulted in reduced or thrown-out charges in at least seven criminal cases – including one where a gang member facing two murder charges walked free – and potentially affected a dozen more cases.
In the prosecution of mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai, a judge barred the entire DA’s office was from prosecuting the case and later threw out the death penalty – a decision upheld on appeal.
Law enforcement actions in the OC informants scandal are under investigation by both the California Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Rackauckas has pushed back at criticism, pointing to a controversial Orange County Grand Jury report that dismissed the allegations of systemic informant abuse as a “myth” perpetuated by the media and the public defender’s office. The grand jury report did not discuss the unanimous appeals court ruling from seven months prior that had found systemic misconduct by the DA’s Office and Sheriff’s Department.
Rackauckas and his chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, are under state investigation for allegedly accepting illegal undisclosed gifts of private jet travel from billionaire Henry Nicholas, according to an Oct. 29 letter from the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. Nicholas was arrested in Las Vegas in August on suspicion of drug trafficking after police found heroin, meth, cocaine, and ecstasy in his hotel suite.
Rackauckas and Schroeder’s lawyer has said they did travel on Nicholas’ plane, but that the gift limit does not apply because of an exemption in state law for travel to speeches regarding legislative or governmental matters.
Spitzer previously worked for Nicholas, though the two had a falling out years ago.
One of Spitzer’s defining moments in office was when he handcuffed a Christian preacher at a Wahoo’s Fish Taco restaurant in 2015 for allegedly staring at Spitzer and a nearby table knife.
A sheriff’s deputy who responded to the incident said the knife on the table was a butter knife. A Wahoo’s employee told the deputy Spitzer decided to handcuff the preacher because he kept looking at Spitzer.
Spitzer disputed the description of the knife, saying it was a steak knife and that his actions were necessary to protect himself and others.
When news of the incident became public, Spitzer tried to send out a county-funded statement claiming he would have been justified to use deadly force against the preacher because table knives were nearby.
“Police officers are trained not to allow anyone either armed with a knife or ready access to a knife to come within 10 feet,” Spitzer wrote in the statement he wanted to send out. “Use of deadly force is justified under those circumstances.”
His proposed statement was titled, “I WILL NEVER TURN MY BACK ON THE PUBLIC OR ITS SAFETY.”
The county’s chief spokeswoman at the time, Jean Pasco, urged Spitzer not to send it out and warned it could expose the county to legal liability. Spitzer ended up not not sending out the statement.
Spitzer and his fellow supervisors fought the public release of the statement and emails, but Voice of OC sued under the state’s Public Records Act and after a year-plus court battle, a judge ordered the county to disclose the records. The supervisors spent over $120,000 in county taxpayer money trying to block the records’ release.
In the DA’s race this year, Spitzer has spent thousands of dollars on mailers and campaign ads focusing on the informant scandal and other allegations against Rackauckas, hoping to convince voters he would lead an honest and accountable prosecutor’s office.
Rackauckas, in turn, has invested in ads alleging Spitzer is “unstable,” “unhinged,” and asking people if they “have experience with him demanding campaign donations in exchange for official actions.”
Rackauckas’ ads level a specific claim about Spitzer’s mental health: that he failed multiple police psychiatric exams – an apparent reference to allegations about Spitzer’s time as a reserve police officer in the 1990s.
In text messages Friday, Spitzer said the psych exam clams are simply not true, and that he “never” was told he failed such an exam. What’s more, Spitzer said, he has been issued a concealed weapon permit and was brought back to the DA’s office in 2008 by Rackauckas himself.
“I have absolutely no mental illness whatsoever,” Spitzer wrote. “They know they’re going to lose on Tuesday and they’re going to lose badly and they are literally grasping at straws.”
One of Spitzer’s defining features is his ability to get his name and face onto TV news, which has been considered helpful for his name recognition in running for DA. His colleagues on the Board of Supervisors have taken notice.
“We would always warn people, when they came to the county [headquarters], to be careful not to be between Supervisor Spitzer and a TV camera, because you were guaranteed to be run over,” said state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), who served with Spitzer on the county Board of Supervisors, in a March podcast about Spitzer’s appearance at a Costa Mesa City Council meeting outside his district.
Moorlach laughed, adding: “So I would maybe also think twice this June when you…cast a vote for District Attorney.”
Among Spitzer’s highest-profile appearances were connected to controversies this spring over proposed homeless shelters in Costa Mesa and Laguna Niguel. Spitzer went to City Council meetings in those cities, which are outside his district, to warn residents of the dangers of homeless people.
In public comments before packed meetings, Spitzer labeled homeless people as “sex offenders,” even though there was one convicted sex offender among the several hundred homeless people in motels at the time who could have been eligible for the shelters.
And sex offenders would not have been allowed at the proposed shelters, according to county officials.
Spitzer was in a position, in the month between the first discussion of the shelters and when they were publicly proposed, to ask his colleagues to prohibit convicted sex offenders at the shelters, as the county does with its Bridges Kraemer shelter in Anaheim. Spitzer apparently did not do so, and went on to cite the risk of sex offenders in his warnings to residents.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents Laguna Niguel and other south county cities, has said Spitzer engaged in “fear mongering” when he went to the Laguna Niguel meeting in her district.
In response, Spitzer said at the time: “The fact of the matter is, I have every right to express my point of view throughout this county on particular issues, especially when it affects my votes.”
The winner on Tuesday will have a four-year term leading the DA’s office. The final result may not be known for days, given the large number of ballots that voters mail in close to and on Election Day.
November 5, 2018
Voice of OC
By Nick Gerda