Monday, September 30, 2019
Blog note: this opinion piece about the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury report raises national concerns.
Following an investigation into Santa Cruz Public Libraries’ (SCPL) use of Gale Analytics on Demand, a California grand jury reported on June 24 that the use of data analytics tools by libraries “is a potential threat to patron privacy and trust.” The report’s broadly negative view regarding the use of big data and analytics software raises several questions about library privacy policies and how they should apply to the use of any data collected about patrons by third parties, when patrons have not explicitly given libraries permission to use that data.
This finding wasn’t the result of a lawsuit. California’s Superior Court convenes 58 separate civil grand juries each year—one for each of the state’s counties. These carry out several functions, including “investigating and reporting on the operations of local government.” In this watchdog role, a grand jury acts as a representative for county residents, generating recommendations for improving operations and enhancing local government accountability. Any local government entity subject to an investigation is required to respond to the recommendations within 90 days. In this case, the investigation was launched in early 2019, in response to concerns raised by SCPL staff.
These recommendations are not legally binding, and the report explains that SCPL’s use of Analytics on Demand does not appear to have violated any state laws. In addition, SCPL Director Susan Nemitz told LJ that the combination of staff concerns about utilizing commercial big data software to analyze patron habits, and the sense that it would require a major initiative to integrate Analytics on Demand into the library’s marketing efforts, had already led SCPL leadership to discontinue use of the tool prior to the investigation.
“Even though it’s a relatively simple product” to use, she explained, library management ultimately decided that “it really would take a major staff effort to make it part of our institutional research processes. So I don’t think our experiments [with Analytics on Demand] really went very far.”
Analytics on Demand is built on Experian Mosaic, a demographic analysis and classification tool used by many businesses for neighborhood-level analysis of customers and potential customers. Mosaic classifies households into 19 groups and 71 unique types such as “middle-class melting pot” or “young, city solos.” Since it is driven by the vast trove of consumer data collected and aggregated by multinational credit-reporting agency Experian, the tool can generate a lot of information, reporting demographic composition and predicting consumer habits, product preferences, and the prevailing attitudes of neighborhoods—or even individual households.
SCPL officials had used an Analytics on Demand license provided by the Pacific Library Partnership (PLP) consortium for a handful of projects beginning in 2017, Nemitz said.
“We aren’t a large library system—we don’t have a huge marketing team—so we had a couple of staff…go to a [PLP] training at Oakland Public,” she explained. “For us, the interest was, we collect no demographic data on our users. Could we [use Analytics on Demand to] provide our funding bodies with some reports about demographic use? Proving that we are serving low-income patrons? Another thing that we looked at when temporarily closing a branch, was…where to put temporary services. We did do one marketing thing to try to figure out where history programs geared toward older adults might be best presented.”
These uses are typical for Analytics on Demand, and indicative of pressures common throughout the library field, including limited outreach budgets and a demand for specific information about a library’s usage and local impact from government and other funding bodies. Yet SCPL’s staff concerns are also reflective of the tension between the implicit promise of privacy for library users and the competition of library services with commercial entities, such as Amazon, that have expansive data collection and analysis policies built into their terms of service agreements.
According to the report, a key sticking point for concerned SCPL staff was that by inputting address information into Analytics on Demand, the library was downloading significant household-level data that patrons had never consented to give the library.
“This gets into the question of combining data sets,” explained Becky Yoose, Library Data Privacy Consultant for LDH Consulting Services. “You have patron data in your integrated library system. You have patron data collected by individual electronic systems, like your catalog, your web analytics software, your electronic resources, [and] authentication systems like EZproxy. The issue comes when you start combining this information in one central place—especially when you’re combining this information with other external datasets that might have other sensitive or ‘high-risk’ data,” including information that could personally identify a user.
In addition, SCPL staff expressed concern about how Gale might be using patron data generated by the platform. Noting that the grand jury report did not include any specific recommendations for Gale, company representatives declined to comment for this article. However, the report cited prior SCPL communication with Gale, in which the company stated that “Gale does not personally handle the library data. There is no need for someone outside the library to manually review, handle, or receive files, like there is with other services. All data is submitted to [Analytics on Demand] directly by the library. In other words, there is no data being ‘exchanged with third parties’…. When the tool generates reports, the library can delete the report at their discretion. There is nothing maintained by us or [any additional third] party. The only information [Analytics on Demand] requires to function is an address. We do not require a name or any other identifiable information that is not public record.”
These statements imply that libraries using Analytics on Demand are pulling data directly from Experian Mosaic via patron address ranges, and Gale is not storing or exchanging any resulting reports with other third parties. Still, the grand jury report found that the library’s use of Analytics on Demand was inconsistent with its policy on Confidentiality of Library Records and companion document, “Information We Keep About You,” which was most recently revised in 2010. Among its many recommendations, the report states that the use of any data analytics tools should be clearly addressed in privacy policies. Patrons should be informed about their use, and all vendor contracts should be thoroughly vetted to ensure that vendors protect the interests of patrons and libraries.
Carol Frost, CEO of PLP and executive director, Peninsula Library System, noted that the grand jury process is not yet complete (SCPL’s reply to the report is due September 23), and PLP wished to honor that process in comments to LJ. But she added that “the section of the report which applies to PLP has some points which all libraries should consider when signing contracts. PLP has an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) which covers patron privacy as well as the non-sharing of data, and addresses most of the items listed in the recommendations. We think it is a best practice for all libraries to use an NDA as a supplement to an agreement when patron privacy is involved, as well as having patron privacy policies. Gale Cengage also has several documents which were not referenced in the Grand Jury report which outline the protection of data when using Analytics on Demand.”
PLP member libraries are located in communities throughout Silicon Valley, and the consortium is “acutely aware of data privacy,” Frost added. “The Facebook sharing of data last year, along with the California Consumer Protection Act (which goes into effect in January 2020) made our libraries start to think about their own data privacy policies. In January we decided to apply for a [Library Services and Technology Act] grant to explore that nexus between library policies and the Consumer Protection Act.”
SCPL will be one of the library systems taking advantage of these new classes and other resources this fall, Nemitz said. SCPL also has established a page on its website with a list of every third party vendor the library uses, along with links to the privacy policies of those vendors, login methods, data retained by each vendor, and other information at santacruzpl.org/data_privacy.
“I want to own that, clearly, we did not address staff concerns well enough” with the library’s use of Analytics on Demand, Nemitz said. Going forward, SCPL is facing a challenge that is becoming increasingly common within the field—meeting the expectations of patrons who have become accustomed to the seamless conveniences enabled by big data, while adhering to policies that promise privacy.
The grand jury report “keeps us talking about really important issues in our field,” Nemitz said. “And I don’t think there are perfect answers right now…. But we as professionals need to care, and we need to help our patrons understand a lot more about data privacy.”
August 12, 2019
Library Journal (an American trade publication for librarians)
By Matt Enis
The City of Vacaville has issued its response to a Solano County Grand Jury report issued in June regarding the city’s retirement benefits package. The Vacaville City Council will consider approving the response at Tuesday’s meeting.
Two months ago, the grand jury authored a report warning that the city’s Other Post-Employment Benefit (OPEB) package for city retirees was “not sustainable” and would lead to a loss of employees and services to citizens if not addressed. The report was triggered by a public complaint and required City Manager Jeremy Craig and the city to issue formal responses to all findings and recommendations made in the document.
The city issued its response to the findings and recommendations, which are included in this week’s council agenda. The grand jury report contended that the city made minor adjustments to OPEB debt, but “the cost for current employees and retirees still represents a significant financial threat to the city, which has not been sufficiently addressed.”
The city wrote that it partially disagreed with this finding, namely the contention that the city’s adjustments to the OPEB debt were minor. The city cited steps taken since 2008 to address the unfunded liability, including reducing the city-paid portion of health premiums from 100 to 85 percent of the Kaiser Bay Area health rate for current employees and retirees, establishing an irrevocable trust fund with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System in 2009 to pay for OPEB in advance, requiring employee contributions to the OPEB trust fund, negotiating a reduced retiree medical benefit for new hires and adopting an OPEB funding policy to fully fund the annual actuarially determined contribution by the 2020 fiscal year.
One of the grand jury’s recommendations for this finding was to establish a citizen oversight committee to study OPEB and present recommendations to the council. The city wrote that it appreciates the recommendation but has no plans to implement it for the time being.
“The current process of staff studying OPEB; working with an independent actuary on potential impacts; gathering and sharing information on potential costsaving strategies through conferences, trainings, and communications with external municipal colleagues; and proposing recommendations to council have resulted in steady progress being made on addressing the OPEB UAL,” the city wrote. “The city’s OPEB funded ratio has increased every actuarial valuation. While the city welcomes comments/ideas from the public on the topic, the establishment of a citizen oversight committee is not necessary.”
The city agreed with a finding that the OPEB might be a complex topic for the public to understand but disagreed with a charge that materials provided to the council by staff did not address the package’s long-term impact. Specifically, it cited a report on the effect of unfunded liabilities, which was presented to the council in 2015. The report also led to an OPEB funding policy being adopted later that year, which itself was the subject of the most recent round of negotiations, the city wrote.
In response to recommendations that the city direct staff to put the impact of changes and methodology in deciding the final impact into simpler language, the city wrote that the recommendation has not been implemented but would be brought to the council for future presentations.
Another finding suggested that placing OPEB issues on the council’s consent calendar made the public less likely to be aware of them and provide input on. The city partially disagreed with the report’s assessment.
“Although there are items such as labor Memorandum of Understandings (MOU) that may affect OPEB which are placed on the Consent Calendar, OPEB is also discussed and presented outside of the Consent Calendar,” the city wrote.
The city also wrote that it would consider within approximately four months whether or not to implement the report’s recommendation to present all OPEB and retirement health premium issues as separate agenda items.
The city concurred with a finding that changes in health plan rates announced by CalPERS were not brought before the council or public. Regarding a recommendation that changes in the city’s contribution toward retirement health care or impact on OPEB liability be placed on the agenda for the council’s public review, the city wrote that contributions toward active and retiree health care premiums were on the agenda as part of a resolution approving a new labor memorandum of understanding.
“As stated in the Grand Jury Report, the city contracts with CalPERS to obtain and administer healthcare for the City,” staff wrote. “The city has no involvement in negotiations of the health plan rates announced by CalPERS (i.e. the total healthcare premium)
and these CalPERS rate changes are not required to be on the agenda, nor does the city have any authority to change the rates.”
The response to the report is on the council’s consent calendar, where it will be approved alongside other items in one motion unless it is pulled by a council member or member of the public.
August 12, 2019
By Nick Sestanovich
Saturday, September 21, 2019
Blog note: this article references a 2011 grand jury report.
As its schools face declining enrollment and shrinking budgets, local policymakers are asking why Sonoma County has 40 public school districts — and exploring whether they can save money and improve students’ education by consolidating.
Only four counties in the state have more school districts than Sonoma County, which has been carved into an intricate, often overlapping mosaic of public agencies responsible for educating nearly 70,000 students enrolled in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade. Most of those students will begin the new school year this week.
Advocates for change say merging districts would help reduce administrative costs while creating consistency in curriculum and instruction.
Critics, though, say that comes at a cost. They say districts could lose their independence and risk school closures if they consolidate and form larger districts.
Only four of the state’s 58 counties — Los Angeles, San Diego, Kern and Tulare — have more school districts than Sonoma County. Nearby Solano County, which has almost the same number of students as Sonoma County, has only six districts.
The issue of consolidating with neighboring elementary districts has come up for discussion in recent months in the West County Union High School District, which has been wrestling with budget shortfalls caused by state funding reductions as a result of declining enrollment and an increase in employee health and pension costs, according to Diane Landry, the school board president.
“With current budget challenges, it seems irresponsible not to explore the feasibility of all potential options of delivering education in the west county that might strengthen the education system for students and reduce costs,” board Trustee Kellie Noe said in an email.
“At this point, we are looking at the feasibility of many different options, this one (district consolidation) being one that has come up over the past few months,” Noe said.
At Santa Rosa City Schools, the county's largest district with about 16,000 students and 24 schools, a board trustee has asked staff members to explore consolidation.
While some districts have expressed interest in merging, the feeling isn’t shared by all, particularly those in smaller districts that want to preserve their own culture and local control.
At the close-knit Monte Rio Union School, Principal Nathan Myers knows all his students and their siblings and parents by name. Families often approach him directly with questions and feedback.
“That’s the beauty of working here,” said Myers, who also serves as superintendent of the school district that oversees the 90-student, K-8 campus.
Monte Rio Union, which has an operating budget of $1.5 million, is one of several tiny, rural school districts in the county that have maintained their independence over the decades.
“It seems like it would make sense to cut administrative costs, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts not many people would like it,” Myers said of district consolidation. “To (small communities), the cost isn’t the issue. The issue is the local control.”
Small districts are an anachronism dating back to when California became a state in 1850. Each village or small town ran its own one-room schoolhouse, but a push to unify schools into larger districts began in the early 20th century, according to Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley.
“It was seen as a modern, more efficient way to run schools so we wouldn’t have so many little districts,” Fuller said.
From the late 1950s to the 1970s, the state also provided districts financial incentives to consolidate, according to Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools. However, the incentives weren’t much of a draw for schools in Sonoma County, which didn’t experience the same rate of population growth as counties in Southern California.
“This is why consolidation is pretty rare in California, because you’re taking on this centuries-old tradition of local control,” Fuller said. “The politics of consolidating can get pretty ugly.”
In 2011, the Sonoma County Grand Jury studied school district consolidation. It found the county had more school districts per pupil than any other county of similar size.
Education officials from across the county were interviewed for the grand jury’s report, and most agreed the county’s school district configuration was not financially sustainable. At the time, the 40 districts operated under a combined budget of $529.7 million.
A 2006 study commissioned by the Sonoma County Office of Education found that combining 11 west county school districts would produce savings of at least $200,000 a year, though a study later found merging west county’s Twin Hills and Sebastopol school districts would not result in a financial advantage because of state funding formulas.
No new study on local school district consolidation has been done since 2013 when the state passed its new funding model, the Local Control Funding Formula, Herrington said. The model is meant to give districts greater autonomy over spending of state funds on programs and school services.
It’s unclear how much the county would save if all districts consolidated. The districts are expected to spend a total of $1 billion in the 2019-20 school year, according to the county Office of Education.
Jenni Klose, Santa Rosa City Schools board president, is a proponent of consolidating all of Santa Rosa’s school districts into one.
Even her district is technically two districts — an elementary and a secondary, overseeing middle and high school campuses. It is operated under one superintendent and one school board.
Santa Rosa also has the Bellevue Union, Bennett Valley Union, Mark West Union, Oak Grove Union, Piner-Olivet Union, Rincon Valley Union, Roseland and Wright school districts. Many of them feed students into Santa Rosa City Schools’ middle and high schools.
School consolidation is something the Santa Rosa City Schools board has discussed in the past. A fellow board member — Omar Medina — recently revived the issue, requesting the district put together a report on consolidation, Klose said.
“It’s a discussion that comes up every decade,” said Frank Pugh, who served on the Santa Rosa City Schools board for 28 years and is former president of the National School Boards Association. “But in all the years I was on the board there never really was a parent group that came to the board and demanded we consolidate districts.”
Uniformity in curriculum and staff professional development is a concern with having multiple school districts in Santa Rosa, a city of about 175,000, Klose said. Districts also end up competing for the same small pool of experienced teachers and specialized positions, she said.
When she mingles with education officials from outside the area, Klose said the number of school districts in Sonoma County often shocks them.
“There’s got to be a champion, a citizens-driven effort to start a campaign” in order for school consolidations to happen in Sonoma County, she said.
Fuller said it may not be cost effective to run school districts with 10 or fewer schools, although districts with more than 30 to 50 schools may become more bureaucratic and less personal.
“There’s a sweet spot in between,” Fuller said. “You don’t want schools to start to look like the DMV.”
Cynthia Evers, Rincon Valley Union school board president, said consolidation is complicated. In her 20 years on the board, she couldn’t recall the issue ever coming up on an agenda.
“The biggest reason why we haven’t talked about merging with Santa Rosa City Schools is that we’re really an elementary district,” Evers said. “Our focus isn’t about Friday night football. We focus on teaching our kids to read and write and be effective citizens for when they go to middle and high school.”
About 1,320 students are enrolled in the Rincon Valley district, according to the California Department of Education.
Families value the small district and its open-door culture, Evers said. They feel like they can approach district officials directly, she said.
About two years ago, the Monte Rio school district proposed moving its middle school students to neighboring Guerneville School, a K-8 school with about 260 students. Although the districts weren't consolidating, it was viewed as a step in that direction.
“We didn’t go far in the process because the pushback was so great at board meetings,” said Dana Pedersen, Guerneville superintendent.
She said some fear that consolidation could lead to small communities losing their schools if they forfeit control to a larger district, especially with enrollment declining countywide because of the high cost of living, shifting demographics and wildfire and flood impacts.
“We are able to expedite very quickly what our stakeholders want,“ Pedersen said.
Monte Rio Union and Guerneville feed students into the West Sonoma County Union High School District, which oversees Analy and El Molino high schools.
They’re among several small districts that pair with the high school district to share specialized staff members under the West County Special Education and Special Services Consortium. Special education teachers are shared between the 1 0 schools under the consortium, and the 10 superintendents meet once a month.
“That’s why I think these smaller districts are able to sustain themselves,” said Mary Schafer, West Sonoma County Union chief business official.
If West County Union consolidates with its neighboring elementary school districts, the process could take years. It would require many steps, including putting the matter on a ballot, securing voter support, conducting studies and navigating the complexities of reorganizing budgets, staff, board members and collective bargaining units.
“I believe that consolidating some districts would be educationally and financially advantageous,” Schafer said.
Former Sonoma County Superintendent Carl Wong about a decade ago recommended school district consolidation, a recommendation that, like the 2011 grand jury report he helped spur, resulted in no action, according to multiple local education officials. Wong could not be reached for comment.
Herrington, the current county superintendent, said if district consolidation were to happen in Sonoma County, it would be best for districts to partner with similarly funded districts.
Schools with more students who qualify for low or reduced lunch receive supplemental grants from the state, which may disappear if they pair with a district that relies more on local community funds.
“It is being discussed, and I know there’s interest in more than one district,” Herrington said.
August 11, 2019
The Press Democrat
By Tori Cooper
Palo Alto officials have complained for decades about the city's representation on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which ostensibly serves the entire county but which is largely dominated by San Jose. In June, a Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report largely confirmed the city's position when it had determined that the transit agency's leadership structure is, to paraphrase the report, an utter mess. The scathing report notes that the board suffers from a lack of experience by its members, domination by representatives from San Jose and conflicts of interest by members who must balance their fiduciary duties to the VTA with demands from local communities. Later this month, the Palo Alto City Council will consider approving a letter signed by Mayor Eric Filseth that makes a case for changing how board seats are meted out. While Filseth noted that smaller cities like Palo Alto currently don't have a consensus position on the issue, he argued that VTA's governance should be based not just on cities' populations (as is the case today) but also on employment and sales-tax generation. "As a major employment center and sales tax generator at the edge of VTA's service territory, Palo Alto has historically been underrepresented in VTA policy decision in ways that do not serve the travelling public," the city's response to the grand jury states. The letter proposes having the VTA provide funding to a regional group, such as the Cities Association of Santa Clara County, so that the various cities that don't currently have representation on the VTA board can have a "thoughtful discussion" about possible alternatives.
August 11, 2019
Palo Alto Online
By Palo Alto Weekly Staff
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
Recognizing the potential peril of a devastating wildfire, Marin County fire agencies and municipal governments are proposing the creation of a new parcel tax to raise money to harden Marin’s defenses and a new joint powers authority to oversee the effort.
The proposals will be discussed by the Marin County Board of Supervisors when it meets on Tuesday.
“We have been working on a new approach to coordinate wildfire prevention efforts for some time, and we’re glad that residents and partners around the county understand the urgency of this proposal,” said Novato fire Chief Bill Tyler, president of the Marin County Fire Chiefs Association. “It’s necessary because fire does not respect jurisdictional boundaries.”
Voters could be asked to approve the parcel tax, which would aim at raising $20 million annually, as early as March.
Sixty percent of the revenue generated by the tax would be dedicated to core functions such as vegetation management, wildfire detection, evacuation improvements, grants and public education. Twenty percent would be used for annual defensible space evaluations, and another 20% would be used for wildfire prevention efforts designed for specific locales.
Proceeds from the tax would help Marin qualify for state and federal grants; but the money would stay local and be protected from any taking by the state.
Under the proposal, expenditures would be overseen by a new joint powers authority that would consist of the county government and the county’s fire agencies and municipal governments.
The authority would be governed by an 11-member board of directors. There would be two board members representing each of five proposed zones: Ross Valley, San Rafael, West Marin, Novato and Southern Marin. One board member would represent the remaining small districts.
In a report on fire preparedness that it released on April 25, the Marin County Civil Grand Jury called for the creation of a joint powers authority to coordinate wildfire preparedness and a quarter-cent sales tax to help fund preparedness efforts.
“Considering Marin’s current state of preparedness, citizens should not assume that first responders will be able to save them from the horrors of a wildfire like those experienced during Butte County’s Camp Fire,” the report stated.
“The idea of the tax and a JPA came entirely from the civil grand jury report,” said Lucy Dilworth, a member of the grand jury that produced the report. “We felt that a sales tax was the most equitable approach. Since everybody benefits everybody should contribute.”
Dilworth said the grand jury also feared a parcel tax might lead to controversy over which areas of Marin benefit most from the spending of the tax revenue.
Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel said, “Based on discussions with all the fire-responsible agencies, we thought the parcel tax was the most appropriate revenue source. We are currently performing a parcel tax study to determine the relative costs by various property types.”
Marin County fire Chief Jason Weber said the grand jury’s recommendations aligned with previous analysis the county had done.
In 2015, county supervisors adopted a wildfire protection plan that inventoried the county’s fire fuel conditions and the number of people and structures at risk. The document was developed collaboratively by county fire and land management agencies.
Then, following the fires of 2017, the Board of Supervisors commissioned a cross-jurisdictional panel consisting of fire officials, land managers and municipal officials to review the devastating North Bay fires and make recommendations.
“We had very candid conversations about what worked well and what didn’t and what could have been done to avoid the calamity,” Weber said. “Based on the gaps identified in both documents, public demand to do more, and the understanding we could do this better together than independently, the fire chiefs, city managers and county executives began working on a countywide approach to wildfire prevention.”
“The work that needs to be done requires financial resources to create safer communities where residents can receive early alerts and warnings, safely evacuate and reduce the intensity of fires in a changing climate,” Weber said.
Organizers of the joint powers authority plan to make presentations to fire district boards, town councils and city councils through September and return to the Board of Supervisors with any proposed modifications to the plan.
August 10, 2019
Marin Independent Journal
By Richard Halstead
Friday, September 20, 2019
State Programs to Increase Housing Stock Must Recognize Rural Challenges
Blog note: this opinion piece references a Nevada County grand jury report.
I love Santa Barbara and its surrounds, and I remember well my visits over the years when my son went to college there. Your community shares very similar issues with fire danger as my foothills community of Grass Valley. Indeed, we share with all Californians the statewide impacts of increasing super fires. Please join me in letting our state legislators know that any state programs designed to increase housing stock needs to recognize rural challenges.
I’ve written to Governor Newsom and our state legislators, asking that in the process of promoting more housing construction, that they please avoid adding fuel in the form of housing to our rural fire dangers.
Any failure to address the conflict of adding housing to dangerous rural areas is an issue that is or should be of concern for all California residents — every resident statewide is already paying for the ever-increasing costs of fire prevention, firefighting, and fire recovery via statewide “socialized” higher taxes and insurance and utility bills, and these costs will only go up. Any state legislation promoting unconstrained housing development in fire-prone areas borders on criminal negligence.
At the risk of being labeled an alarmist, note these excerpts from our 2018-2019 Nevada County Grand Jury report “Facing Year-long Fire Seasons: Are We Prepared?” which is aimed specifically at local fire dangers. The report pointedly focuses on fire prevention, with little to offer on the essentially insurmountable challenges of effective firefighting and evacuation. Regarding evacuation, for example, the Grand Jury suggests residents consider evacuation routes including “dirt roads, trails, pastures, drainage ditches, etc.”, which is fine for those young, adventurous types with high-clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicles, but that’s of little comfort to Grass Valley’s predominate population of senior citizens driving sedans.
• the communal and individual responsibilities pertaining to fire remain immense
• some fire experts believe that Nevada County is just as vulnerable as Butte County … others say it is not a matter of “if” but “when” the next big wildfire will occur
• of the County’s 600 miles of County roads and 2,200 miles of private roads, up to 75 percent of the roads in the county may not be maintained with best practices and some private roads are simply considered “no go zones” for fire engines and other emergency response vehicles if a fire occurs
• in 2018, only $442 was spent on zoned evacuation planning, in which areas are evacuated in a staggered fashion. There is no comprehensive County fire evacuation plan
• and, to my point, many communities in the county were simply not built with evacuations of a scale commensurate with their current populations in mind. This problem deepens as communities continue to grow.
Add to that our new paradigm of addressing high wind/fire danger days with pre-emptive and highly disruptive regional power shut-offs, with their attendant homeowner impacts on well-water pumps, refrigeration, medical devices and the like, and community impacts on businesses, traffic lights, medical services, etc., one has to ask, “is this the best we can do?”
Before our legislators go forward without addressing rural fire dangers, they should ask their millions of urban constituents if they are happy subsidizing housing developments that are typically not even affordable to most rural residents. Consider this a plea to remember the old trope that one size does not fit all and, that, in the process of mitigating one problem, you are not exacerbating another. Or, if you prefer, please do not add fuel to the fire.
August 10, 2019
Santa Barbara Independent
By Terry Lamphier, a former Nevada County supervisor and former Grass Valley planning commissioner
Tuolumne County’s economic development director details first month on the job, plans for the future
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report that the reporter has written about for 15 months.
Cole Przybyla says he’s tried to spend much of his first month as Tuolumne County’s economic development director outside of his new office.
Przybyla isn’t traveling out of state to trade shows and ordering room service in fancy hotel rooms, however. He’s meeting face-to-face with business owners and community members throughout the county to understand what they want for the future of economic development.
“Businesses are interested in how the economic development department can be a benefit to them on an individual basis,” he said during an interview in downtown Sonora’s Courthouse Square on Friday.
The 29-year-old former business owner was hired by the county Board of Supervisors on July 2 to fill the void left by the demise of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, which was shut down in February amid controversy over how it was operating.
The 29-year-old former business owner was hired by the county Board of Supervisors on July 2 to fill the void left by the demise of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, which was shut down in February amid controversy over how it was operating.
Public outrage over the agency was stoked by a citizen’s lawsuit and Grand Jury report released in June 2018 that found a lack of oversight and accountability for how the former chief executive officer, Larry Cope, was spending his time and public funds.
An analysis by The Union Democrat of Cope’s expense records found that he ate at local restaurants nearly every working day at taxpayer expense in 2017 and spent tens of thousands on multi-day business trips to places like Boston, Las Vegas and San Francisco over a two-year period.
Przybyla said one of the Grand Jury’s findings about the former agency that stood out to him most was that some businesses the jury interviewed didn’t know the agency existed, something that he’s hoping to change through his outreach.
“Businesses are happy I’m reaching out to them,” he said. “I’m getting out in the community to make sure they know we’re here for them.”
The meetings have also helped Przybyla understand unique issues in each community that stifle economic development. For example, every person he spoke with in Groveland told him a lack of parking was the foremost problem in that area.
Przybyla said he hopes to work with other agencies and county departments on those individual issues specific to the various communities, while also chipping away at some larger overarching concerns.
A need for more affordable housing and better infrastructure, particularly with respect to high-speed broadband Internet, are two countywide issues that Przybyla sees as holding back the area’s economic potential.
One way that Przybyla hopes to help with affordable housing is by promoting investment in the area through the federal Opportunity Zone program, which was created by President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax reform law.
“You will be hearing about that from me a lot in the coming months and probably years,” he said.
The program aims to encourage investment in economically distressed areas by providing tax breaks on capital gains that are invested within the zones.
For example, a person who sold a house for more than they purchased it for could invest that profit in a project within a designated Opportunity Zone and not have to pay a capital gains tax on it.
Opportunity Zones are defined as low-income census tracts that have a poverty rate of at least 20 percent, or a median family income of 80 percent or less of the state’s median family income.
Przybyla said the Sonora and Groveland areas are both designated Opportunity Zones. The state has a total of 879, which account for one-tenth of the total population.
“It’s not like they are everywhere,” he said of the potential for attracting investment.
Another initiative Przybyla said he’s working on is creating a guide for existing businesses that are looking to expand or relocate to the county, which will include data on demographics, retail gaps, and information on resources available to help them.
The former TCEDA created a similar resource guide, but it was solely geared toward people starting a business for the first time.
Przybyla said funding for the guide will come out of his department’s marketing budget. The department’s total budget through June 30 is about $194,000, which includes his annual salary of nearly $100,000 plus health and retirement benefits.
The former TCEDA’s annual budget was $460,732, of which the county paid $344,292.
In addition, Przybyla said he’s actively trying to find tenants for the vacant buildings in the Sonora Plaza shopping center on Mono Way that previously housed Orchard Supply Hardware and Cost-U-Less.
Przybyla said he hopes to announce a deal within a couple of months for the space formerly occupied by Orchard Supply. He also said he’s reached out to businesses about the Cost-U-Less space that include grocery stores geared toward more healthy food and others in the entertainment and retail industries.
One of the more controversial aspects about the former TCEDA was a lack of metrics to gauge the performance of its CEO, who was one of the highest paid county employees at more than $163,000 per year.
Cope acknowledged that he kept no records prior to 2016 on the assistance he provided to businesses.
Przybyla said he’s created a charting system to make a record of all the contacts he makes that will include information like the size of the business, where it’s located and type of industry.
“It will give you a better idea of how I spend my time,” he said. “I think you’ll see there’s a lot going on.”
Despite being a county employee, Przybyla said he’s still working projects within the city limits like filling the Sonora Plaza vacancies because he believes it should be treated as a community that’s part of the county.
Przybyla said he will work with the city after it figures out how it’s going to handle economic development moving forward.
“I will make sure we’re a partnership,” he said.
In June, the city council approved spending $7,500 for Chico-based consultant Chabin Concepts to gather information and create a report that it hopes will help guide its economic development efforts.
City Administrator Tim Miller said on Friday the consultant was updating all of the economic data in the Vision Sonora Plan, which was completed in 2013, and will hopefully begin interviewing stakeholders within the next week.
Miller said stakeholders include business owners in the city, residents, and organizations involved with economic development, such as the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau and Tuolumne County Business Council.
After the report is complete, Miller said there will be a public meeting to go over the information and get input before the council reviews it and decides what to do next.
“I expect we’ll have a report to take forward to the council within the next couple of months,” Miller said.
Przybyla has reached out to Miller to schedule a meeting but the two have yet to connect. Miller said he would be happy to sit down with him when they can work out a time.
August 9, 2019
The Union Democrat
By Alex MacLean
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
Yolo County supervisors appear ready to terminate a decade-old contract with federal immigration authorities to house unaccompanied migrant teenagers in a high-security detention center in Woodland.
This fall, the five-member Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on whether to extend the county’s contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which can detain up to two dozen unaccompanied migrant teenagers in the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility.
The Yolo facility is one of two high-security centers for immigrant teenagers nationwide and houses unaccompanied minors who “pose a danger to self or others” or could be charged with a criminal offense, federal immigration guidelines state. The second is in central Virginia, while a third high-security facility in northern Virginia ended its contract with the federal government last year.
Since the contract began, the Yolo detention center has housed about 800 teenagers who entered the United States without a parent, most of them from Central America and Mexico.
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Now the relationship appears ready to end, in part because Yolo County supervisors and other officials have questioned whether it’s appropriate to collaborate with what some call an “erratic” federal government to lock up migrant children — and argue the center, which is nearly empty, could be put to better use.
A minimum of three supervisors must vote “yes” in order to extend the contract with ORR. One board member, Oscar Villegas, is expected to recuse himself because he works with the Board of State and Community Corrections. That leaves four supervisors available to vote.
In interviews, supervisors Don Saylor and Gary Sandy criticized the contract, and indicated they would likely vote against the extension, effectively killing a relationship Yolo County has maintained with the federal government since 2008.
“I’m leaning strongly against renewing the contract,” Sandy said.
As the Trump administration has faced criticism for its treatment of asylum-seeking migrants in detention camps, the Yolo facility has itself faced scrutiny for its treatment of teenagers under its care, as well as other staffing and finance issues.
A recent report by disability-rights activists claimed guards at the Yolo facility were using pepper spray on wards and failing to provide adequate special education services. A grand jury report last year criticized the facility for failing to report assaults on staff members and an escape attempt, and a state audit said Yolo County had undercharged the federal government for all the services it provided.
County officials also have been critical of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, saying in 2017 that it sent teenagers to the facility without proof they were members of the MS-13 gang — an affiliation that requires placement at a high-security facility. All seven were eventually moved to less restrictive facilities.
The ORR also came under criticism for sending an abused Honduran teenager to the high-security Yolo facility for a year before he was granted asylum in 2017.
Approximately 10,000 unaccompanied youths are housed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in houses, shelters and detention centers across the U.S., according to the agency. California has capacity for 450 of them, including as many as 24 in the Yolo facility.
“At what point do you become complicit with the federal government’s treatment of immigrants by housing young people in detention centers?” Saylor said.
Saylor and Sandy said they became disillusioned about continuing to work with ORR when the agency announced in May that it would stop funding educational and recreational programs, which the facility is required by law to provide.
Although the decision was reversed within a month, Saylor called the initial decision “chilling.” Sandy agreed.
“That goes to the heart of what I see as the erratic, chaotic way that ORR is administered by the federal government,” Sandy said, calling it “the epitome of fiscal mismanagement.”
If the contract is not approved this fall, it will expire in January, Saylor said. Between now and then, case managers at the center would stop accepting new transfers, work to reunify youths in the center with sponsors, and transfer remaining youths to other facilities across the country.
Facility nearly empty
Critics, including facility administrators and county officials, say that the current center is operating far under capacity and could better service the county in another way.
In 2019, the facility received about $3.2 million from the countyto cover care for local youths,and a $6.7 million grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement forunaccompanied minors, but it remains nearly empty. The 90-bed center housed fewer than 17 youths per day in the first quarter of this year — a number that includes migrant teens and local juvenile offenders.
“It’s a $10 million program,” Saylor said. “Today, there are 12 kids there.”
Facility administrators attribute the slump in numbers of Yolo youths detained in the center to shifting attitudes toward juvenile delinquency nationwide. In the first quarter of 2019, an average of 4.5 local youths lived in a 30-bed pod.
Julie Burns, the director of the ORR-funded program in the Yolo facility, said that the number of teenagers under her care fluctuates rapidly — and that she and her staff accept cases only when they think that a high-security setting is best for them.
“We reject 30 to 40 percent of transfer requests,” Burns said.
Such transfer requests often come from lower-security facilities. If Burns and her staff don’t think a teenager will be best served in the Yolo setting, they’ll deny the request.
Allegations of abuse
The Yolo facility has been under pressure from outside groups who claim the facility is not equipped to deal with teenagers who enter with mental health disabilities.
In a report released earlier this year, activists with Disability Rights California alleged that the federal guidelines unfairly target teenagers with mental disabilities and fail to provide them with services they need.
“When we went to Yolo, a high percentage of the children had some type of mental health disability, from PTSD to suicidal ideation,” said Pilar Gonzalez, an attorney with Disability Rights California who visited all nine ORR facilities in California and co-authored the report.
“These guidelines are screening for minors with mental health and behavior issues,” Gonzalez added, “funneling minors with mental health disabilities into more restrictive environments.” such as Yolo County’s high-security facility.
Saylor, the Board of Supervisors chair, agreed.
“Kids who are not criminally involved should not be in custody facilities,” Saylor said. “We are still rejecting referrals from ORR for kids who are not appropriate for this kind of setting.”
Disability Rights California also condemned the facility’s use of pepper spray.
“Five of the eleven children interviewed in September 2018 reported that they had been sprayed,” the report said. “One teenaged boy reported being sprayed with pepper spray on his face and body. Another describe being sprayed in the middle of class in front of his peers.”
But administrators said that since then, halving the staff-to-youth ratio and emphasizing nonviolent intervention has dramatically dropped the number of pepper spray uses.
Since January of this year, pepper spray has been deployed three times, compared with 11 times during the same period in 2018, said facility superintendent Oscar Ruiz. Both Ruiz and Burns began their current positions in early 2018 and have revised practices around staff training, intervention strategies, and level of interaction between staff and detained teenagers.
“Our culture here in the department is changing,” Ruiz said. “We’re speaking a different language. Staff are responding in a positive way.”’
Meanwhile, the county is considering other options for the facility.
The county’s chief probation officer, Daniel Fruchtenicht, proposes filling the center’s often-vacant booking space with inmates from adult jails in the same complex, which would ease the upcoming renovation of the nearby Leinberger and Monroe jail facilities. (A previous push by Fruchtenicht to shut down the facility failed to win enough supervisor support.)
When construction is complete, Fruchtenicht has suggested turning the juvenile detention facility into a transitional program for youths ages 18-25. At that point, the ORR contract would likely be terminated, and the small number of Yolo youth offenders would be shipped to a nearby county, likely Sacramento, for detention.
Fruchtenicht’s plan faces a problem: Under the state Board of State and Community Corrections, it is illegal for adults and minors to live in the same facility. It doesn’t happen anywhere in California, said Adam Lwin, a spokesman for BSCC.
But Fruchtenicht and his staff think they found a compelling loophole to the rule: “sight and sound separation.” If inmate populations cannot see or hear each other, then they may as well be in separate facilities, Fruchtenicht said.
In July, Ruiz, the facility superintendent, submitted a letter of intent to the Board of State and Community Corrections, including a copy of the facility’s policies and an architectural plan for renovations to make the “co-located facility” possible.
The BSCC has no current process in place for how to deal with such an application, Lwin said. As of July 25, Lwin said he hoped to work with colleagues — many of whom are on summer vacation — to create an appropriate review process within a few weeks.
The county Board of Supervisors will next hold a strategic planning meeting on Tuesday to review the treatment of juveniles in the local criminal justice system, and include discussions on the facility’s future.
August 9, 2019
The Sacramento Bee
By Elliot Wailoo
Jury: Meals sometimes go hours before delivery with no temperature checks
LAKE COUNTY — The Lake County Civil Grand Jury has found “significant evidence of non-compliance” in the operations of local meals-on-wheels programs.
In its annual report, the grand jury cites major concerns related to food temperature upon delivery to seniors, food purchasing, delivery-person compensation and misstatement of food delivery statistics.
Meals-on-wheels programs do not typically fall under the jurisdiction of a grand jury, which is an investigative body made up of citizens meant to perform a “watchdog” function on the operations of local governments.
Though the administrators of the local meals-on-wheels programs—senior centers and the Area Agency on Aging—are both “outside the purview of a civil grand jury,” the report states, the jury still chose to investigate the programs because Lake County’s AAA is actually administered by the county and the senior centers are part of a joint powers agreement that ties them to that county-administered body.
The four senior centers that deliver meals-on-wheels are Clearlake Highlands, Clearlake Oaks (Live Oak), Middletown and Lakeport, according to the jury. These service providers receive AAA funding based on how many meals they each deliver.
The grand jury notes that this funding is not “proportionally allocated by AAA,” with the Lakeport senior center getting $6.59 per meal and the Clearlake Highlands senior center getting just $1.94 per meal. The Clearlake Oaks and Middletown centers receive roughly $2.50 per meal.
“Monies cannot be increased for a senior center unless they are taken away from a different center,” the jury states. “These funds are not allocated proportionally to the number of meals delivered for that center.”
The grand jury also finds that the temperatures of meals are not being checked regularly. “The Senior Centers are unable to verify that the temperature of these meals meet requirements.” Sometimes, the jury finds, meal deliveries are taking two hours or more, yet temperatures are not being checked during this time.
In addition, the jury finds that inspections by the Lake County Department of Environmental Health are not being conducted as often as needed.
“Lakeport senior center has not been inspected in over one year,” the jury writes. “For the other centers, it has been nearly one year since their last inspection.” The jury states it found a violation of food storage health code at the Lakeport senior center that had not been addressed.
The grand jury highlights a Lake County Board of Supervisors proclamation from March that states “over 220,000 meals are provided annually to homebound seniors in Lake County” by the meals-on-wheels programs. The grand jury contradicts this claim, stating that it is off by a 60 percent margin.
August 9, 2019
Lake County Record-Bee
By Aidan Freeman