Saturday, February 23, 2019

[Tuolumne County] TCEDA board to discuss termination of CEO’s contract

Blog note: This article continues the Union Democrat’s reporting on this issue related to a grand jury report.
Terminating the employment contract for the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority’s chief executive officer will be among the many things subject to negotiations between the county and City of Sonora over the coming weeks.
This comes after county and city elected officials voted unanimously on Tuesday to begin the process of dismantling the TCEDA, which was created in late 2008 through a joint powers agreement between the two governments.
Their decision to end the partnership followed revelations about the management practices and spending by TCEDA Executive Director Larry Cope, which were originally brought to light in a report by the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury released at the end of June.
The Union Democrat also conducted an extensive review of the TCEDA’s travel and expense records from the previous two years and published the findings on Tuesday, which included that Cope spent more than $100,000 over that period on trips, meals with mostly county officials, and other purchases.
County Counsel Sarah Carrillo said her office, which serves as the TCEDA’s primary legal adviser, is still wrapping their heads around all of the authority’s outstanding legal obligations that will have to be addressed as part of the dissolution process.
“That’s what we’re looking at right now,” she said.
Among the obligations Carrillo listed are leases for offices in downtown Sonora and Groveland, a contract with the Modesto-based Valley Sierra Small Business Development for consulting and outreach, and Cope’s employment contract.
Cope’s employer is the TCEDA Governing Board, as opposed to the city or county, and the board will no longer be a legal entity after the dissolution process is complete. He did not respond on Wednesday to a request for comment about what he plans to do next.
The terms of the contract stated that Cope is entitled to six months severance pay if the TCEDA board chooses to terminate it before the end of the agreed upon period of employment, which was amended in May 2018 to run through April 6, 2023.
There’s also a provision requiring the board or Cope to give 90-day notice if either wants to terminate the contract prematurely, which Carrillo said will be one of the things her office will have to get direction on from the TCEDA board.
“I think there’s probably some room to negotiate and make some changes to that, but that’s still direction we will need,” Carrillo said.
Cope earns an annual base salary $163,625. County administrator, health officer and psychiatrist are the only positions out of 441 that have a salary range higher than Cope’s, according to the county’s salary schedules.
County Administrator Tracie Riggs, who replaced Craig Pedro in January and is the first woman to hold the position, currently earns a base salary that’s about $3,000 a year less than Cope’s but is subject to annual increases that would eventually push her’s higher.
Carrillo said she believes the Ralph M. Brown Act, the California law that governs meetings of public entities like the TCEDA, allows the authority’s board to negotiate the termination of Cope’s contract in open session or appoint a labor negotiator to negotiate with him in private.
The board could negotiate directly with Cope at a public meeting because he’s considered an unrepresented employee, according to Carrillo, though he receives the same health and retirement benefits as other top county officials who are part of the executive/confidential labor unit.
Cope’s contract also grants him a $500-per-month car allowance and $200-per-month stipend for a cell phone and Internet, perks that most other county officials don’t receive.
Carrillo clarified that Cope couldn’t be automatically converted into a county employee. She said the Board of Supervisors would be required to first approve a job description for the new position and open it for recruitment.
If the board hired Cope as a county employee, Carrillo couldn’t say whether that would affect his severance package because the TCEDA is a totally separate legal entity from the city and county.
“I can’t say for certain whether or not it would, just that it has completely separate obligations,” she said.
City Attorney Douglas White said on Tuesday that the city would like to dissolve the TCEDA by the end of this month to save more taxpayer money from being spent on an agency that both governments believe should no longer exist.
City Administrator Tim Miller said the cost to the city is more than $8,000 for each additional month it remains operating.
Carrillo said the timeframe by the end of the month wasn’t realistic due to the amount of work still to be done. The Sonora City Council directed White to work with her and determine a deadline, which he plans to present to the council for approval at its next meeting on March 4.
“If we can do as much as possible in 30 days, that would be ideal,” Carrillo said on Wednesday. “I don’t know if that’s realistic … I want to be thorough in wrapping it up, and sometimes when you move too fast you’re not as thorough as you could be.”
The TCEDA board will meet at 9:30 a.m. Thursday and consider an urgency item to give direction on the process of dissolving the entity to Carrillo and her team. She said it’s unlikely they will cover everything and may have to hold special meetings in the coming weeks.
There will also be a closed session discussion about one case of “anticipated litigation,” which was put on the agenda days before the decision to dissolve the entity on Tuesday.
Carrillo could not discuss what the anticipated litigation is, other than that she wasn’t aware that anything has been filed with the court yet. Tuolumne County Superior Court records didn’t show any recently filed lawsuits against the TCEDA or Cope on Wednesday.
The Economic Prosperity Council of Tuolumne County, the nonprofit arm of the TCEDA, will also meet after the board’s meeting and discuss one case of anticipated litigation in closed session.
The council’s board is comprised of the same members of the TCEDA board, which currently consists of District 4 Supervisor John Gray, District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, Sonora Mayor and Councilman Jim Garaventa, Councilman Matt Hawkins, and at-large members Barry Hillman and Ron Patel.
It will be the first meeting as a member of the TCEDA board for Patel, the former CEO of Black Oak Casino Resort, who was appointed to replace former longtime board member Jim Gianelli in November.
Carrillo said her office has not represented the nonprofit organization in any legal matters up to this point, though she said it was unclear to her what happen if the TCEDA board decides they also want to dissolve the council.
February 20, 2019
The Union Democrat
By Alex MacLean

Thursday, February 21, 2019

[Alameda County] Richard Valle's Dual Allegiances

Elected supervisor from southern Alameda County also lobbies for recycling firm.

Blog note: this article references the Alameda County Grand Jury in a rather unusual way.
Five minutes before a sparsely attended Hayward City Council meeting two weeks ago, Richard Valle approached city officials just settling into their seats. Valle, the city's representative on the county Board of Supervisors, shook hands with a few and engaged in brief chit-chat. Then about 20 minutes later Valle, who also is President/CEO of the Union City non-profit recycling company Tri-CED, asked the city to approve a $2.20 average increase in recycling rates.
The council also approved a special request from Valle to let his company ship some unusable recycling materials to Pakistan for six months — a significant exemption from the city's longstanding environmental principles.
Valle's dual allegiances appear rife with potential ethical conflicts, primarily that of a powerful county supervisor lobbying cities in his own district on matters that affect his company's financial interests. As supervisor, he frequently casts votes that could benefit or penalize the cities he also appears before as CEO. While there is no evidence that he has used his power illegally or inappropriately, his oversized role in funding city safety services and affordable housing grants is clear.
"Every year a grand a jury is seated and every year I have this conversation," Valle said after last week's council meeting, referring to the Alameda County civil grand jury. "I've asked the same question to our general counsel, because I don't want to have any conflict."
From Hayward's perspective, there is no conflict because Valle's recycling company subcontracts to Waste Management, and therefore taxpayers are not directly paying Tri-CED, Hayward City Attorney Michael Lawson said.
However, former Oakland deputy attorney Mark Morodomi said Valle and other elected officials who also hold private-sector jobs have to maintain clear lines between both positions. "He has a right to have a personal business as long as he keeps it personal," Morodomi said.
While Morodomi believes Valle does not possess a clear conflict of interest, he disagrees that being a city subcontractor protects Valle. "The fact he's a subcontractor is not a lifesaver," Morodomi said. "Everyone knows the money is eventually flowing to his company."
When Valle addressed the Hayward City Council Feb. 5, several elected officials appeared to deliberately avoid referring to him as supervisor. One councilmember did so before quickly correcting herself, calling Valle the president/CEO of Tri-CED.
But Valle himself blurred the lines separating his two roles when he referenced his advocacy at the county level for an effort to lobby Gov. Gavin Newsom on growing concerns about a new Chinese recycling policy. Small-time U.S. recycling companies have been bedeviled by the policy, which was enacted last year.
"This industry is impacted statewide, nationwide and worldwide and the setbacks we're seeing is because of a lack of leadership," he said. "Nobody is championing this issue."
Valle had cited the onerous recycling policy as a pretext for the Hayward rate increase. The Personnel, Administration, and Legislation Committee of the Board of Supervisors last week backed the effort to take the issue to Sacramento. When asked about his dual allegiances, he said, "If I worried about what other people thought, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing."
Valle's request to increase Hayward's recycling rate by a total of 2.6 percent was roughly in line with the rate increased granted in the past few years. But his additional request to grant Tri-CED a six-month waiver to send leftover recycling material known as "unders" to Pakistan — which the council approved, 6-1, last week — is a deviation from the council's recent push for environmental sustainability and also presents a negative impact on the city's overall landfill diversion rate. Councilmembers regularly express their commitment to environment sustainability. The motto, "Keep Hayward Clean and Green" has long been a motto that also includes its own standing council committee.
Furthermore, Valle admitted not knowing whether the material will ultimately end up in a landfill overseas. "I don't know what happens on the other end," he said.
When asked by a councilmember why the material could not be sent to a recycling facility in Oregon, Valle said the cost would be prohibitive and delivery slow. Environmental regulations in the United States allow Tri-CED to send just one large shipping container full of material to Oregon, while operators in Pakistan will accept 20 such containers. Councilmember Aisha Wahab, the one official to vote against the six-month waiver, objected on the grounds that Hayward would be "dirtying up" another country.
Valle said large companies like Waste Management can subsidize recycling programs unlike their smaller competitors such as Tri-CED.
There's also the question of how Valle is physically able to serve as the CEO of a company while holding one of the most demanding jobs in Alameda County government. "I start at 4 a.m.; I'm going back to the office right now," Valle said following the Hayward council meeting, which concluded just after 9 p.m. "I do my very best at both of my professions and I do my absolutely to keep my nose clean."
Before serving as supervisor, Valle was a former Union City mayor and councilmember. Tri-CED also has a recycling contract with Union City which is due for renewal this summer. Union City expects roughly the same $2.20 rate increase request from Tri-CED.
After securing the rate increase and six-month window to divert recycling materials to South Asian, several Hayward councilmembers and department heads again exchanged pleasantries with Valle after the meeting. Wahab approached Valle and said, "Are you upset? Sorry I couldn't support the last part." No, said Valle. "Philosophically I don't mind. I can only give you the facts."
February 19, 2019
East Bay Express
By Steven Tavares 

[Tuolumne County] Unanimous: TCEDA dissolved

Blog note: The Union Democrat has been reporting on this issue for months following a grand jury report about TCEDA. This is the latest of many articles posted here.
Tuolumne County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday morning to dissolve the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority and end its partnership with the City of Sonora that was forged in late 2008.
The Sonora City Council voted 4-0 to withdraw and begin the process of shutting down the authority. Councilman Mark Plummer was absent.
One point of contention was how soon the authority will cease to exist.
City Attorney Douglas White recommended a deadline by the end of this month because it doesn’t make sense to continue giving taxpayer money to an agency that both governments agree should be shut down.
“If we mutually agree that it shouldn’t exist, we want to save as much money for taxpayers as we can,” White said.
County Counsel Sarah Carrillo addressed the council and said the recommended deadline wasn’t realistic because a number of issues need to be resolved, including any contracts, leases, and the potential severance package for Larry Cope, executive director of the TCEDA since shortly after its inception and currently its only employee.
Carrillo said she plans to discuss some of the process of dissolution at the TCEDA board meeting scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday.
The council ultimately accepted White’s suggestion to give him permission to meet with Carrillo and work out a mutually agreeable deadline, which he will then present to the council for approval at its next meeting on March 4.
Cope, who did not attend either meeting Tuesday, told The Union Democrat in an email prior to the council meeting that he had no comment on the board’s decision at this time.
His employment contract entitles him to up to six months severance pay if it’s terminated before the end of the agreed upon period, which is currently through April 6, 2023. The TCEDA board and Cope must give 90 days notice if either one wants to terminate the contract, according to the terms.
Cope is one of the highest paid employees in county government and receives a salary of $163,625 a year, in addition to health and retirement benefits, 40 days of vacation, and $8,400 in stipends for a car and cell phone.
Councilwoman Colette Such asked White about Cope’s severance package, which could be more than $80,000 under the terms of the contract.
White responded that Cope’s severance pay will have to be negotiated through the process of dissolving the authority and could be affected if the county decides to hire him as an employee for economic development efforts without the city.
District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who has served on the TCEDA board since January 2017, said in an interview prior to the council meeting that she would like to see Cope remain a part of the county’s future economic development efforts.
“I think he’s been effective at getting businesses to Tuolumne County,” she said.
Brennan also addressed the council Tuesday afternoon and said she doesn’t believe the board will draw out the process because the county wants to be as efficient with taxpayer dollars as possible, too.
County pulls the plug
Some county supervisors during the board meeting earlier in the day pointed the blame for the TCEDA’s demise on the city council, personal attacks against Cope, and a barrage of requests for public records that are occupying most of his and county staff’s time.
“I am very regretful it has come to this,” said District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, who serves as board chairman. “This is what happens when people do personal attacks on good people. I do believe Larry Cope is a good person who has done good things for this county, and I believe undoubtedly the economic development authority has done good things for this county.”
Rodefer also pointed blame on the TCEDA Governing Board and said, “If you’ve got a problem with the economic development authority, then you’ve got a problem with the board and the process.”
District 4 Supervisor John Gray, who has served on TCEDA board since 2011 and as its chairman since 2014, said he hated to see the authority end this way but believes it’s time for the county to do economic development without the city.
“Their contribution of 20 percent in the overall is quite small when you consider the amount of money that the county also infuses as far as legal counsel and HR,” he said of the other county departments that provide assistance to the TCEDA for free.
The board went into a closed session after the vote to discuss another matter.
Afterward, Gray declined to say what happens now with Cope’s job. He said he’s “fed up with economic development right now and moving onto the next subject.”
In response to a question from Supervisor Anaiah Kirk at the board meeting, Carrillo said her office has dedicated more than 300 hours to dealing with public records requests and other matters involving the TCEDA.
Carrillo said that would be about $38,000 if they billed the TCEDA for that time, which they do not.
The office has responded to 17 formal requests for information under the California Public Records Act since the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury released a report at the end of June about its investigation of the TCEDA.
Cope has said he spends as much 75 percent of his time now responding to the requests, as opposed to bringing economic development to the city and county.
Auditor-Controller Debi Bautista said her office had also spent about 250 hours on requests since that time. She added that included responding to a request for information from The Union Democrat during her day off on Monday.
Kirk said he wanted to see the authority stay intact and tighten its policies, but he said the drama surrounding it has become like “high school on steroids.”
“I think the writing’s on the wall, and if the city isn’t going to make a decision, we need to make the decision for them,” Kirk said before voting to withdraw from the joint powers agreement that formed the authority.
Almost all of the authority’s $460,000 a year annual budget is funded by taxpayer money from both governments. The city pays 23 percent, while the county covers the rest.
According to the joint powers agreement, if the county, city or both decides to withdraw, then all debts and advances of the authority will be paid and property will be divided between the county and city based on how much each has invested.
District 2 Supervisor Ryan Campbell said he found the current situation with the TCEDA “disappointing.”
After the meeting, Campbell said he was disappointed because he believed the authority started with the best intentions and had some early success before losing the public’s trust due to the way it was being managed.
Campbell said breaking from the agreement with the city now was the best of two bad options, because the county would have less time to come up with an alternate plan if the city decided to end the partnership later on.
“If that’s the direction we’re going, it’s best to rip the Band-Aid off now,” he said.
Barbara Dresslar, of Sonora, urged county supervisors to shut down the TCEDA prior to their vote Tuesday morning.
Dresslar talked about a review by The Union Democrat of Cope’s travel and expense records that found he had spent over $100,000 in 2017 and 2018 on trips, almost daily meals, and other purchases, including multiple computer tablets, a night vision camera and drone.
“Our local newspaper had to file through the California Public Records Act to bring the truth to our community about how TCEDA is wasting our community’s tax funds with a flat economy as the outcome,” she said.
Such, who attended the supervisors’ meeting, said after the board made its decision that the city isn’t making the public records requests, which she believed will continue to be filed if the county goes its own way without fixing the underlying issues.
“No one really brought up the issues at hand,” she said. “I don’t know how they read that article and feel like they don’t owe someone an apology.”
The reason county supervisors discussed the TCEDA at their meeting on Tuesday was to consider asking the city council for additional time to complete audits of the agency’s finances and management practices.
After the Grand Jury report was released, the TCEDA Governing Board hired the independent auditing firm MGO to conduct the audits for $41,000 at the request of the city council and Board of Supervisors.
Bautista said she believes the audits will be completed because there is a contract in place, the TCEDA board has not directed her to attempt to cancel them.
February 19, 2019
The Union Democrat
By Alex MacLean

[Tuolumne County] Audits of TCEDA still under way

The finances and management of the TCEDA are being scrutinized now after a Grand Jury report raised concerns about the transparency of the agency’s work and spending. The jury said it was difficult to determine the quality and effectiveness of the work due to lax oversight by the board and no true standards or a means for accountability.
The jury’s report noted there was no record of contacts or successes, and that the authority didn’t adhere to the same standards and operating practices of most taxpayer-funded entities.
Examples of the unique set of policies that TCEDA operated under included allowing the Larry Cope, the executive director, to claim working time for all but four days while in England for a month in 2017.
In response to the jury’s recommendation, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors and Sonora City Council called for the TCEDA board to hire an independent auditor to look at the authority’s finances and management practices.
MGO, which annually audits the county’s books, was selected by the authority’s board in September to receive the $41,250 contract.
The financial and management audits were initially expected to be completed before the end of December, which would have given enough time for either the county or City of Sonora to review the results and decide whether they would like to remain in the partnership.
Either government has to notify the other within 180 days of the beginning of the next fiscal year, which run from July 1 to June 30, making the deadline for a decision by Jan. 1.
County legal advisers say the TCEDA would effectively cease to exist if either party backs out of the agreement.
City council members felt pressure from some constituents to withdraw from partnership with the county before the completion of the audits out of a lack of confidence that the authority would make enough meaningful changes.
When it became clear the audits wouldn’t be completed by the Jan. 1 deadline, the council gave county supervisors an ultimatum — either extend the deadline by 90 days to April 1 or the city would leave the TCEDA before the end of the year.
The board agreed to extend the deadline but only by 60 days to March 1, because there was concern that any longer would interfere with the process of developing an annual budget and create more work for county staff.
Now, the financial audit isn’t expected to be completed until later this month and management audit by sometime in March.
On Tuesday, the board will consider asking the council for another extension to the deadline this time. It will also have the option of withdrawing from the agreement and ending the partnership with the city that formally began in late 2008.
The council is also scheduled to have a public meeting later on Tuesday to possibly consider the board’s request for another deadline extension, or determine what the next step will be if the board is the first to walk away.
February 18, 2019
The Union Democrat
By Alex MacLean

Saturday, February 16, 2019

[Tuolumne County] Tuolumne County supervisors to ask Sonora City Council for more time on TCEDA decision

Blog note: this article continues the journalist's dogged following of a 2018 grand jury report and responses about TCEDA – the results still to be determined.
It appears the Sonora City Council could get more time to decide on the city’s future participation in the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.
Both the council and Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors will hold public meetings on Tuesday and consider a second extension to the deadline for a decision because audits of the TCEDA’s finances and management practices are taking longer to complete than anticipated.
The board will meet at 9 a.m. on Tuesday to consider asking the council for additional time to complete the audits, followed by the council meeting at 5 p.m. that same day to consider either granting an extension or providing notice to withdraw from the TCEDA.
In December, the council requested a 90-day extension to the typical Jan. 1 deadline for providing notice of withdrawal from the authority. The board agreed to extend the deadline by 60 days to March 1, but now it wants to ask the city for more time.
The city or county are typically required to give notice of withdrawal from the authority before Jan. 1 each year under a joint powers agreement between both governments that formed the TCEDA in 2008.
Some city residents have urged the council to withdraw from the TCEDA following the release of a report by the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury in June that stated the authority lacked the public accountability, oversight and financial controls typical of most taxpayer-funded agencies.
As a result of the jury’s findings, the TCEDA Governing Board agreed in September to pay the firm MGO $41,000 to conduct independent audits of the authority’s finances and management practices.
The TCEDA would effectively cease to exist as a legal entity if either the city or county withdraws from the agreement.
Council members have expressed a desire to review the completed audits before making a decision on the city’s participation, which led to them requesting an extension to the Jan. 1 deadline mandated by the joint powers agreement.
Both of the audits were expected to be completed by sometime in February, but now the financial audit isn’t expected until the end of the month and the management audit until mid-March.
One of the reasons the board declined to give the council the full 90-day extension it asked for was due to concerns from county staff that the timing would conflict with the process of preparing the budget for the next fiscal year that begins on July 1.
The TCEDA’s annual $460,000 operating budget is funded almost entirely by both governments, with the city’s portion covering about $103,000. Some authority’s detractors say the city could put the money to better use by creating its own economic development program.
Unlike in December, one of the options that county supervisors will consider on Tuesday is providing notice the city of the county’s intention to withdraw from the authority.
A memo to the board from the County Counsel’s Office stated that much of the TCEDA Executive Director Larry Cope’s time since July has been occupied by the audits and fulfilling 17 requests for public records, as opposed to economic development.
The memo stated the board held its annual planning workshop from Jan. 23 to 25 at Rush Creek Lodge near Yosemite National Park, where it directed county staff to prepare an item for the board on whether it wants to remain in the partnership or create its own program for economic development.
The board meets in the supervisors’ chambers on the fourth floor of the County Administration Center at 2 S. Green St. in Sonora, while the council meets on second floor of City Hall at 94 N. Washington St.
February 14, 2019
The Union Democrat
By Alex MacLean

[Santa Barbara County] 800 new homes are coming to Guadalupe — and some are under $400,000

Blog note: this article references a Santa Barbara County Grand Jury report of a few years ago recommending that the City of Guadalupe dissolve. Here is a journalist in one county asking why a proposal in an adjacent county might work in her county.
The small city of Guadalupe is just steps away from the San Luis Obispo County line — a five-minute walk gets you to the heart of downtown — yet brand-new homes there easily cost $100,000 to $200,000 less than similar models in SLO County.
Prices in the Pasadera development range from $350,000 to $480,000 — without the homeowners association fees that can add hundreds of dollars to monthly housing costs.
“It’s probably the cheapest housing on the entire coast of California,” said former San Luis Obispo City Councilman Andrew Carter, who served as city manager of Guadalupe from 2013 until 2016.
Housing in northern Santa Barbara County has traditionally been much less expensive than residential real estate in neighboring San Luis Obispo County. Santa Maria, in particular, experienced a huge housing boom over the past 30 to 40 years — so much so that many San Luis Obispo residents have pointed to the city as an example of the type of growth to be avoided.
Guadalupe, though, hasn’t seen much in the way of residential development — until now.
Pasadera is approved for 802 homes, plus a school and small commercial center. So far, 120 homes have been built, with dozens more under construction. Another 80 per year will be added until the project is complete.
The new housing is expected to boost the population of the small, largely Latino farming community from the current 7,300 to around 11,000, and generate enough new tax revenue to bring economic stability to a city that would have gone broke a few years ago if voters hadn’t passed new taxes.
An oasis of affordability
Emma Reynoso was one of the first to buy in Pasadera; she has a two-story home with three bedrooms and an office. The cost: $378,000.
Reynoso and her husband moved from Hollister, where housing prices are much higher. Sadly, her husband died six weeks after the couple moved to Guadalupe, and she’s now considering moving back to Hollister, even though she loves her home in Guadalupe.
“It’s like being on vacation,” she said.
Pasadera homes are in the typical modern California mission style — earth tones with tile roofs, some with balconies, shuttered windows and double garages.
There are no golf courses, swimming pools or day spas, but there are views of sand dunes, the beach is five miles away, and the prices are right. That’s not been lost on house hunters priced out of the SLO County market.
Scott McKenzie, who works in the Pasadera sales office, estimates that 15 to 20 percent of buyers work in San Luis Obispo County, commuting to jobs at the California Men’s Colony, Cal Poly, even as far away as Atascadero.
From an urban planning standpoint, that’s not ideal.
Commuting puts more cars on the road, increasing gridlock and degrading air quality. And because commuters spend more time on the road, that leaves less time to spend with family, to get involved in community events, to walk the dog or work out at the gym.
Why not SLO?
But could a project like Pasadera ever take shape anywhere in San Luis Obispo County?
Craig Smith, the developer of Pasadera, is doubtful.
Land cost is one big reason; he bought 200 acres of Guadalupe farmland approximately 15 years ago, when costs were relatively low, and held on until the timing was right.
Also, water isn’t an issue there like it is elsewhere; the project has access to state water and well water.
The land is flat, which makes it easier to build.
And Smith encountered minimal resistance — no NIMBYS sought to block the project.
“Guadalupe has been very agreeable and enthusiastic about the project,” said Smith. “They want to see it succeed. It’s bringing new life into the community.”
Andrew Hackleman, executive director of the Home Builders Association of the Central Coast, isn’t completely ruling out a Pasadera-type project in San Luis Obispo County, but because land costs and fees are are higher here, it would be much more difficult.
The time it takes to get a project approved is another hurdle.
“Timing is everything, right? If they could get through the process in a year instead of six years ... that’s going to make a big difference in what they can sell (homes) for,” he said.
Guadalupe’s economy
While the small city once had a reputation for crime and corruption, that’s long past.
Today, Guadalupe consistently rates as one of the safest communities in the state in various quality-of-life rankings.
But it’s taken some big financial hits. It once had a thriving restaurant row anchored by the Far Western steak house — a landmark dining house that drew fans from around the Central Coast, much like Jocko’s in Nipomo, the Hitching Post in Casmalia and F. McClintock’s in Shell Beach — but the Far Western closed its Guadalupe restaurant years ago and relocated to Orcutt.
Now, the main tourist attraction in town is the Dunes Center, a museum that houses, among other things, a display of artifacts from the set of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments,” which was filmed in the Guadalupe Dunes.
Otherwise, the town is dominated by small, mom-and-pop restaurants and stores, independent grocers, storefront churches — and shuttered buildings.
A lack of sales tax revenue has been tough on the city; so much so that a few years ago the Santa Barbara County civil grand jury recommended the city dissolve.
Voters came to the rescue by passing three different tax and fee measures, though a 2018 grand jury report says the city has made only limited progress.
City officials are banking on Pasadera to turn that around.
“This development is a lifesaver for Guadalupe,” said Mayor Ariston Julian. Each Pasadera home will, on average, generate around $600 per year in property taxes for the city, he said. By contrast, older homes in a development called Treasure Park bring in only $27 per year.
The commercial sector is looking up as well. The mayor rattles off the names of five small businesses that recently opened, and as the population grows — 10,000 is the magic number — that’s expected to attract national chains.
City officials don’t foresee a Target or Walmart, but they hope there will be enough commercial growth to keep residents from doing most of their shopping in nearby Santa Maria.
For longtime residents like Jose Prado, who lives in Pasadera with his wife and young daughter, what’s happening is a welcome change.
“This will be a different Guadalupe,” he predicted.
February 14, 2019
San Luis Obispo Tribune
By Stephanie Finucane

[San Bernardino County] Grand Jury hearing into school safety certainly warranted

Blog note: the Daily Press supports a grand jury investigation.
We were delighted to see the San Bernardino County Grand Jury schedule a public hearing at Silverado High School on Tuesday night to get input from students, parents and others about school safety in the High Desert.
If you want to find out what’s going on in any organization, there’s no better strategy than to seek input from those who are part of it. In this case, students, parents and teachers know the score.
We’ve been disturbed by the number of bullying complaints the Daily Press newsroom has received from students and parents over the past few years, as well as the apparent ho-hum attitude of many school officials about these complaints.
One of the latest complaints came Sunday from a local man who said he had to file a police report and now was seeking legal representation after his 11-year-old daughter was “jumped” by five boys at her school. He said despite many talks with school authorities and reports to school police, the bullying and harassment had continued and even escalated.
There have been far too many fights and lockdowns of campuses, as reported in the Daily Press over the past few years. And it seems the region has seen more threats of school shootings than one would reasonably expect. At least a couple of those threats resulted in the arrest of students.
We’ll be interested to see what the Grand Jury thinks and recommends after Tuesday night’s public hearing, but we’re happy that the panel decided it was time to investigate.
February 14, 2019
Daily Press
By The Daily Press Editorial Board

[San Bernardino County] Grand jury hears thoughts on school safety

VICTORVILLE — Preventing intruders from entering schools was the focus of discussion at the San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury’s meeting on school safety Tuesday evening.
Grand Jury Foreman Pro Tem Clentis Flournoy said the purpose of the meeting, held at Silverado High School’s Performing Arts Center, was to solicit “thoughts and concerns on how to improve the safety of your students while they are at school.”
Grand Jury member John Groff told the audience their comments, written anonymously on cards turned over the Grand Jury, might lead to programs that promote school safety.
In addition to nine of the 19 Grand Jury members, just three members of the public showed up at the meeting.
Adelanto’s Mayor Pro Tem, Stevevonna Evans, was there with her two sons. One son, Cameren, is a freshman at Silverado.
Evans suggested a barrier such as the guard shack that stood at Silverado’s front gate when she attended the high school in the early 2000s might increase safety for the students.
A woman who spoke but chose not to identify herself said she was concerned that schools weren’t communicating their safety plans with those who might be most affected.
“How do we get our schools prepared and share that with parents so they are comfortable that number one, my kids are safe, and I know to go there and pick them up and not become a problem, but become part of the solution?” she asked.
Victorville Sheriff’s Captain Rick Bessinger said “the chaos that ensues” an active shooter incident is a major problem for officers.
As deputies arrive on the scene, Bessinger said, “you’ve got hundred of parents, and maybe, depending on the school, just as many kids all coming out onto the campus, and we’re trying to find out who the good guys and bad guys are. That’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.
The California Department of Education requires every school to have a comprehensive safety plan, including an assessment of school crime, child abuse reporting procedures and anti-bullying policies.
The plan also must include earthquake emergency procedures and a school building disaster plan. The disaster plan may include drills and procedures for such scenarios as a bomb threat, fire, active intruder, and lockdowns but aren’t mandated other than for an earthquake.
Victor Valley Union High School District spokesman Kris Reilly confirmed the California Schools Boards Association only recommends lockdown procedures, but education code does not require them.
VVUHSD has conducted several active shooter practice scenarios, he said.
According to VVUHSD Risk Manager Kathleen Hardy, her district follows education code protocols concerning safety plans “very carefully.” Such mandates require having a safety plan for each individual school that must be written and developed by a school site council who consulted with a law enforcement representative.
The plans must be evaluated and amended as needed at least once a year and sent to the school district office, said Hardy.
A woman who identified herself only as a retired manager with the County’s Office of Emergency Services said she was concerned that Hesperia Unified School District, where her grandchildren attend school, isn’t ready to deal with a violent situation.
She said the district’s safety plans were essentially “stamped,” staff were unclear on their roles in a possible incident, and drills are not being practiced.
Hesperia Unified School District did not immediately respond to a Daily Press request for comment Wednesday.
Juror Melinda Ferguson told the audience at the beginning of the meeting that members could not “share the extent of the investigation that precipitated this meeting.” Grand Jury proceedings and investigations are confidential until reports are issued.
Foreman Jim Moore said he was unaware of another instance in which the Grand Jury held a similar public meeting to hear from residents, according to a previous Daily Press story.
According to the County website, the Civil Grand Jury is the only local, independent “watchdog” investigative body with the power to delve into and report on local governments, which includes special districts such as schools. Its 19 citizens are volunteers who serve a one-year term.
There have been at least 417 incidents of gunfire on school grounds nationwide since 2013, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit advocacy group.
This year, there have been at least 12 incidents so far that have resulted in 3 deaths.
A 17-year-old high school senior was shot and killed in a Northern California elementary school parking lot in the most recent incident in the state.
February 13, 2019
Daily Press
By Martin Estacio

[San Mateo County] A series of Taser deaths leaves San Mateo County searching for answers

Blog note: this article references a 2011 grand jury report on the use of Tasers.
Chinedu Valentine Okobi, the 36-year-old son of Nigerian immigrants, was unarmed when he was stopped by a San Mateo County sheriff’s deputy in Millbrae on Oct. 3.
Okobi, who grew up in San Francisco, had been walking in the 1300 block of El Camino Real at about 1 p.m. that day. The interaction between Okobi and the deputy quickly turned violent and as more deputies arrived, at least one deployed a Taser stun gun. Okobi died from his injuries.
Aside from that, everything about what happened to Okobi is disputed. The sheriff’s office said in a statement that the deputy had been responding to reports that Okobi was “running in and out of traffic” and that he had immediately assaulted the deputy. Okobi was taken to a hospital, where he died, according to the sheriff’s office.
But Okobi’s sister, Ebele Okobi, who has seen videos of the encounter, publicly accused the sheriff’s office of lying. According to her, Chinedu Okobi was calmly walking down the street when a deputy sped alongside him, shouted at him and told him he needs to question him. Chinedu Okobi said something inaudible in the video and then walked to an intersection, looked for traffic, and crossed the street, according to his sister.
The deputy then called for backup, according to Ebele Okobi. He sped across the street and cut off Chinedu Okobi as another patrol car arrived. Chinedu Okobi dropped his bags and put his arms in the air. The deputies grabbed him, ripped off his jacket as he asked, “What’s wrong? What did I do?” according to his sister. Then one deputy used his Taser as Chinedu Okobi cried out in pain.
At one point, Chinedu Okobi tried to get up, but a deputy hit him with a baton, and they shocked him again, his sister wrote. He tried to run again, and they chased him, used pepper spray and shocked him again.
Ebele Okobi said that Sgt. David Weidner can be heard on the video saying, “Stay on top of him,” repeatedly, then someone shouted, “I see blood!” After that, Chinedu Okobi lies lifeless on the sidewalk.
The videos have not been publicly released. But Ebele Okobi, Facebook’s public policy director for Africa, published her account on Facebook, where it was widely shared and became national news.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe hired an independent expert to assist with his investigation into the incident and committed to publicly releasing the videos once the investigation is complete.
The county Board of Supervisors has called a public hearing on Tasers, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at the Hall of Justice at 400 County Center in Redwood City.
Okobi’s death was the third of four involving law enforcement and a Taser in San Mateo County in 2018. The previous two were in Redwood City and Daly City. In a news conference in October, the Okobi family’s attorney, Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, called for a moratorium on Taser use in the county.
In December, a second person was killed by police in Redwood City, Kyle Hart, a teacher at Frank S. Greene Middle School in Palo Alto who was threatening to kill himself. Redwood City police officers also used a Taser on Hart before they shot him.
Four deaths by law enforcement officers is highly unusual in San Mateo County, which has a population smaller than San Francisco. According to Bay City News archives as well as databases maintained by the Guardian and the Washington Post, there were three deaths by police shootings in the county in 2017 and none in either 2015 or 2016.
There had not been a Taser-related death in the county since 2005, when Pacifica police officers Tased Gregory Saulsbury Jr. while he was already handcuffed, according to a Reuters database of deaths involving Tasers.
Each of the four deaths in 2018 involved mental illness. Hart had reportedly already attempted suicide before officers arrived. Okobi had a history of mental illness, according to his family.
Ramzi Saad, who was killed in a struggle with Redwood City police officers on Aug. 13, suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to the district attorney’s office. Warren Ragudo, who died after he was Tased by Daly City police officers on Jan. 16, had a history of mental illness and drug addiction.
Law enforcement agencies have struggled in recent years with how to respond to people suffering from mental health crises without resorting to lethal force.
As the county Board of Supervisors called for a hearing on Tasers at a December meeting, Supervisor Don Horsley, who was the county’s sheriff from 1993 to 2007 and whose son is now a sheriff’s deputy, said that the county has taken steps in recent years to avoid fatal law enforcement encounters with people suffering mental illness, including countywide crisis intervention training, hiring specially trained ambulance drivers, and adding new services.
“Having been in law enforcement for 35 years, most of the cases that I ran into people had some mental health crisis,” Horsley said. “Maybe these public hearings will give us some ideas about something else that we can do to avoid tragedies in the future.”
But civil rights advocates, including with the American Civil Liberties Union, have pointed out that Tasers are often incorrectly perceived as non-lethal weapons.
Tasers are distributed with seven pages of instructions and safety warnings, including that “some individuals may be particularly susceptible to the effects of [conducted energy weapon] use” like people suffering from “excited delirium, profound agitation, severe exhaustion, drug intoxication or chronic drug abuse, and/or over-exertion from physical struggle.” In these cases, Taser use “may cause or contribute to sudden death,” the manufacturer warns.
Alan Schlosser, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, called the warnings “chilling,” adding, “In my view is clearly an attempt by Taser to shift a liability from the company to the city.”
“In many people’s minds, Tasers are non-lethal weapons,” Schlosser said. “They’re much more dangerous than pepper spray and batons.”
In the past two years, officers in Redwood City have deployed Tasers 28 times, in Daly City 21 times and the sheriff’s office has used Tasers seven times. In most of those incidents, the suspect was not armed.
Aside from the four deaths, no one suffered serious injuries in the other deployments in the county over those two years, according to documents obtained from the three agencies through a public records request.
Some Tasers are more dangerous than others. In 2014, Taser International, the company that produces Tasers and is now known as Axon, stopped selling the X26 model and recommended that agencies switch to using its X26P model, writing to the agencies that the X26P was “far superior in terms of safety features.”
Most of the Tasers that San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies are using are still the outdated X26 model. David Silberman, the chief deputy county counsel, said that the sheriff’s office has 225 X26 Tasers and about 100 X26P. He would not say which model of Taser the deputies who killed Chinedu Okobi were carrying, citing the ongoing district attorney’s office investigation.
Redwood City ordered 125 X2 Tasers in November, the first time the Police Department had replaced its Tasers since 2010, before the X2 was introduced and when the X26 was the most popular model of Taser, according to invoices for Taser purchases obtained through a public records request. The department did not respond to questions about whether it was aware of the higher safety risks of the X26 model.
Brothers Rick and Tom Smith founded Air Taser Inc. in 1993 to develop a new electroshock weapon that would not be classified as a firearm. Previous electroshock weapons had used gunpowder as a propellant. Taser introduced its first product, the Air Taser Model 34000, the following year.
In 1998, the company changed its name to Taser International and in 1999, it introduced a handgun-shaped Taser. The X26 model was first introduced in 2003. Within four years, it was used by 11,000 law enforcement agencies worldwide, according to Taser’s website.
Tasers work by discharging two electrical probes attached to wires and propelled via compressed air. The probes embed in skin and clothing, delivering a powerful electric charge that causes muscles to tightly contract, incapacitating the suspect.
The devices also can be used in “drive stun” mode, meaning that the probes are not fired and the weapon is used in close proximity. In drive stun mode, the purpose of a Taser is not to incapacitate a suspect but to gain compliance through pain.
While Tasers quickly became a standard law enforcement tool, they have remained controversial. In San Francisco, fierce opposition kept the city’s Police Commission from allowing officers to use Tasers until last year, despite pleas from the department for a decade.
Activists argued that Tasers were potentially lethal and used much more frequently than guns, not simply a substitute for deadly force.
In San Mateo County, Tasers were in use by all but two law enforcement agencies by 2011, when the county’s civil grand jury examined Taser use and policy countywide. Only East Palo Alto and Menlo Park did not use Tasers. (Menlo Park equipped officers with Tasers starting in 2013.)
The civil grand jury found that almost all of the agencies using Tasers in San Mateo County had policies that were drafted by Lexipol, a private for-profit company that provides ready-made police policies.
Only the sheriff’s office had an independent policy, which differed from the Lexipol policies by having a series of recommended steps to escalate force. The sheriff’s office’s policy had changed in 2010 to make Tasers a more serious use of force — recommending using flashlights or specialty impact munitions before Tasers. Only carotid holds — similar to a chokehold without closing the windpipe — or deadly force were considered more serious.
Lexipol policies, on the other hand, let officers choose from a variety of force options based on the officer’s judgment. The grand jury recommended that the sheriff’s office adopt the Lexipol policy instead.
The sheriff’s office did eventually implement a Lexipol-based policy, but retained much of the language from its old policy, including the recommended steps in use of force.
However, the sheriff’s office did incorporate Lexipol-drafted language stating that “nothing in this policy requires an officer to retreat or be exposed to possible physical injury before applying reasonable force.”
In reviewing the policy for the ACLU, Schlosser said that he found that aspect of the policy antithetical to employing de-escalation techniques, which would direct officers to create space and establish communication.
“Language like this comes, to me, from the 19th Century,” Schlosser said. “Don’t retreat, hold your ground.”
The events leading to the death of Warren Ragudo, a 34-year-old Daly City man, have also been disputed, particularly the extent that Ragudo struggled and whether he was handcuffed by the time the officers used a Taser.
A letter from Wagstaffe, the county district attorney, says that officers had only handcuffed one of Ragudo’s arms before using a Taser and reports that Ragudo’s father confirmed this in an interview. But a lawsuit later filed by the family alleges that Ragudo had already been restrained by the time he was Tased.
According to Wagstaffe’s letter, Ragudo’s sister first called 911 at about 11:20 p.m. on Jan. 16, 2018, and said that her brother was “on drugs,” “tripping out” and “freaking out.”
She said that Ragudo was trying to jump out of a window and was being restrained by his father and uncle. While heading to the home at 964 Brunswick St., the officers were warned that Ragudo was on parole, was a drug user, and had a history of resisting police officers.
The family’s lawsuit states that they had hoped the officers would place him on a psychiatric hold.
Ragudo’s father and uncle were still holding him down on the second floor of the house when the officers arrived. Officers Corey Shoopman and Nicholas McCarthy tried to control Ragudo.
Shoopman grabbed his left arm and McCarthy put his knee between Ragudo’s shoulder blades. Ragudo continued kicking and twisting, and Officer Bruce Perdomo tried to grab his legs, Wagstaffe wrote in his letter.
According to the family’s lawsuit, Ragudo never kicked or swung his arms at the officers and Shoopman and McCarthy got him into handcuffs. But Wagstaffe’s letter said that Ragudo nearly kicked Perdomo in the face and while Shoopman handcuffed Ragudo’s left wrist, McCarthy lost control of Ragudo’s right arm. Perdomo then Tased him using the drive stun mode in his lower back, trying to gain his compliance through pain.
After the Taser deployment, Ragudo stopped struggling. At first he was still breathing, according to Wagstaffe’s letter, but as Sgt. Sean Begley arrived with restraints, he put his hand on Ragudo’s chest and did not feel movement. The officers attempted to revive him but he was pronounced dead a short time later.
The family’s lawsuit alleges that Ragudo, who was pinned facedown, was already having trouble breathing and was growing quiet before he was Tased.
In addition to the allegations of wrongful death and assault, the lawsuit filed by Ragudo’s family alleges that Daly City police Chief Patrick Hensley failed to adequately draft policy and train officers on how to deal with people suffering from a mental health crisis.
And while the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office policies expressly forbid deputies from using a Taser on someone in handcuffs, Daly City’s policies do not, so even if Ragudo was handcuffed deputies would have been permitted to Tase him, so long as they perceived the force to be reasonable.
A new police transparency law, Senate Bill 1421, took effect in California this year and requires the disclosure of internal investigatory files in cases where officers’ use of force leads to serious injury or death. But Daly City would not release the officers’ personnel files regarding Ragudo, citing the pending litigation against the city.
Kyle Hart had already cut his throat and wrists by the time police arrived on Dec. 10. His wife had just given birth to their second child three days earlier and the family had moved into a modest two-bedroom house in Redwood City with a large yard and a white picket fence in April.
Hart, 33, taught social studies and English and Frank S. Greene Jr. Middle School in Palo Alto, where he was well-liked by colleagues, students and their families.
His wife, Kristin Hart, called 911 at 8:47 a.m. and said that Hart was trying to kill himself. Redwood City police officers arrived at the home at 450 Lincoln Ave. and found Kristin Hart outside covered in blood. She directed them to the backyard, where Kyle Hart was holding a butcher knife and bleeding from his self-inflicted wounds.
The officers, who the department says were trained in crisis intervention techniques, tried to get him to drop the knife but instead, he
started running towards the officers, according to a Redwood City police news release.
One officer used a Taser in an attempt to subdue him, but it didn’t work, and another officer, a 20-year veteran of the department who has not been identified, shot him.
Hart was taken to a hospital but died. His young family has had an outpouring of support and raised nearly $250,000 through a GoFundMe page. The district attorney’s office is still investigating the case.
Even Hart’s exact cause of death remains undetermined, whether it was a result of the gunshot or his self-inflicted wounds. Nor is it clear why the Taser was ineffective.
It’s also not clear exactly how the previous person killed in an encounter with Redwood City police officers last year died. Police used a Taser on Ramzi Saad twice, but, according to the district attorney’s office, he continued fighting officers, two of whom climbed on top of him and held him face-down on the ground as he struggled.
Saad, 55, suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He lived at 523 Lanyard Drive with his 83-year-old mother, whom he allegedly pushed over before neighbors called police on Aug. 13.
Earlier that day, Saad had been in a “bad mood,” his mother told police, and had not taken his medication. His mother urged him to take it, but he refused, and at about 7 p.m., he grabbed his prescription bottles and walked out of the house.
Saad went to a neighbor’s house, and told him, “my mother is dead and they’re killing us,” according to the district attorney’s office. The neighbor knew that Saad suffered from mental health problems and tried to calm him down. He walked with Saad back to his own house, where his mother was outside.
Saad was shouting incoherently, then walked back into the house, put his medicine down, and said that he was never going to take his medicine again.
The neighbor started walking home, but Saad followed, so the neighbor turned around and brought him back again. When they got back, Saad, still agitated, pushed over his mother, causing her to hit her head. The neighbor called 911.
Redwood City police Officer Oscar Poveda was the first to arrive, and saw Saad, who is over 6 feet tall and weighed 273 pounds, angry and yelling at a group of people. Saad’s mother was still on the ground and some of the onlookers were yelling that Saad had pushed her. Poveda asked Saad what was going on and Saad responded, “they’re trying to kill me,” according to the district attorney’s office.
Poveda tried to calm Saad down by using crisis intervention techniques, according to the district attorney’s office, lowering his tone and asking Saad to sit down. Saad at first seemed to calm down, and said he wanted to go to the hospital, but suddenly Saad said, “You wanna pull out your gun and shoot me, don’t you?”
As Saad grew more agitated, Poveda pulled his Taser and hid it behind his back. He requested medical aid for Saad’s mother and told his sergeant that he intended to place Saad on a mental health hold.
Saad got up and swung at Poveda without warning, according to the district attorney’s office. Poveda deployed his Taser, and Saad fell to the ground on his stomach. Poveda told Saad to put his hands behind his back, then activated his Taser again, its probes still stuck in Saad. Saad picked up a piece of fruit that had fallen from a nearby tree and threw it at Poveda.
Poveda replaced his Taser cartridge and deployed it again. But the district attorney’s office found it was unclear if the probes struck Saad this time. Saad grabbed a brick off the ground, and Poveda tried to activate the Taser again.
Poveda felt a shock and dropped the Taser. Saad rolled onto his back and kicked at Poveda. After a struggle, Poveda was able to get Saad back onto his stomach and handcuff him. Officers Daniel Di Bona, Brian Simmons and Matthew Cydzik then arrived and Poveda, exhausted, walked away.
Di Bona grabbed Saad’s legs and put his weight on them. Cydzik put a knee between Saad’s shoulder blades, but did not use his full body weight, according to the district attorney’s office. Simmons got on top of Saad’s midsection and tried to hold Saad’s handcuffed arms steady. Saad then stopped fighting. Soon, he stopped breathing.
The district attorney’s office reviewed Saad’s death and on Nov. 1 declined to charge the four officers.
“Officer Poveda initially made use of the [crisis intervention technique] training in an effort to diffuse the situation, but the decedent’s aggressive conduct, including approaching and punching at the officer, motivated the use of the Taser, which is considered a non-lethal weapon,” Wagstaffe wrote in a letter to Redwood City police Chief Dan Mulholland. “Tragically, Mr. Saad went into cardiac arrest and died. This unfortunate result was not intended by the officers, nor could they have foreseen such a tragic outcome from the use of non-lethal force.”
Chinedu Valentine Okobi was born the day before Valentine’s Day in 1982. He was the youngest of five children born to two Nigerian immigrants in San Francisco. After he died, his sister wrote on Facebook, “he had irresistibly chubby cheeks when he was a baby, which was unfortunate because he clearly found the resulting cheek pinching entirely beneath his dignity.”
Okobi once had a promising future. He graduated with a degree in business administration in 2003 from Morehouse College in Atlanta, the historically black college where Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson attended.
He had a daughter, whom his family said he was devoted to. But while he was studying to enter graduate school, he started having struggles with mental health.
“We struggled for years to get him the right diagnosis and medications, and we were so proud of him for creating a good and kind life despite his struggles with mental health,” his sister Ebele Okobi wrote.
Okobi’s death was surprising for many reasons. As the third death involving Tasers in San Mateo County last year, it was unprecedented. As the brother to a high-ranking Facebook employee with a broad platform, Okobi’s death drew more attention than many others under similar circumstances would.
The sheriff’s office’s use of Tasers has been infrequent in recent years, with only one incident in 2017 and six in 2018, including on Okobi.
None of the deputies involved in the Okobi incident had been sued for excessive force allegations previously, though the sheriff’s office paid about $2.5 million in civil rights claims between 2015 and 2017, according to public records.
That total was mainly due to a $2.15 million settlement for Richard Earl May, who was bitten by a police dog while helping a friend look for her cat in a construction site in Half Moon Bay.
Still, the sheriff’s office has been slow to adapt to the latest technology, including its Tasers, which it has been upgrading to the newer, safer, models.
In response to a public records request, the sheriff’s office was unable to find any purchase invoices prior to 2018, so the rate that it has been upgrading is unclear. The sheriff’s office will also be getting body cameras for the first time in June.
Because the sheriff’s office does not currently have body cameras, the video of Okobi’s death, which Wagstaffe has committed to releasing once his investigation is complete, is a piecemeal collection of dash camera footage from patrol cars, bystander cellphone videos and surveillance video.
As scrutiny mounted, Wagstaffe hired an independent expert to assist his office with the criminal investigation into Okobi’s death.
The consultant, Jeffrey Martin, is a former San Jose police sergeant who spent 26 years with the department. He earned a law degree in 2007 and has worked as a private consultant on training and internal affairs investigations since 2009. From 2009-2013, he also worked as a contractor for Lexipol, the company that authors policies for each law enforcement agency in San Mateo County.
Regardless of the outcome of Wagstaffe’s investigation, Okobi’s family will likely file a civil suit against the county. And the issues his death raises, whether Tasers are a safe and effective law enforcement tool and how police can best respond to people with mental illness, will rage on.
February 11, 2019
San Francisco Examiner; also published by SFGate
By Scott Morris, Bay News Service