Monday, April 22, 2019

[Orange County] Five years later, some fear Orange County jail snitch scandal will go unpunished

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
Nearly five years have passed since a lawyer representing the man who slaughtered eight people inside a Seal Beach salon first raised questions about the way investigators used informants inside Orange County’s jails.
The accusation — that sheriff’s deputies planted a prolific snitch in the cell of confessed killer Scott Dekraai in the hopes of eliciting information without his lawyer present, and then covered up their unconstitutional actions — seemed outlandish at the time. But jailhouse records soon proved otherwise, and the Orange County district attorney’s office and Sheriff’s Department found themselves embroiled in a national scandal.
The state attorney general’s office opened an investigation into both agencies in 2015; the U.S. Department of Justice followed suit the next year. Orange County prosecutors were kicked off Dekraai’s case, and a judge cited the informant scheme in sparing him a place on California’s death row. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit accusing authorities of having deployed “professional” informants for decades.
But to date, no one has been disciplined, fired or prosecuted for misconduct. And on Friday, a deputy attorney general said that the state investigation into the case — the only avenue for criminal charges — has been closed.
Meanwhile, some individuals who oversaw the jails or Dekraai’s case at the time of the alleged misconduct have received promotions. In March, two deputies under investigation for their role in the scandal quietly retired.
For those closest to the case, there is a fear that the public will never truly know what went on inside Orange County’s jails.
“These guys inflicted five years of pain on me and my family,” said Paul Wilson, 54, whose wife, Christy Lynn Wilson, was among those gunned down in the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre. “It’s not politics to me. They need to be held accountable.”
Local watchdogs and civil liberties advocates have long contended there are more cases tainted by informant misuse — affecting more than 140 additional defendants, according to some court filings. Information that spilled out of the Dekraai hearings already has led to retrials in more than a dozen criminal cases, including several murders.
Last fall, Todd Spitzer ousted longtime Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas in an election framed largely around the informant scandal — and many hoped that he would sweep into office and impose dramatic reforms. Rackauckas maintained that the issue had been exaggerated and that no one in his office intentionally concealed evidence. A county grand jury report largely backed up his view, finding that only a few “rogue deputies” had done anything wrong.
Spitzer, in a recent interview, said he has no intention of letting the agency’s past failings go unanswered.
Since becoming district attorney, he said, he has turned over thousands of pages of training documents and nearly 100 case files to the U.S. Justice Department. Spitzer would not describe the nature of the cases or say if they involved informant misuse. The oldest was filed in 1998, according to Kimberly Edds, public information officer for the district attorney’s office.
Spitzer also said he has taken steps to curb potential abuses.
The use of jailhouse informants at trial now will require his written approval, and since taking office he has established an ethics officer position and a conviction integrity review unit. Spitzer said he is “champing at the bit” to learn the results of the federal investigation. But he said he also must balance the demands of running the office in the present with trying to reconcile its past.
“I’m trying to get closure. There is no doubt. But the amount of resources and time that this agency is investing in complying is really intense,” he said.
A U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. Spitzer has said he wants to settle the federal investigation and admit to any wrongdoing committed under his predecessor, citing voluminous discovery requests from the federal government. Those comments concern those who hoped a prolonged investigation might uncover additional trials in which prosecutors failed to provide defense attorneys with information about the use of jailhouse informants, or cases in which informants obtained confessions in an unconstitutional manner.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who represented Dekraai and exposed the informant scandal, said in recent court filings that Spitzer appears to have backed off the fiery reformer rhetoric of the election cycle and has failed to disclose relevant evidence. Specifically, Sanders criticized Spitzer for calling the federal investigation a “fishing expedition” and said he demonstrated a “vanishing appetite” for working with the Justice Department.
Other attempts to uncover misconduct have stalled, civil liberty advocates say.
ACLU staff attorney Somil Trivedi said the group’s lawsuit, filed last year, would have forced Orange County to make public a trove of information about the informant program, but the case was thrown out by a judge who said the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue. The ACLU — which argued in its suit that it had found court transcripts proving informants were planted next to a murder defendant in a case from 1980 — is appealing the decision.
“We have found cases going back 30 years, and these are all pretty serious cases, and every one of them is at risk for being reopened,” Trivedi said.
Frustrations also have turned toward the state attorney general’s office.
In 2015, then-California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris launched an investigation into the use of informants. For years, according to Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, state prosecutors ignored repeated requests for an update on the probe.
News that the state had ended its inquiry with no prosecution came during a hearing Friday, at which Sanders was arguing for the release of records related to a criminal case. Deputy Atty. Gen. Darren Shaffer gave no reason why or when the investigation had shut down. The office of current California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra declined to comment. Carrie Braun, a Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman, said her office had not been notified of the results of the attorney general’s investigation.
In a statement Saturday, the ACLU of Southern California said the attorney general’s action sends a “disturbing message that prosecutorial and law enforcement misconduct is acceptable in California.”
Sanders, who described the state review as “a sham from beginning to end,” said a judge will decide whether records related to the probe can be made public May 10.
A spokeswoman for Harris rejected any criticism, saying the former attorney general was instrumental in launching the criminal investigation and pushing for the civil grand jury review. Lily Adams said Harris believes the informant scandal “flowed from a culture that encourages an ends-justify-the-means approach, complemented by a program of plausible deniability.”
The slow pace of the state investigation led Barnes to take an unusual step this year when he restarted an administrative review into potential deputy misconduct before the criminal probe was completed.
“I can’t wait forever on them, and we have to do our job — which is to hold our personnel accountable, if necessary,” he said during a recent interview.
Whether records from that internal investigation would bring the public new information, however, is another question. While the passage of Senate Bill 1421 last year opened up some police disciplinary records, they only become public if an officer or deputy is found to have committed wrongdoing for specific offenses.
Two of the deputies at the center of the investigation — Seth Tunstall and Bill Grover — resigned in March, Braun said. A third deputy, whom she did not identify, remains under internal investigation.
Braun said deputies can decide to retire while under internal review if “no recommendations for action” had been made at the time of their departure.
Sanders has called on authorities to dig deeper to determine how many additional cases might be tainted by the misuse of informants. In court filings last year, he said he had identified 146 cases in which deputies testified without their past connections to the Sheriff’s Department Special Handling Unit being disclosed.
Barnes, a 30-year veteran of the department, said he believes the agency has been forthright in handling the mistakes alleged during the Dekraai trial, while dismissing some criticisms from the ACLU and Sanders as “brazen.”
As undersheriff, Barnes said, he helped modify department policy and training governing the use of informants in the county jails, which now requires his written approval. While not defending the department’s past actions, he said he also believes the agency has been unfairly accused of being resistant to change.
“The unit that existed then, I stopped it,” he said. “We replaced it with highly qualified people that look at information within the jails differently than it was handled before.”
Barnes also defended the promotions of Jon Briggs and William Baker, both of whom had oversight roles in the jails at the time, to the position of assistant sheriff. Briggs had testified during the Dekraai trial that poor supervision contributed to problematic behavior in the jails, though Barnes said that was taken “out of context.” The sheriff described Baker as “part of the solutions team” put in place to fix issues in the jails.
Spitzer said he understands the frustrations felt by those who have spent years waiting for the conclusion of investigations, but added, “I’ve got to let this process play out.”
For Wilson, however, patience has long run out. He doesn’t want to see others endure the same denial of justice he feels he suffered.
“I know how hard it was for myself and my kids and Christy’s family to deal with all of this,” he said, referring to the years after the murder of his wife. “I went through a really rough experience with those other families. I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
April 21, 2019
Los Angeles Times
By James Queally

[Riverside County] Highgrove residents sue Riverside County over fee for long-gone sheriff’s deputy

They voted to pay for an extra deputy, but haven't had one since the end of 2009.

Blog note: this article references Riverside County’s response to a 2017-18 grand jury report.
A group of Highgrove residents led by community newspaper publisher Richard “Barney” Barnett is suing Riverside County, demanding to know how money from their county services fee is being spent.
When they voted to approve the fee in 1992, residents agreed to pay $120 a year to fund an additional Riverside County sheriff’s deputy to patrol their unincorporated community between northeast Riverside and Grand Terrace.
In a second vote in 1997, residents reaffirmed paying for the deputy and also agreed some of the money could be used for maintenance at Highgrove’s only park, maintaining street lights and landscaping on road medians.
The county took the extra deputy away at the end of 2009, but residents are still paying the fee. The suit filed by Barnett, John Shivery, Haroldine Swing, and Janet Aboytes demands a full accounting of the money and restoration of the extra deputy.
If that doesn’t happen, the county must “reduce the tax and refund any misappropriations,” the suit demands.
Riverside County insists the fee money is being spent properly and that residents can get information about the fee through several avenues, including from County Service Area staff members who attend public meetings.
“The goal of the lawsuit is just to get our money back,” said Barnett, publisher of Highgrove Happenings.  “To be treated fairly to get our money back for a service were were paying for that we did not have.”
“If we lost our deputy nine years ago, why do we still have to pay for it?” he asked.
Barnett also said he doesn’t believe that maintaining the 5-acre park could take all the money, noting that the park has no lights, no ballgames at night and is very low maintenance.
Riverside County spokeswoman Brooke Federico said the county already addressed residents’ concerns in its response to a 2017-18 grand jury investigation.
In its report, the grand jury said that the county did not effectively communicate details about County Service Area 126 to affected residents. The dedicated deputy was assigned to the community until Dec. 31, 2009, “when for economic reasons the dedicated service was discontinued,” the grand jury report said.
The county failed to adequately inform residents “of new agreements between CSA 126 management and the Jurupa Valley Sheriff Station for focused law enforcement,” the grand jury said.
“Citizens don’t understand how CSA agreements were designed to work and how the funds were managed,” the report said. “For complete record access, a citizen would need to inquire at the Jurupa Valley Sheriff Station, the EDA (Economic Development Agency), The landscaping contractor, a County Supervisor, Tax Collector, Assessor, and occasionally state records.”
The county disagreed, saying residents who pay the fee receive contact information on their property tax bills, there are CSA staff members attending community and town hall meetings, there is a parks hotline and more information is available on the county’s CSA website.
The grand jury recommended that the county issue a notice clarifying how the funds are being spent and post a summary report and hold a community meeting at least once every two years.
Federico said in an e-mail that the county has complied.
“The County has completely satisfied all reporting requirements on the budget and audit for County Service Area 126, including holding multiple community meetings,” her email said. “The County uses the funds collected to pay for services in the Highgrove community, which includes park maintenance, street lighting, street sweeping and law enforcement services.”
Barnett also questioned why residents living in the new Spring Mountain Ranch development in Highgrove are paying up to $2,900 a year for CSA 126, while longtime residents pay just $120.
“There was no vote to charge different amounts and the fee appears on their tax bills as for CSA 126,” he said.
Federico said, “Each homebuyer within the community was informed of and accepted the assessment as a condition for the home purchase.”
The higher assessment “covers costs associated with regular maintenance for more than seven million square feet of landscaping, street lighting, enhanced sheriff services, Spring Mountain Ranch community park, community trails and water quality basins,” she said in her e-mail.
The next scheduled court date for the case is Monday, April 22, at Riverside County Superior Court.
April 20, 2019
The Press-Enterprise
By Johnny Bender

[Marin County] Letter to the editor: Perhaps grand jury ought to investigate MMWD

Regarding the Marin Municipal Water District’s recently issued “Proposed Water Service Rates, Fees and Charges,” it’s time for ratepayers to rise up and say “enough is enough.”
Last year a new watershed management fee was added to our bills. This year new increased water rates based on meter size (why not water use?) and fixed charges are both increasing by 4 percent a year, compounded!
Additionally, a new capital maintenance fee running hundreds to thousands of dollars a year is being proposed. Where does this end?
We seniors, living on fixed incomes, cannot continue to absorb these increases without being driven out of our homes. Why not an exemption for seniors?
Given MMWD’s outrageously high salaries, benefits and pensions, I would suggest that a Marin County Civil Grand Jury investigation of the management and operations of MMWD is not out of order.
April 19, 2019
Marin Independent Journal
From Chris Steven Levine, Mill Valley

Sunday, April 21, 2019

[Riverside County] District will get new general manager in May — without the ex-manager’s $313,808 salary

Steve Appel will make $260,004 per year after moving up from the Rubidoux Community Service District's No. 2 slot.

Blog note: this article references a 2013 grand jury report.
The longtime No. 2 official at the district that provides water, firefighting and sewer service to about 26,000 Jurupa Valley residents will take the top job in May — but he won’t get his predecessor’s compensation of more than $450,000 a year.
Retiring general manager David Lopez was repeatedly listed as the highest-paid worker among the Inland Empire’s 43 largest special districts.
In 2013, for instance, the Riverside County Grand Jury singled out his compensation as higher than other general managers’ — and higher than Jay Orr, who was then Riverside County’s executive officer. The last time Transparent California analyzed special district compensation, based on 2014 numbers, Lopez’s compensation was $456,695. In 2016, he made $469,658 — including $313,808 in salary.
When Steve Appel becomes general manager May 16, his yearly salary will be $260,004. The dollar value of his benefits package isn’t clear from his contract, but matches most of the components of Lopez’s.
Lopez said he wasn’t familiar with Appel’s contract and declined to comment on his own.
Appel said he suggested the language in his contract, which board members then approved, after looking at what nearby special districts were offering as they sought new candidates. Appel said he also took into account that he had been the assistant general manager since 1994. Lopez has been general manager for more than 30 years.
“(Lopez’s) salary is reflective of his knowledge and experience and the service he’s given the district,” Appel said. “I’m comfortable in saying my salary isn’t at his level.”
Both executives are worth what the board of directors agreed to give them, based on years of service and unique insights that someone from outside the district might not have, board member John Skerbelis said.
That experience includes transforming a district with poor water quality into one with good water and good rates, he said.
“People beat Dave up over that salary,” Skerbelis said. “I agree it’s a lot of money. But you’ve got to remember … he completely turned it (the district) around.”
Lopez became general manager of the district, which serves mostly the Rubidoux area, more than 30 years ago. Appel became assistant general manager in 1994.
“Steve’s been there 20-plus years and he’s a very knowledgeable, very knowledgeable guy,” Skerbelis said. “He’s going to do a great job.”
Appel, whose main responsibilities as assistant manager include water and wastewater, said he’s proud that the district’s water rates are consistently among the lowest of the dozen or so local agencies they use for comparison.
He attributes that to wise investment in cleanup facilities 20 years ago and said he plans to run the district mostly as Lopez has.
“I don’t plan for any significant course corrections,” he said.
Other residents of Jurupa Valley receive similar services from Jurupa Community Services District, which paid its general manager, Todd Corbin, $228,698 in salary in 2017, the last year for which data is listed. Corbin became general manager of Riverside Public Utilities in 2018.
April 13, 2019
The Press-Enterprise
By Ryan Hagen

[Santa Barbara County] Our View: Dilemma shadows paradise

Blog note: this opinion piece references a Santa Barbara County Grand Jury report.
Santa Barbara County has it all. Beautiful weather. Some of the most stunning coastal vistas on Earth. A glimmering Pacific Ocean with a dramatic backdrop of mountains.
But like most every beautiful place, a closer examination reveals a few flaws.
For one thing, our county is divided both geographically and ideologically, so much so that the notion of splitting the county into two counties has come up more than once. Folks living in North County generally do not think the way people in South County think.
That situation goes back generations, but a fairly recent development suggests that north and south have more in common than we may realize. Governments at both ends of Santa Barbara County share many of the same goals, and a singular problem — budgets that don’t balance, with the heaviest weight falling on the deficit side.
Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne offered a snapshot of the issue at her recent State of the City speech. It wasn’t exactly a doom-and-gloom presentation, as the mayor pointed out to her audience, but it was a sobering sketch of everyday life in a 21st-century city.
The crux of the problem is money, more specifically the lack of government revenue compared to expenditures. In Lompoc’s case, that includes the city’s unfunded liability to public pensions, which can be measured in the millions.
Just about every government jurisdiction in California and elsewhere is facing the same problem, an obligation to pay retirees what has been promised vs. the funds necessary to carry through on such a promise.
A Santa Barbara County Grand Jury investigation and report last year made it evident that many local governments are at risk of insolvency due to pension liabilities, for which little or no money is available.
The grand jury’s report came on the heels of a 2018 League of California Cities study finding that several of this area’s government pension systems have among the highest employer contributions in the state that “may not be sustainable without new revenue or changes in benefit structures.”
It’s a bet that when government and elected officials go searching for additional revenue, usually the first place they look is directly at you, the taxpayer. That inclination could be especially important with regard to what most experts recognize as unsustainable pension costs.
Another compelling fact is that, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual within the past few months, a third of the nation’s Baby Boomers have less than $25,000 in retirement savings. That puts a lot of pressure on retirees — unless they are among the public employees who have been promised set amounts and benefits upon retirement.
Making matters worse for private-sector workers looking at public pension retirement plans from the outside, California has more than 40,000 public-employee retirees in the so-called “$100K Club,” those whose pensions exceed $100,000 a year. While $100K Club members represent only 4.8 percent of state retirees, their pensions represent more than 15 percent of total public pension spending. The state Supreme Court rolled back the “airtime” component of the state pension system, so public employees can no longer collect bigger pensions by inflating their years of service.
But that’s a drop in the fiscal bucket, compared to the unfunded liabilities totaling nearly $140 billion at CalPERS, and another $107 billion at the California State Teachers’ Retirement System.
That’s a major problem, and only two ways to fix it — raise taxes or eliminate some existing services. Neither option has much public appeal, nor are they embraced by elected leaders facing re-election.
Meanwhile, the meter continues to run.
April 12, 2019
Santa Ynez Valley News

[Lake County] Lake County Civil Grand Jury releases interim report on Lampson Field Airport

The report calls for improvements to be made at the airport

LAMPSON FIELD — Lampson Field Airport is in need of improvements and updates to its general plan and other documents in order to qualify for grant funding and comply with state law, according to a report released in March by the Lake County Civil Grand Jury.
The grand jury’s report, approved by Lake County Superior Court Judge Andrew Blum, was submitted March 14 by grand jury foreman Mark Rothrock. Complete grand jury reports are typically submitted June 30, but the Lampson Field item was released early due to what Rothrock notes in his submittal letter as “the urgent nature of the time constraints outlined in the report.”
The report stresses that Federal Aviation Administration grant funding available for Lampson Field this year must be applied for by December 31, and urges Lake County departments to make the changes needed to the airport and its governing body in order to apply for grants.
“The Grand Jury found a number of compliance concerns,” the report states. “The goal of compliance is to ensure a clear path to obtain grants from the FAA to secure funding for the sustainability of Lampson Field.”
Though currently operational, the airport would need an updated master plan and a noise and safety-related compatibility study in order to comply with state laws, the report states. To do that, however, Lampson Field’s Airport Land Use Commission will need to be reactivated.
“That’s the absolute first step,” said Rothrock on Thursday. California code requires every county with an airport to establish an ALUC, which oversees an airport’s development and maintenance, and keeps it in compliance with state and federal law. Lake County’s ALUC, formed in 2004, has been inactive but is now being rebuilt.
According to District 4 Supervisor Tina Scott on Thursday, she and District 5 Supervisor Rob Brown were recently appointed to the commission, and are seeking applicants for the five remaining positions. According to state law, an airport land use commission must consist of seven members: two county representatives, two city representatives, two aviation experts, and one member of the public. Scott noted that Public Works Director Scott de Leon will likely serve on the commission.
The grand jury recommends that the ALUC be seated prior to June 15 in order to allow grant funds to be applied for this year.
Rothrock commented Thursday that chief among the projects for which grant funds should be used is the improvement of Lampson Field’s landing strip, which is currently in good condition but cannot accommodate passenger planes.
“First they need to make the landing strip bigger, deeper and wider,” Rothrock said. This would allow small commuter planes to be landed at Lampson Field, he said, creating a number of opportunities for the county.
“Right now the largest they can bring in is a 10-seater,” Rothrock said. Larger planes would mean more tourism, he suggested. The grand jury report points to the county’s recently-adopted economic development strategic plan, which identifies improving Lampson Field as a primary long-term goal.
The grand jury report finds that “airport management has experienced resistance from the County in its efforts to upgrade the facility” and that, therefore, “progress has been slow.”
A Lake County Chamber of Commerce-supported plan to build a pilot’s lounge at the airport is in its infancy. Chamber representative Lance Butcher said Wednesday that meetings had begun on the project, but no specific determinations had been made.
Butcher noted that the airport is “not in compliance, and things need to be updated. We need something that represents Lake County and gives people a good first impression.”
With a reformed ALUC in place to update the airport’s master plan and compatibility study and to apply for grants, Rothrock estimated that the commission could “do a lot of good before the end of the year.”
Applications for the ALUC may be obtained from the clerk of the Lake County Board of Supervisors at the Lake County Courthouse, Room 109, 255 N. Forbes St. in Lakeport, or by accessing the application online at
April 12, 2019
Lake County Record-Bee
By Aidan Freeman

[San Benito County] Former grand jury members call for repeal

From 2014 to 2016, members of the San Benito County Civil Grand Jury accused the Board of Supervisors of obstructing the jury’s investigative efforts via ordinance by reducing its budget and eliminating financial compensation unless all 19 jury members were in attendance during committee meetings. Former grand jury members Robert Marden and Ann Ross also warned supervisors that the jury’s budget was insufficient to carry out all of its investigations.
In 2018-19, the San Benito County Civil Grand Jury has struggled to meet as a full group and as a result has not been paid.
Cherie Toll, who is a member of the current grand jury, told BenitoLink on April 9 that jury members have not been paid, even though they have held monthly meetings since July and conducted at least four investigations. She said only 14 of the original 19 selected members remain, and that it is often difficult to gather a quorum of 12.
According to Marden, San Benito County is unique in that it’s the only California county to use this ordinance, which was approved in 2015. He said he looked up every county in 2015 and again in 2019 to confirm it.
Marden (who is also on the BenitoLink board of directors) told county supervisors in March 2015 that the grand jury could not complete its investigations unless the board approved a budget increase. Supervisor Margie Barrios responded at the time, “Every agency is expected to live within their means. They have to work to whatever extent they can. To come back and request additional funding puts the Board of Supervisors in a very difficult situation because we have to be fair. We couldn’t do that for every department.”
However, the grand jury is not a county agency or department. It is an independent group of volunteers mandated by the California State Constitution to research and investigate government departments, agencies and even officers.
The minutes of the March 17, 2015 supervisors meeting quotes Barrios as saying, “We are doing this for budget control. The budget does not control investigations, it never has and shouldn’t now. Obviously there is lack of procedures and communication and we are going to work on improving those.”
Supervisor Anthony Botelho made a motion, which was seconded by then Supervisor Robert Rivas to adopt the ordinance. It passed unanimously.
Marden told BenitoLink on April 3 that Judge Harry Tobias could have rescinded the ordinance, but did not. Marden is meeting with Judge Steven Sanders to discuss repealing it.
Ross told BenitoLink she agreed with Marden that the county ordinance was not a cost-control effort, as Barrios described it, but a move to obstruct investigations by cutting its budget. Ross said the ordinance was based not on law, but on an opinion provided by a district attorney in Yuba County in 1993, which in turn was based on an opinion by former congressman Dan Lungren of California’s 3rd district.
Grand juries in the rest of California are made up of 19 people who break up into smaller committees that investigate county departments during normal working hours. But San Benito County’s ordinance requires all 19 to show up for each meeting, which is nearly impossible to coordinate. So, Ross said, meetings don’t take place and jury members don’t get their $15 stipend.
But the point is not the stipend, Ross said.
“The point is, it’s the semblance of authority that the Board of Supervisors has placed on the grand jury because it investigates them,” she said.
Supervisor Mark Medina told BenitoLink on April 2 that he intends to bring up the issue at the board’s April 16 meeting. He said he would move to repeal the ordinance and raise the grand jury budget from $19,000 to $36,000. Supervisor Anthony Botelho, who was on the board in 2015, told BenitoLink on April 1 that he did not recall the ordinance.
“If that is remotely true, what a great mistake,” Botelho said. “All involved (including the grand jury), should have pointed out the problems with such a rule. The work of the grand jury is essential and required by law. My criticism in the past is budget. Government agencies and departments submit a budget and should adhere to it,” he continued, repeating the same misunderstanding as Barrios that the grand jury is a county department or agency.
“Work should be done by committees,” he said. “I have not been aware of this problem ’til the last couple of days, but fully support fixing it.”
When Supervisor Jim Gillio was running for election last year, he said the grand jury was one of the first issues he wanted to tackle. He told BenitoLink on April 3 that it is critical to the community and should be as strong as possible in order to hold elected and public officials accountable.
“I would like to see committee work, two to five grand jury members, and compensation at the state-authorized rate,” Gillio said. “This allows for effective and efficient interviews and investigations. I look forward to a presentation and discussion on how we can best support the grand jury and encourage members to participate.” (The state minimum rate is $15 per meeting and there can be no more than one meeting per day.)
On April 2, BenitoLink was unable to find the ordinance and grand jury reports on the San Benito County government website. This was also mentioned in a 2015 BenitoLink story, when county database administrator Nathanael Lierly noted there was a “failure of some backups, so our county website reverted back to a previous state.”
BenitoLink informed Deputy County Administrative Officer Edgar Nolasco that the reports and responses were missing. He responded on April 2: “We just noticed, as well. We will be working on this.” By 1:30 p.m., the grand jury reports were on the county website. But once again, neither the ordinance nor mandated responses were posted. On April 3, Supervisor Medina provided a copy of the 2015 ordinance to BenitoLink (see PDF below).
Over the years, the reports and responses have repeatedly appeared and then disappeared on the county website. Marden said he and his group of grand jurors will continue to pressure the county to keep the full reports and responses online for public access.
April 12, 2019
By John Chadwell 

[Kern County] Could oversight committee selection been more fair? Grand jury thinks so

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — When Bakersfield voted for a new sales tax, they also voted for a citizen’s oversight committee to make sure the money was spent wisely.
The Kern County grand jury is asserting the selection process for that committee wasn't as fair as it could've or should've been.
The complaints started pouring in almost immediately after the city council chose the new committee members, but councilmembers are standing by the process.
The city got 82 applications for the nine-person oversight committee. Each of the seven city council members got nine votes. Candidates needed four votes to make the committee.
The grand jury suggests, moving forward, the city should pick the committee members by random drawing. A concept Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan says she won't support.
"We are elected to be the decision makers," Sullivan said. "So we need to always have the final word."
The grand jury's main concern is seven of the nine committee members were on a list of suggestions given to the city council by a coalition of various community organizations.
While Sullivan admits she used the list for reference and it was helpful, she believes it didn't taint the process.
"The way it ended up I thought, I was thinking gosh there's no way this could be fixed," Sullivan said. "This is definitely very fair."
April 11, 2019
Bakersfield Now
By Jeff Platt

[Kern County] New ordinance could allow county to impound food trucks

BAKERSFIELD,Calif. — The Kern County Grand Jury has just released a report detailing some recommendations for the Kern County Public Health Services Department on how to further protect citizens from non-permit holding food vendors.
The Kern County Public Health Services Department included a possible ordinance, which would allow the department to not only confiscate food from non-permit vendors, but also their equipment.
Mohammed Saphieh, owner of the Pita Paradise food truck says he isn’t against the 
ordinance that would allow Kern County to impound unpermitted food vendor’s carts or equipment.
“Whether they are eating here or somewhere else, they (don’t) need just healthy food, but (they want to) eat from professionals that know what they are doing,” Saphieh said.
Currently, there is no established county ordinance or procedure in place. Saphieh says taking someone’s equipment sounds drastic, but necessary.
"They can just turn around and just buy the food again” Saphieh said.
Michelle Corson, with the Kern County Public Health Services Department, says they are requesting this authority in addition to giving citations. They plan to send this off to the Board of Supervisors for approval, as soon as possible.
Michelle Corson, with the Kern County Public Health Services Department, says they are requesting this authority in addition to giving citations. They plan to send this off to the Board of Supervisors for approval, as soon as possible.
So we are starting to investigate other counties that may have a similar process in place,” Corson said.
Corson explains the department receives a lot of their complaints about non-permit food vendors from permit-holding vendors.
“If you are operating safely, and within the guidelines you will have a permit from environmental health, and this will never be something presented to you,” Corson said.
The plans on how and where the department would store these impounded trucks or carts is something they are looking into.
April 11, 2019
By Lezla Gooden

[Kern County] Grand Jury suggests county take stricter measures on unpermitted streetside food vendors

Bakersfield, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — The Grand Jury is suggesting Kern County gets tougher on street vendors, including impounding their equipment if they don't follow the rules.
Mo Sophieh owns, a food truck that specializes in Greek Mediterranean food. He is one of 484 registered streetside food vendors in Kern County.
Sophie said it took him about three weeks to get his permit from Kern County Environmental Health.
Since last year-- Kern County has told at least 127 illegal food vendors to close shop, according to Michelle Corson with Kern County Public Health.
Now they grand jury is recommending Kern County Public Health to not just shut down their business, but also impound the carts if that's what it takes.
"I can see why they're imposing that now, only because they want to take care of the people," Sophieh said.
Health and safety are the driving concerns behind the recommendation, according to Corson.
"If you are doing an unsafe food vending business and you don't have foods at proper temperatures, you don't have a place to wash your hands -- there are a series of very serious practices that really can heighten the food safety issues when preparing this food," Corson said.
She said the Public Health Department is taking the Grand Jury recommendation seriously and they are developing a plan to follow through.
April 11, 2019
Bakersfield Now
By Jeanette Quezada

[Napa County] Napa's Juvenile Hall staff dedicated to youth mental health services, county watchdog says

Mental health services at Napa County Juvenile Hall meet state standards and are easily accessible to young people behind bars, the county watchdog says.
The Napa County Grand Jury’s first report of 2019 was released Thursday, as part of a requirement in state law to review county detention facilities each year. The state constitution requires all 58 counties to have a civil grand jury to investigate public matters of interest.
The grand jury also found that mental health staff at the facility were dedicated and professional. In its report, the grand jury commended Juvenile Hall staff, mental health counselors and medical staff from Wellpath, a county contractor and private medical group that provides three health care professionals to the Juvenile Hall.
Grand jurors also commended the Napa County Office of Education for its work at Crossroads School, an alternative school that allows those in Juvenile Hall to receive a high school education and diploma.
Grand jury members toured the facility twice, interviewed seven employees and reviewed several documents, according to the report. They also reviewed the state’s seven minimum standards for Juvenile Detention Facilities. The grand jury’s findings in the report are summarized here.
— Quick screening for psychiatric problems: All juveniles are screened for possible mental health issues via a questionnaire provided upon entry. Questions are designed to measure anxiety levels, suicidal tendencies and substance abuse.
— Treatment plans for juveniles with mental disorders: Plans are based on the juvenile’s responses to the questionnaire. Treatments plans are shared with detention center staff on a weekly basis. Wellpath provides the facility with a forensic psychiatrist, registered nurse and vocational nurse.
— Medication: A juvenile’s medication history is noted upon entry. Health care providers make every effort to continue their current medication routine. Psychiatrists visit to monitor their medication use at least once per week, and any medications needed are prescribed and administered to the juvenile. Juveniles are not forced to take medication.
— Crisis interventions and managing acute psychiatric disorders: Response to acute psychiatric symptoms is timely and one-on-one. Patients are encouraged to talk their feelings out instead of acting out physically or remaining silent.
— Suicide prevention: Juveniles are put on a suicide watch if they show suicidal tendencies, such as self-harm. This could involve having a health care professional sit down with the juvenile or having someone check on them every 15 minutes while the juvenile is in a safety cell, which can be seen by many staff at the same time. There have been no suicides at Juvenile Hall since it opened in 2004.
— Transitioning to the community: Juvenile Hall staff work with the Napa County Probation Department to connect juveniles with mental health care services outside of the facility. Probation officers track their progress. Juveniles on probation may work with programs including The Wolfe Center’s Aldea Behavioral Health Services, The Nexus Program and The Child Mental Health Center.
— Patients who need more help than what Juvenile Hall can offer: Such patients are referred to Exodus Recover, a 24-7 psychiatric crisis center for patients of all ages in Napa Valley. It is administered by the state Health and Human Services Agency.
Grand jury foreperson Kort van Bronkhorst said the grand jury expects to complete five to 10 reports in total this year.
He noted that last year’s grand jury issued a report on the underused county Juvenile Hall facility, which housed an average of 16 patients last year, according to the recent grand jury report. The facility was built to house 50 juveniles.
Mary Butler, head of the probation department, said she appreciated that the grand jury scrutinized Juvenile Hall’s mental health services and affirmed the bright spots of its work in mental health.
“The grand jury really saw the dedication and the hard work of the staff,” she said.
April 11, 2019
Napa Valley Register
By Courtney Teague

[Santa Barbara County] Grand jury had raised concerns about site of fatal crash

The intersection where an 83-year-old Santa Maria woman died in a crash on April 4 was the subject of a grand jury investigation five years ago.
In its 2014 report, members of the Santa Barbara County grand jury raised a number of safety concerns about the intersection of Union Valley Parkway and California Boulevard in Santa Maria, claiming that dangerous conditions on the road may be putting drivers at an increased risk for accidents.
The April 2 accident occurred at approximately 5 p.m. at that very intersection. According to the Santa Maria Police Department, the collision occurred between Judith Zimmer of Santa Maria, who was driving a 2000 Acura sedan, and an Apex auto-glass truck with two unnamed occupants inside. Zimmer was killed as a result of the crash while the two occupants in the truck were unharmed, police said. 
As of April 9, police were still investigating the circumstances of the crash but believe that drugs and alcohol were not factors in the fatal collision.
According to the grand jury report, a setback for the crosswalk and stop sign on California Boulevard creates visibility problems and requires northbound drivers to “creep” into the intersection with Union Valley Parkway in order to property observe cross traffic. 
“This subjects northbound drivers, particularly those turning left, to the increased risk of an accident,” the report states. “In addition, east and westbound drivers on the Parkway cannot see, nor are they warned of, the approaching intersection, also creating a dangerous condition.”
Currently, the intersection is only regulated by stop signs for north- and southbound vehicles traveling on California Boulevard. The 2014 grand jury report noted that plans for the intersection originally called for a four-way stop, but it was eliminated during the planning process. The grand jury recommended that the city of Santa Maria install a four-way stop and put up signs warning drivers of the upcoming intersection.
“Without the installation of the appropriate signage, the city of Santa Maria may be missing an opportunity to reduce its substantial risk of liability in the event of an accident at that intersection,” the report stated. 
In its response to the report, the city disagreed with some of the grand jury’s findings and declined to implement its recommendation of a four-way stop, arguing that a 12-month study of accidents at the intersection and traffic volume analysis revealed that such a measure was unwarranted.
“Using this data, staff completed the stop sign and signal warrant analysis, and the intersection did not meet the necessary criteria to install a traffic control device,” the city’s response said.
April 10, 2019
Santa Maria Sun
By Chris McGuinnes

Thursday, April 11, 2019

[Kern County] Grand Jury provides recommendations for Measure N Citizen Oversight Committee

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — The Grand Jury released their recommendations for the Measure N Citizen Oversight Committee Wednesday.
Their recommendations were the following:
  • To ensure fairness and transparency in the selection process, the Grand Jury recommends the Bakersfield City Council hold random drawings from applicants to select future Citizen Oversight Committee members. 
  • In the event Citizens Oversight Committee vacancies occur, the Grand Jury recommends the vacant position be filled by a random drawing from the remaining pool of applicants. 
  • The Grand Jury recommends the members of the Citizen Oversight Committee have staggered four-year terms of service to avoid having all new members empaneled every three years. 
  • The Grand Jury recommends the Bakersfield City Council initiate steps to ensure full disclosure on future tax measures by providing detailed information on how funds are to be spent. 
The recommendations come after the Grand Jury inquired into the Bakersfield City Council selection process to establish a Citizen Oversight Committee.
On November 6, 2018, Bakersfield City voters went to the polls to vote on Measure N to raise the sales tax from 7.2 percent to 8.25 percent.
Measure N required the city council to appoint an independent committee to review the expenditure of revenues generated by the ordinance.
The added 1 percent sales tax is anticipated to generate $50 million annually.April 10, 2019
Bakersfield NOW Eyewitness News

By Eyewitness News staff

[Kern County] Grand jury recommends City Council select sales tax committee members at 'random' for fairness and transparency

A Kern County grand jury is saying members of Bakersfield’s sales tax oversight committee should have been chosen through “random drawings” to ensure fairness and transparency in the selection process.
In a report released Wednesday, the grand jury detailed its investigation into the process the Bakersfield City Council went through to choose the nine members of the independent oversight committee.
In several rounds of voting that occurred in February, the council used a unique approach to whittle down the 82 Bakersfield residents that applied for a position on the committee.
During the first round, each council member voted for nine of the applicants. Any of the applicants who received four or more votes were given a position on the committee, and those who did not receive any votes were eliminated.
The rounds continued until all nine positions had been filled.
“The voting process was used in hopes that only the ‘best of the best were selected,’” the report said.
However, at the end of the voting process, seven of the nine committee members had been chosen from a list provided to the city by a coalition of Bakersfield business and public safety groups that included the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, Kern County Taxpayers Association, Bakersfield Association of Realtors, Bakersfield Police Officers Association and the Bakersfield International Association of Firefighters.
Many of the committee members had ties to those organizations, leading many in Bakersfield to believe the voting had been unfair.
“After the Citizens Oversight Committee was selected, public complaints began to surface,” the report said. “The consensus of the complaints is that the selection process was not fair because the Council relied heavily on Coalition recommendations and did not provide transparency.”
A better method, at least according to the grand jury, would be for the council to merely select at random any of the 82 applicants for the committee.
The alternative would likely have leveled the playing field for all those who applied, while potentially ignoring other factors such as an applicant’s level of experience and skill.
Councilman Bob Smith defended the council's voting method, which he proposed.
"There are obviously people who shouldn't be on there," he said, referring to the 82 applicants the council selected from. "And there are people that have better qualifications. Randomly picking out of a hat makes no sense to me."
He said the method used by the council was fair, and was used in other circumstances.
Council members used the voting method because they worried the large number of applicants would make voting on each individual committee seat too cumbersome.
One member of the oversight committee still needs to be added. Pritesh Patel, who was selected by the council in February, resigned from the committee before the first meeting, citing a busy schedule.
The council is set to add the new member in May.
Applications are still being accepted at the City Clerk's office.
Committee members serve three year terms, meaning the council will need to select an entirely new committee in 2022, when the term limits expire.
The grand jury recommended the council stagger the committee members' terms in four-year periods to avoid having all new members every three years.
April 10, 2019 and The Bakersfield Californian
By Sam Morgen

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

[Humboldt County] Opinion: County civil grand jury: What we are and what we’re not

A March 13 decision by a criminal grand jury to not seek indictments in the Josiah Lawson case gives fresh proof that terminology is key and the general public is easily confused with the concepts of civil and criminal grand juries. They are not the same thing and they do not deal in the same matters.
The term “civil grand jury” means different things to different people. First, we are not a criminal grand jury. We do not decide guilt or innocence of individuals accused of a crime. We can recommend to the District Attorney that she take action if our investigations uncover possible wrongdoing by office holders or public administrative officials, but that is a rare action.
Criminal grand juries are empaneled when law enforcement or the courts have a specific issue under consideration. Such juries may serve for short periods of time and they are not used often in this area. Conversely, civil grand juries serve for a year at a time, studying multiple issues of concern to the jurors, complainants, or as directed by state law (as in jail inspections).
These two types of grand juries are vastly different in scope and goals, but both serve a serious need and require observance of secrecy to work effectively.
Most importantly, civil grand juries are not partisan. We all have our views, but we are trained to leave our personal beliefs at the door and delve into the world of facts as they are, not as we wish they might be. The findings we reveal after our investigations and reports are completed are borne of sometimes tedious homework and collaboration. Our goal is not a Perry Mason “gotcha” moment, but a realization that maybe we could do this or that better! Hopefully that realization results in recommendations our government officials can and will use.
Another thing that cannot be emphasized enough is the difference between the Jurors’ Association and a sitting grand jury. The Association is composed of veterans of previous grand juries who have no official connection to any current investigation. We only involve ourselves in prodding government to take seriously reports and recommendations made by the previous grand jury.
Sitting grand juries often benefit from the Association because it can communicate more freely with the media and educate the public about reports already issued. Current grand juries also benefit from its willingness to assist in the interview process of prospective jury applicants. This separation of tasks is critical. The sitting grand jury must maintain confidentiality for its investigations and reports to be taken seriously. Taking such reports seriously is already a difficult enough challenge when government entities sometimes ignore or minimize the validity of the reports and relevancy of the recommendations.
In a previous article we discussed the devastating Camp Fire in Butte County in the late summer of 2018 (“Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury: Serving the citizens,” Times-Standard, March 2, Page A4). Though this fire, with its death and destruction, did not happen here, lessons should be learned about taking civil grand jury reports seriously. The Butte County Civil Grand Jury previously warned of inadequate evacuation routes, but Butte County supervisors did not heed the recommendations. Fires, earthquakes, tsunamis and floods are known local hazards. However, we have another known hazard studied by the civil grand jury in 2017 — sea rise. Humboldt Waste Management Authority has its facilities sitting right at the water table on Hawthorne Street in Eureka and the civil grand jury recommended it consider possible sea rise, whether sudden or gradual, resulting in a recommendation to make plans for a possible relocation of their infrastructure. Who is ultimately responsible for what happens when the calamity is already upon them? Is this a far-fetched scenario? Ask the residents of Paradise now if they should have heeded Butte Civil Grand Jury recommendations. There are countless other examples available … and we will offer them as this series continues.
Jim Glover writes on behalf of the Humboldt County Grand Jurors’ Association. This monthly column about the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury is provided by the Humboldt County Chapter of the California Grand Jurors’ Association (CGJA). We provide the public with informational and educational materials on the California Grand Jury system. Please contact the civil grand jury with complaints or issues you believe need to be investigated. For information on the Jurors’ Association email us:
April 6, 2019
Eureka Times-Standard
By Jim Glover