Saturday, December 28, 2019
[Monterey and Shasta Counties–and statewide] ‘Candy Land for sheriffs:’ How California counties spend cash meant to fix jails
Blog note: this article references grand jury reports in two counties. Look for more grand jury investigations on this topic in 2020.
In 2011, California was ordered to reduce its prison population. Since then, California's Central Valley inmate murders have tripled and suicides have risen 23%.
This article was produced in partnership with The Sacramento Bee, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
This story is part of an ongoing investigation into the crisis in California’s jails. Sign up for the Overcorrection newsletter to receive updates in this series as soon as they publish.
Two summers ago, the board of supervisors in Contra Costa County faced a packed meeting room. On the agenda was a proposal to divert $1.5 million in state taxpayer money intended to ease jail overcrowding to other priorities of the local sheriff’s office.
Without the funds, Assistant Sheriff Matthew Schuler said, street patrols across the county would be sacrificed. “That loss would be drastic,” he told the board.
But about two dozen civic, religious and community leaders pushed back, saying the money was desperately needed for where it had been earmarked: jails, paying for probation and expanding social services.
Moving those funds to pay for patrol officers was “truly insulting,” one speaker said. A reverend called the proposal “morally repugnant.” A woman stood at the podium and said Contra Costa County already gave enough money to law enforcement. The county, she said, was a “Candy Land for sheriffs.”
“Our sheriff has not served the community well,” Elsa Chinea Stevens, a resident, told the supervisors. “We should not break the law to reward him by misappropriating funds.”
The board then unanimously approved the transfer.
Since 2011, California has sent more than $8 billion to counties to cover the costs of the massive prison overhaul approved that year, known as “realignment,” which diverted thousands of inmates from prisons to local jails.
Though local governments routinely move money from one law enforcement purpose to another, doing so with realignment funds may violate state law. The California Constitution prohibits county officials from using those dollars to cut their own costs elsewhere. But lax spending rules and limited scrutiny from both state and county officials have allowed just that, a McClatchy and ProPublica investigation found.
In Shasta County, for example, the civil grand jury — a group of volunteers that inspects parts of local government — said the sheriff’s office broke the rules when it tapped realignment cash instead of county funds to pay for its entire jail work-release program.
And a civil grand jury in Monterey County found that although the sheriff received funds for a specialist to direct pretrial inmates to education courses, his office instead used the money to cover a guard’s salary.
Both juries requested an audit. Local officials in both counties denied any wrongdoing.
Contra Costa County Administrator David Twa likewise maintains the law gives counties flexibility and allows them to use money for a “wide variety” of public safety needs.
Some lawmakers, however, disagree. Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, vice chair of the state Senate’s Public Safety and Budget and Fiscal Review committees, said Sacramento should audit how each county spends its realignment funds.
“The state should have been asking for supportive documents every year,” said Moorlach, a former Orange County supervisor who has been critical of local realignment spending. “That’s just a simple management program.”
State and local authorities need to scrutinize county sheriffs’ finances, said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, who sits on the state Assembly’s budget oversight subcommittee. While boards of supervisors typically set law enforcement budgets, sheriffs decide how to spend that money within their own operations.
California’s elected law enforcers have often rebuffed independent audits, arguing that voters provide oversight through “the election every four years,” McCarty said. “Even county supervisors have been stonewalled” when asking for information about sheriffs’ budgets or jail practices.
McCarty has pledged to reintroduce legislation next year that would allow county supervisors or voters to create sheriff oversight agencies. The bill stalled in the state Senate this year.
To be sure, many counties have created programs for education, vocational training and addiction treatment with the state funds. Those programs all appear to follow the spirit of the 2011 legislation, which gave county jails and probation departments huge new responsibilities along with the infusion of cash.
But in Contra Costa County, a citizen’s group that makes recommendations about realignment says potentially illegal spending has gone on for years. The group in 2016 said there was no explanation for how any of the outlays improved rehabilitation or reduced recidivism, core tenets of realignment. It called for a formal audit.
No such county-level review has actually occurred, the auditor’s office said.
Phil Kader oversaw distribution of the county’s realignment money as chief probation officer until his retirement in 2016. In an interview, he said he shared the citizen group’s concerns.
“I just didn’t feel this revenue should be used to supplant existing positions or things that the county was already going to spend the money on,” Kader said.
“Why did the state let it get that way?”
California lost its decadeslong legal fight on prison overcrowding in May 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court required the state to reduce its prison population by 46,000 inmates. Lawmakers decided to do so by diverting people to county jails.
Then-Gov. Jerry Brown promised counties billions of dollars in state tax revenue to cover the incarceration costs. Legislation provided money that local agencies can spend on modernizing facilities and improving medical care, addiction treatment, education and job training.
In the two years after realignment started, the average daily statewide jail population surged by 10,000 people, to more than 80,000, state data shows. Run-down jails became more deadly. As McClatchy and ProPublica reported in June, inmate-on-inmate killings increased 46 percent statewide, primarily in San Diego, Riverside, Fresno and Merced counties.
Proposition 47, a 2014 ballot measure that downgraded an array of drug and property crimes to misdemeanors, released much of the growing pressure. The average daily statewide jail population fell, to 73,121 the following year, when the changes took effect. (That was still higher than before realignment.)
But while sheriffs’ overall workload shrank, their cut of the state money did not.
In the four years since Proposition 47 passed, sheriffs in the 15 largest counties have received nearly $2 billion in realignment funds. That equates to 47 cents of every realignment dollar, according to a McClatchy and ProPublica analysis of budget data. Meanwhile, probation departments in those counties, which have seen an uptick in cases, have received roughly half what sheriffs have.
Those allocations stem from county committees created under realignment legislation. The so-called Community Corrections Partnerships, made up of leaders from departments in each county, field budget requests, sometimes debate them and forward their recommendations to county boards of supervisors.
The committees were supposed to limit the influence of elected sheriffs and district attorneys, and to encourage spending on social services and alternatives to incarceration, said Craig Cornett, former budget director for the California State Senate. “We set up certain walls within it, partly in order to just keep the law enforcement crowd in check.”
Critics said those barriers proved insufficient. Boards of supervisors have the final say, but they often defer to requests by sheriffs, who wield significant political power in their counties.
The state can audit how local governments have used the realignment cash, but it has not done so in the eight years since the reforms began. H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance, said officials crafted realignment to ensure the decision-making authority rested with the counties, and a state-level examination would amount to second-guessing local elected officials.
But some state lawmakers say such an accounting is long overdue.
“Why did the state let it get that way?” asked Moorlach, the senator who sits on the upper chamber’s Public Safety Committee. “Why weren’t they requesting an annual financial statement or a report that showed where the money was going or why it was justified?”
Counties release broad outlines of how they parcel the money out every year, but their disclosures provide little to no detail on how agencies spent the funds and whether they’ve reduced recidivism or improved social services. State finance officials said anyone can read those summary documents and raise questions themselves.
Matt Cate, who was California’s corrections secretary at the launch of realignment, said sheriffs are powerful political figures in the state and Brown was working to win their support for his plan.
But there was another purpose behind the decision to give county officials full control over the state cash: No one knew precisely what would happen when tens of thousands of people were diverted from the prisons.
“To Gov. Brown’s credit at the time, he decided to give locals the discretion to allocate the money,” Cate said, “because we were certain that we were going to get some things wrong.”
Fewer inmates, more money
Contra Costa County is among the wealthiest counties in California. Its 1.1 million residents have seen an economic boon in recent years, as more and more well-heeled tech workers spread across the San Francisco Bay Area. Its strong tax base is charting a “steady, sustainable path,” according to the county’s recent budget analysis.
It has also been a hub for some progressive criminal justice reforms.
Notably, the courts have long used something called split sentencing, which shortens offenders’ time in jail and instead places them on community supervision with probation. When the number of inmates diverted from prisons to county jails peaked, the county’s use of split sentences prevented it from facing the dangerous overcrowding seen elsewhere in the state.
Supervisors have nevertheless continued to award a third of the county’s realignment money to the sheriff, who has used large sums to boost his office. In 2015, Sheriff David Livingston spent $650,000 in state funds to purchase a bus to transport inmates, just as the realignment population dwindled.
The following year, he spent an additional $3.7 million in realignment money to upgrade the security hardware in the county’s largest jail, a relatively modern facility on the shores of the San Francisco Bay, according to county budget and bid documents. Workers replaced the locks, installed an infrared alarm system, painted the cells and renovated the visiting space.
At the time, however, the facility housed just three dozen realignment inmates, county records show. The rest of the jail’s population consisted of roughly 200 federal immigration detainees, who were being held under a partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The sheriff ended the contract with ICE last year after a political uproar, but not before negotiating with the county board of supervisors, which pledged more realignment money to make up for the lost revenue from the federal agency. Livingston, who is also president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, declined to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to written questions.
At the July 2018 board of supervisors meeting, residents protested the proposal to transfer state funds to the sheriff, but the county administrator, Twa, disputed allegations of misappropriating money. He said realignment was about more than rehabilitation, that the funding was to offset new costs that shifted from the state to the county. “Essentially,” Twa said, “this falls within the realm of that.”
Before the vote, each supervisor talked about the need to increase street patrols. They said it made sense to balance the budget with the state dollars. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Supervisor Federal D. Glover said.
Board Chair Karen Mitchoff said if they didn’t move the money, they would lay off patrol deputies. “I appreciate what you are telling us about reentry,” Mitchoff told the room, “but we also have to protect the rest of Contra Costa County.”
The board unanimously approved the transfer. In an interview this year, Mitchoff defended the vote. “We’ve got a very ethical county administrator,” she said. “He would never recommend something to the board that was illegal.”
Others, however, are still fuming.
“It was supposed to be supporting community members and reducing incarceration,” said Melvin Willis, a city councilman in Richmond, “not supporting the incarceration business.”
Probation departments struggle
Under realignment, probation departments took on additional work, with the goal of advancing rehabilitation and reintegration for offenders. That pressure has only grown in recent years; the number of new realignment-related probation cases has increased 7 percent statewide since sentencing changes kicked in in 2015, according to data from the Chief Probation Officers of California.
And yet, probation’s share of realignment funds has barely changed.
In California’s 15 largest counties, probation chiefs received roughly 27 cents of every realignment dollar, a McClatchy and ProPublica analysis found. In Contra Costa, it’s just 15 cents.
Different counties have different needs, said Stephanie James, president of CPOC, the state’s probation lobbying group, but paying for probation instead of incarceration is what is necessary for success.
A study published in June by the Public Policy Institute of California shows recidivism rates declined during the four years after realignment began, particularly for people sentenced to probation.
“The local jurisdictions who have invested in probation and the services we provide have seen the type of progress envisioned under realignment,” James said in a written statement.
This year, in Contra Costa County, probation received close to $4 million, mostly for probation officers, with the remaining money for basic necessities like bus tickets and group meetings. The sheriff’s office got twice as much, budget records show.
County officials who focus on reentry for inmates say they need to add significantly more job training, housing and inmate transition programs, according to their five-year plan.
The county’s Department of Education started a program in 2016 that prepares jail inmates with job and life skills before their release from jail. The pilot project, funded without realignment money, saw quick success. But the lone reentry specialist quickly became overwhelmed with more than 100 cases at once.
“It was a big job for one person,” said Lindy Khan, senior director of student programs with the county Office of Education. The jail education program struggled, until the probation chief pitched in money. In 2018, the department began paying for another reentry counselor and a part-time assistant to work in the jail. And after years of accumulating surpluses, the sheriff has also requested this month to fund an employment specialist.
“There’s a lot more that can be done,” Khan said. “There’s a lot more people that we could reach in a more timely fashion.”
Patrice Guillory, managing director of Contra Costa County Programs and Services, serves as an adviser to the county on realignment spending. The county doesn’t track whether its spending is accomplishing what it needs to, she said. That has concerned her for years.
“These dollars aren’t always going to be plentiful,” Guillory told the county’s realignment committee this month, before it recommended giving the sheriff more money. “We have to be very cognizant about whether or not we’re making the kind of impact that we say we want to make.”
ProPublica and The Sacramento Bee are spending 2019 examining overcrowding, resources and inmate treatment in county jails across California.
December 27, 2019
The Sacramento Bee
By Jason Pohl and Ryan Gabrielson
[Santa Barbara County] Collision-prone intersection in Santa Maria to become four-way stop following fatal car crash
Blog note: this article (near the end) references a 2014 grand jury report.
Following a fatal collision that left an elderly woman dead in April, the city of Santa Maria is moving to turn an intersection that has been the frequent site of car crashes into a four-way stop.
In April, 83-year-old Judith Zimmer was driving an Acura sedan through the intersection of Union Valley Parkway and California Boulevard when a pickup truck collided into her vehicle.
Zimmer was pronounced dead at the scene by emergency responders. Two men also were injured in the collision.
Following the crash, city officials examined the intersection at the far south end of Santa Maria and determined it now warrants a four-way stop, said Public Works Director Kevin McCune.
In April, 83-year-old Judith Zimmer was killed after her Acura sedan was hit by a pickup truck at the intersection of Union Valley Parkway and California Boulevard. Following the crash, city officials examined the intersection and determined it now warrants a four-way stop.
As it sits, the intersection features stop signs only for those traveling north or south on California Boulevard.
While reviewing current traffic volume and past collisions at the intersection, city staff found five broadside collisions occurred at the intersection between Feb. 4, 2017, and Jan. 18, 2018.
Broadside collisions — or when a vehicle crashes head-on into the side of another vehicle — can potentially be corrected with the installation of a four-way stop, according to a staff report on the new signs prepared by the Public Works Department.
On Dec. 17, the City Council voted unanimously to approve the new four-way stop. The item was on the council’s consent calendar and approved without any discussion.
One member of the public, Scott Fina, wrote a letter to the council expressing support for installing stop signs on Union Valley Parkway.
Fina said he crosses Union Valley Parkway multiple times each week as a pedestrian and vehicles either speed by or voluntarily stop to allow him to cross.
"Both of these occurrences are dangerous for pedestrians and vehicles," he wrote."
McCune said the city’s in-house staff will install the additional signs by the end of January. The labor and materials will cost around $3,000.
The intersection, which was originally planned as a four-way stop, has been the subject of scrutiny over safety concerns since its construction in 2013, according to the staff report.
In 2014, a Santa Barbara County civil grand jury issued a report calling for the city to install a four-way stop, finding that the intersection created hazards, especially for motorists traveling north on California.
At the time, the city declined to install stop signs on Union Valley Parkway, saying a four-way stop was not warranted at the intersection.
December 23, 2019
Santa Maria Times
By Razi Syed
[Humboldt County] On the longest night of the year in Eureka, local groups remember the homeless who died
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
At least 41 homeless people who died in Humboldt County over the last year and a half were memorialized Saturday night in Eureka.
“Those people had many different causes of death,” said Nezzie Wade, co-founder of Affordable Homeless Housing Solutions. “Many of them say natural causes, but they weren’t really natural causes.”
Wade read off the names of each of the people who died for the thirteenth year at the annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day at the gazebo in Old Town Eureka on a rainy Saturday night. AHHA and the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction put on the event to put a spotlight on the difficulties of being without a home on the longest night of the year, Dec. 21, which also happened to be cold and rainy.
Jessica Smith, executive director of HACHR, said her organization mostly deals with people who use drugs, but those people are also often homeless. The lack of stability and not having one’s basic needs met greatly impacts one’s ability to make “better and healthier choices for themselves,” she said.
“We’ve seen the loss of folks from hit-and-runs and being homeless and not being valued the same way as everyone else,” Smith said. “I think it’s important to honor those lives and remember those folks.”
The winter solstice is a symbolic night to remember those without housing because it happens to be the darkest and longest night of the year, Smith said.
There are additional people who aren’t on that list and others who were never identified, Wade said, adding to a list of 150 that have been read over the course of the past 13 years.
It speaks to the need to open more shelters for those without housing, the women said. A Humboldt County civil grand jury report found earlier this year that current shelters present impediments for people who are not single, who have a pet and who have to carry all their possessions with them.
It can become exhausting for organizations with working with homeless people to see the system fail them over and over again, Smith said.
“We’ve spent lots of time trying to get folks into temporary housing and shelters,” Smith said, “and the barriers that continue to come up — it’s just amazing.”
Citizens can help by advocating for alternative shelter options, such as sanctioned camps and safe parking areas, at local municipal meetings, as well as supporting organizations that are working with the homeless, Smith said.
December 21, 2019
By Sonia Waraich
I have been following with keen interest the Vacaville City Council’s response to the recent county’s grand jury report voicing concern with the city’s $357 million unfunded liabilities for pensions and health care payments committed to retired city employees and their families. This deficit continues to grow at the rate of more than $30 million per year.
According to the grand jury report, although few California cities offer this benefit, the city of Vacaville provides lifetime health care to employees, retirees and their children up to the age of 26. I found it quite concerning to learn that the city of Vacaville is currently numbered in the bottom 10 percent of all 482 California cities in terms of financial soundness.
In June 2016, city staff placed on the ballot an initiative to renew the Measure M sales tax, increasing sales tax from 7.878 percent to 8.375 percent for a period of 20 years, suggesting these funds would be used for a variety of city services such as parks, youth and homeless programs.
On Aug. 13, 2019, the City Council passed (with Nolan Sullivan and Dilenna Harris voting against) an 11 percent increase for a group of city employees, plus increasing health and other benefits the impact of which is an additional $3.7 million liability for the city that had not been previously budgeted. Sullivan observed that the new safety employee contract alone will essentially use all of Measure M funds by 2023.
A 12-city analysis of employee compensation has shown that Vacaville pays 46 percent higher salaries and benefits than a dozen other California cities with similar population levels and property values.
The city of Vacaville currently pays more than $25 million per year in pensions for retired employees. One employee who retired in 2010 receives a check for $18,104 per month totaling $217,248 per year. This is just one city employee who retired in his 50s and if he lives until his 90s the city will pay him more than $10 million in pension benefits. Compare this to the $1,461 average monthly Social Security check received by most retirees, or even the maximum $2,861 monthly Social Security benefit for highest salaried individuals who wait until 70 to retire.
Last month the City Council passed yet another memorandum of understanding with two groups of city employees, voting for an 11 percent increase over 23 months for this group, when the cost of living in this country is hovering around 2 percent per year.
While retirement benefits are necessary for city employees, a city can only pay what its cash flow can afford, and our city cannot afford paying a single retired employee $10 million over his lifetime. Eighty-four of the city’s 470 retired employees are receiving pension benefits in excess of $100,000 annually. This is not sustainable.
How long will the city’s balance sheet continue bleeding before it declares bankruptcy like the cities of Vallejo and Stockton? Elections come up next year. Ponder carefully who you want to manage your city, or there won’t be much left of this city to manage.
December 20, 2019
Fairfield Daily Republic
By Danny Wells, Vacaville Citizens for Fiscal Health
In an effort to move past factional divides, the Tracy City Council on Tuesday adopted a San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury recommendation that will require a four-fifths vote for the council to fire the city manager or city attorney.
The grand jury report, released back in June, stated in part that the council’s interactions with upper-level city staff members in 2017 and 2018 “created an unstable work environment” at City Hall. The report noted that then-City Manager Troy Brown was released on a 3-2 vote in September 2017, followed by the abrupt departure of Assistant City Manager Stephanie Garrabrant-Sierra three weeks later.
The firing of the police chief, Larry Esquivel, in August 2018 continued the pattern of city leaders departing under contentious circumstances, leading the grand jury to report that Esquivel’s departure was also the result of “power politics” on the council.
The city manager and city attorney are the only two city employees hired directly by the City Council, and the grand jury stated that that those positions “should be shielded from power politics and shifting alliances by requiring a supermajority vote for their termination.”
Though the council agreed unanimously to amend its policy for firing the city manager and city attorney, there was still disagreement.
Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Young, Councilwoman Rhodesia Ransom and Councilman Dan Arriola advocated the supermajority policy.
Young said that requiring four votes would ensure that the council was firing someone for a legitimate reason.
“In such high-level positions of our city, city manager and city attorney, it should lean more toward cause,” Young said. “Three can possibly be politicized, and four would make it lean more towards that way, for transparency and for stability.”
Ransom added that an effort to seek consensus would require a simple majority of the council to convince at least one more council member that the decision was necessary.
“If in fact there is in fact a need to remove a city manager or city attorney, that should be clear. It shouldn’t be ambiguous. It should be something that we can all get on board with,” Ransom said. “If there is a true issue, it would cause a fourth person to be shown what that issue is.”
Councilwoman Veronica Vargas said she was skeptical of the motivations that led to the grand jury’s recommendation in the first place, and she suspected that fellow council members discussed information from closed sessions with grand jury members during the investigation.
“I’m not opposed to this concept. I am opposed and I’m just not OK with the manner in which I am forced to do this,” she said. “The grand jury was used as a weapon to advance some people’s political views and is a misuse of taxpayer dollars.”
Mayor Robert Rickman spoke in favor of keeping the city policy unchanged, stating that the council’s actions were inherently political.
“Politics plays both ways. Politics plays when you keep someone and politics about getting rid of someone,” he said. “Keeping somebody because you’re friends with them is just as political as getting rid of somebody. Don’t kid yourself.”
December 20, 2019
By Bob Brownne
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
The public on Friday got its first look at a long-awaited report from a consultant detailing how to improve the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, but there were no suggestions to elect VTA board members — who are currently appointed by their cities — as some Silicon Valley transit activists had hoped.
A Board of Directors elected specifically to be transit officials is the “most important change” the VTA can make to improve its governance, said transit activist Andrew Boone.
And although there wasn’t any discussion on direct elections at a Friday VTA committee meeting, director Teresa O’Neill — who is also a Santa Clara councilmember — indicated a willingness to open up board seats to members of the public.
“I would lean more towards and really go for a change of having some kind of committee that selects nominees,” O’Neill said. “Whether they’re elected officials or members of the public who apply to be on the board.”
The concern, as highlighted in a recent grand jury report, is a “lack of experience” among VTA board members who are elected officials in their cities and towns, but not transit experts. Some members are active and engaged, while others are not. Currently, the 18 board members are elected officials appointed by their jurisdictions, with fifteen city councilmembers and three members of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
Mass transit activist Monica Mallon said she “wholeheartedly” supports the direct election of board members. Still, she said she would prefer a board with a full-time focus on transit, even if they are appointed.
“A full-time board of directors that is more responsive to public concerns about transit would be excellent even if it is a smaller board and not elected directly,” Mallon said. “They are spread so thin, I get frustrated with them, but I realize they are running the cities and they are running the county. They have a lot on their plate.”
Instead of a discussion on electing board members, Boone said he and other activists were stunned when consultant RSM made several recommendations that would limit public input at the VTA’s Board of Directors meetings. The suggestions come as Silicon Valley’s mass transit system sees rapidly declining ridership and embarks on new service changes in 2020 following another delay in opening two local BART stations.
One of the recommendations presented at VTA’s Ad Hoc Board Enhancement Committee on Friday is to restrict public comment at board meetings if an agenda item has already been discussed at a committee meeting — which are typically held during weekdays.
RSM also suggested the board move public comment on items not on the agenda to the end of its regular meetings. The San Jose City Council also withholds general public comment until the end of meetings, a source of concern for residents.
“This attempt to kill off public comment at the VTA board meetings is shocking,” Boone told the committee Friday. “To move the non-agenda public comment period from the beginning to the end of meetings is unbelievable. Meetings typically end at 11 p.m. or midnight so this would effectively make it impossible for members of the public to comment at all.”
He noted recent organized attempts to influence the Board of Directors’ decision-making during public comment had been successful, including a push for a climate change emergency declaration. Boone says the only way for most people to reach directors on transit issues is at the board meetings, since they are all elected officials in various cities and towns.
Board director and Mountain View City Councilman John McAlister agreed.
“To move public comment to the end would be disrespectful,” McAlister said. “We have to make sure we respect the public and make sure they have an opportunity to comment.”
Meanwhile, VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress told San José Spotlight that the full board of directors will consider RSM’s recommendations in 2020 and “they may reject, approve or revise,” any of them.
“These are well thought out recommendations by an independent consultant based on their professional opinion which was informed by significant research, dialogue, analysis and extensive community input over the last five months,” Childress said.
Among RSM’s other controversial recommendations is to eliminate the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the Committee for Transportation Mobility and Accessibility.
Director O’Neill expressed reservations about that because “those communities are under served and we need to make sure that we are hearing their voices.”
December 20, 2019
San Jose Spotlight
By Adam F. Hutton
[Nevada County] ‘A better chance’: Education, more housing, protection from discrimination all needed, says homeless mother and advocate
Blog note: this article references (near the end) a 2018-19 grand jury report.
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories on homeless people and the agencies, organizations and resources available to assist them in western Nevada County.
Amy Joy Rudolph was raising her children in Penn Valley, working as a nursing assistant at Spring Hill Manor.
But when a traumatic event happened to one of her kids, she had to attend to him, leaving her less available at work while she was also returning to school.
The concoction of events — coupled with her sick grandmother and busy mom, she said — left Rudolph and her children homeless in the spring of 2016.
On food stamps and a family stabilization program, she said her funds were helping her family stay at a hotel temporarily. But in addition to taking care of her children and working, Rudolph now needed to find a place to stay. That’s when her issues compounded because of what she says is Nevada County’s lack of affordable housing.
“Every low-income housing apartment — Olympia Gardens, Nevada Woods Apartments — they have a three-year waiting list,” she said.
During the summer, she said she camped at Rollins Lake, spending her savings on a $1,200 per month campsite.
She knows the potential for problems without a place to call home. She said she watched her friend, Rabecca Mershon, get hooked on drugs due to her homelessness.
“‘I do drugs to stay alert so men won’t hurt me and so I have enough energy to move from one space to the next,” Rudolph said Mershon told her before she was fatally shot in May.
Michael Pocock, 36, faces murder charges in connection with the shooting deaths of Mershon, 25, and David Dominguez, 39.
After a year of couch hopping, Rudolph said she found an affordable housing opportunity with Mercy Housing in Marysville.
Today, Rudolph is enrolled at Sierra College, studying English and journalism.
“I want to make people aware of the situation at hand,” she said, noting homelessness has cycled through her family. She experienced it once before, at the age of 12.
The only reason she was able to find housing, Rudolph said, was because she didn’t let the stigma of her situation bog her down. But she still misses being in Nevada County, and hopes to find a way back.
“I miss being able to live in Penn Valley, where my kids grew up,” she said.
SOLUTIONS THROUGH EDUCATION
Rudolph said she saw people get laughed at for living in a tent.
“That’s what I found in Nevada County,” she said. “There was little to no compassion when it came to a homeless mother.”
People feel “dirty” and “shameful” for being homeless, she said. As such, Rudolph wants more spaces available for education and de-stigmatization of homelessness, its causes and consequences.
Tom Kellar, who works to house people in his role with Community Beyond Violence, echoed a similar point, wanting to codify that sentiment. He wants protections in place from discrimination by landlords that prevent housing people simply because they have Section 8 vouchers.
“It would mean that a lot more people would probably have a better chance of getting in than they do now,” he said.
Kellar added that county officials and housing authority administrators are “grossly overworked” and that this change could make their lives easier, particularly if landlords are educated on the meaning of the Section 8 voucher system.
WANTED: AFFORDABLE OPPORTUNITY
Randi Bonilla — whose grief in the death of loved ones led to addiction, which resulted in losing her home to foreclosure — suggests establishing a navigation center where individuals with Section 8 vouchers are helped to get living units.
Tanya Joy, a single mom, lost her home and business after a series of surgeries, which kept her from working to make ends meet. Since obtaining a roof over her head, she’s angry there’s not more support for people experiencing homelessness. She wants to see more affordable housing.
“It’s the number one thing,” Joy said. “That is, the foundation to helping community and society is stability and knowing where you’re going to sleep every night.”
She’s been pondering the concept of Harvest Joy, a tiny homes project she hopes to construct in Nevada County.
Kellar, who has also worked with Hospitality House, the Salvation Army and a housing organization in Alaska, agrees that it comes down to more housing, and more affordable housing options.
“Now practically every nonprofit in town has someone doing my job, which is great, but the problem is the housing stock has not increased,” he said.
A 2018-19 Nevada County Civil Grand Jury report calls for more housing, “particularly modular homes, prefabricated homes, tiny homes, multi-unit apartment complexes and second dwellings.”
Although the type varies, the need remains — and is likely on the rise.
December 19, 2019
The Union of Grass Valley
By Sam Corey
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
The City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee voted to reform community planning groups (CPGs) on Dec. 5 that includes revisions from a maximum length of meetings to how elections are run.
The reforms come after a city audit, a Grand Jury report and Circulate San Diego’s Democracy in Planning all raised serious concerns about how the groups are run. In response, a task force was formed that created 33 recommendations on how to improve the groups. Those recommendations were voted on by CPGs throughout the region as well as the Community Planners Committee before being brought to the San Diego City Council.
The advisory groups are filled with elected members who volunteer to weigh in on land-use issues in their neighborhood. They are meant to be the lowest rung of democracy, but critics worry they are often inaccessible to marginalized groups. Research has shown CPGs skew whiter, wealthier and older than the neighborhoods they represent. In addition, they are often filled almost exclusively with homeowners, even in areas where the majority of people rent.
On a basic level, homeowners and renters have different concerns when looking at new developments — one of the main purposes of CPGs. A typical renter might favor bringing in developments that keep rent down by adding more housing stock, while a typical homeowner might favor keeping developments out that could potentially bring down their property value.
“Planning Groups cannot represent their community if they do not look like their community,” said Maya Rosas, director of policy at Circulate San Diego, in a press conference before the vote.
To that end, the reforms include creating a distinct category between renters and homeowners and reserving at least one seat for renters to be represented on the board.
If the reforms are enacted, members of the CPG boards will have to fill out a demographic survey and termed-out members must wait two years to be elected again. In addition, a compromise was reached that in order to qualify to run for the group, a person only needs to attend one CPG meeting in the past 12 months.
CPGs have seen little support from the city of San Diego in recent years. Few have staff from the Planning Department assigned to attend and answer questions. Even fewer have representatives from the City Attorney’s office ensuring the group is following the Brown Act — which means any question about the specifics of a project or the legality of an action requires significant discussion with officials not in attendance, sometimes delaying the process.
The new reforms include directing the Planning Department to closely monitor CPG actions and provide timely guidance to preclude requests for inappropriate project additions or modifications. The Planning Department is also tasked with providing resources to improve recruiting that could result in more diverse CPG membership. The city attorney will also be more involved in conducting disciplinary reviews if a CPG violates the Brown Act.
There will also be more transparency within CPG groups if the reforms are passed by the full City Council as the changes include deadlines on putting documents such as minutes, agendas, and rosters in a centralized location available for the public. Project review recommendations and member applications will also be recorded. It will also be explicit that groups are allowed to use social media, in accordance with the Brown Act.
Another major aim of the reforms is increasing training for members of CPGs. Instead of just new members going through training, all members would be trained annually on the Brown Act, CEQA Review, and the city’s development review process. Some CPGs said this would put an undue burden on members, but the recommendations passed 4-0.
One group in favor of the changes are developers, with several speaking out about issues they faced getting project recommendations from CPGs at a public hearing before the vote. With each CPG being vastly different, getting projects past them was described as “shaking a magic eight ball.” Intentionally or unintentionally, CPGs can hold up projects or even shut them down by drawing out the process of giving recommendations. The cost of delays is then passed on to homebuyers and renters, according to the developers who spoke. The reforms would standardize the process of making recommendations and impose deadlines so developers can get community input early on in the planning stage and not have to repeatedly return before the group.
College Area Community Planning Board (CACPB) chair Jose Reynoso said that a lot of the CPG reforms are “worthwhile to assure consistency across planning groups but, in general, the whole exercise was driven by developers or pro-developer groups to either bypass or restrain planning groups.”
“I believe that it was driven because of anecdotal evidence/concerns relayed by developers that CPGs were delaying the approval process or that the make-up of the groups was too homogeneous and it was the same NIMBYs challenging and making things difficult for projects,” he said.
Reynoso has a different take on what holds up projects.
“If one were to go back and look at records, CPGs typically don’t take long to review projects,” he said. “What sometimes takes long is that many community plans are so old or outdated that projects require an exception to a community plan which can add up to a year in securing approvals.”
Another CPG reform that Reynoso said could affect the CACPB is the extended time for voting.
“[It] puts a strain on us because we do not have our own facility and are limited by the time we can use the meeting space. We’ll have to figure that one out,” he said.
While the committee overwhelmingly supported many of the recommendations, a plan to make CPG members file economic interest forms was sent back to staff. Council member Chris Ward spoke out strongly against volunteers being forced to fill out the forms required by the Political Reform Act, as small mistakes could incur major fines and the forms themselves are complicated and burdensome.
A recommendation from the task force to tape, either via audio or video, any land-use items on the agenda failed as council members worried the city would not provide the tools to do this and it would be too difficult to have volunteers do.
Another recommendation that would have disbanded a CPG or forced it to merge with another CPG if it failed to meet a quorum for three months in a row was changed so the CPG in question would be considered inactive, and would have to complete specific steps to regain its active status.
After Council member Vivian Moreno opposed the original wording on the grounds that no community should be without representation, she pointed out Barrio Logan, the neighborhood south of Downtown quickly undergoing gentrification, has only had a CPG for a few years — long after it began going through significant changes.
Next, the approved reforms will go before the full City Council and City Attorney Mara Elliott for review.
December 19, 2019
SDNews.com, San Diego Community Newspaper Group
By Kendra Sitton
The operator is proposing big changes to the 158-acre fairgrounds
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
SAN JOSE — Despite persistently drawing criticism for the way it manages the struggling Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, a nonprofit has been granted a new 20-year contract to continue running the 158-acre property.
The Board of Supervisors approved the contract Tuesday at a time when the county also is contemplating redevelopment plans for the fairgrounds at Tully and Monterey roads in San Jose. Supervisor Cindy Chavez has proposed creating a 55-acre public park there and building a museum displaying historic neon signs.
The Fairgrounds Management Corporation also has proposed new uses for the site, including a family entertainment center, hotel and sports facilities for the San Jose Giants, San Jose Earthquakes and USA Cricket.
The 20-year contract allows the county to terminate the agreement at any point with 90-day written notice.
As part of the approval, Fairgrounds Management Corporation must submit a draft master plan by the end of April 2020 outlining its vision for revamping the property, and submit regular reports about its finances, upcoming projects, maintenance and capital improvement plans.
The length of the agreement is meant to provide stability for the Fairgrounds Management Corporation, or FMC, which has operated on year-to-year extensions and three-year contracts since taking over the fairgrounds in 1995.
Supervisor Joe Simitian, who abstained from voting, objected to the contract’s length, especially since the board hasn’t yet decided what it wants to do with the property. He suggested going with a 10-year contract instead.
“I think our board has frankly struggled to reach any consensus on what the property could and should look like beyond the next 10 years,” Simitian said. “Now we’re talking about a hotel, and a minor league baseball park, and office building — these are 30-, 40-, 50-year uses.”
He also pushed the FMC to provide more frequent updates so major proposals won’t get too far along without board input.
“I don’t want proposals showing up that are 95 percent baked, that commit us for 40 years,” Simitian said.
Chavez said she’s comfortable with the agreement because the county can end it anytime. “The way this is structured, it allows for severability at anytime based on the board’s desire,” she said.
The county formed the FMC in 1995 after a previous operator declared bankruptcy. But the organization’s management practices have been criticized for years, including by a grand jury report in 2011 and another one earlier this year that blamed it for the fairgrounds’ decline.
In its heyday, the county fair ran for two weeks and drew hundreds of thousands of visitors. But as attendance has fallen, the fair has lost money year after year.
Last year, the FMC said the fair turned a corner. Attendance nearly doubled from the previous year and the event turned a profit for the first time in three decades. Though the profit was only $14,000, that was substantially better than the $245,000 loss in 2017.
Although the FMC did not report final attendance numbers or profit or loss figures for this summer’s fair in its 2020 budget proposal and business plan, the plan partially blames the 2019 fair’s “unfavorable financial result” on the Gilroy Garlic Festival mass shooting that happened a few days before.
The organization is projecting a 9 percent growth in its overall revenues in 2020 and says it plans to bolster reserves as its revenues grow.
Chavez has said the county should give the fairgrounds’ new leadership a chance to perform; the current executive director, Abe Andrade, joined the organization in 2018. He was previously the chief financial officer for San Jose’s now defunct redevelopment agency.
Andrade didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the new agreement.
This is the fourth time the county has tried to redevelop the property since 1998.
In the early 2000s, the county struck an agreement to build a House of Blues concert venue on part of the site, but that fell through after a recession scuttled financing. Two other attempts in the 2000s to solicit redevelopment proposals didn’t go anywhere.
More than 1,300 people have signed a petition calling on the county to build transitional housing for the homeless at the fairgrounds, but supervisors haven’t taken up that idea. At a meeting in October, the board opted to pursue plans to revamp the fairgrounds as a public event space.
The county has previously built more than 500 units of housing on the site.
December 19, 2019
The Mercury News, Milpitas Post
By Thy Vo, Bay Area News Group
Friday, December 27, 2019
Civil grand jury had hammered board for sweeping changes to law enforcement training, equipment program
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to reject most of a county civil grand jury report's criticisms of the way it handled the process of approving sweeping changes to the sheriff's controversial "Urban Shield" law enforcement training program.
The grand jury said in its report in June that the board's "mismanagement of the review process" earlier this year caused the group that distributes federal grant money for emergency training programs to shift nearly $5 million in U.S. Department of Homeland Security funding away from Alameda County.
The panel said the result is "the loss of essential regional emergency preparedness training, leaving county residents less safe."
The sheriff's office started Urban Shield in 2007 because it believed the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, showed that law enforcement agencies weren't well-prepared for such attacks.
More than 100 agencies and thousands of people, including some from foreign countries, participated in past conferences, which were held each September, including at the fairgrounds in Pleasanton.
But critics, including the Stop Urban Shield Coalition, alleged that the training program is militaristic, racist and xenophobic and has a negative impact on communities of color and immigrants.
In votes at meetings on Feb. 27 and March 12, the Board of Supervisors approved most of the 63 recommendations for changing Urban Shield that were made by an ad hoc committee that the board created in 2018 to offer a new vision and strategic approach for emergency management in the county.
Among the changes the board approved are eliminating military-type SWAT teams and competition from the annual training exercises, eliminating its weapons expo and vendor show component, getting rid of the "Urban Shield" label and evaluating law enforcement participants' compliance with their departments' use-of-force policies.
In response to the board's actions, the board of the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative, which is comprised of representatives from 12 Northern California counties, voted on March 14 to shift the nearly $5 million in federal funding away from Alameda County.
The grand jury report said, "The Board of Supervisors failed to provide clear and complete guidelines to the ad hoc committee, particularly in regard to making recommendations that are consistent with grant guidelines."
But a draft of a letter that the Board of Supervisors plans to send to Alameda County Superior Court Presiding Judge Tara Desautels says it vetted the committee's recommendations and engaged in debate and only then took final action on them.
"The board did not adopt recommendations lightly," the letter says.
The supervisors also say they provided clear guidelines to the committee that were "based upon community concerns and sufficiently reflected the intent of the board."
In addition, the board says it rejects the panel's finding that it selected members to the committee in a way "that virtually guaranteed partisan advocacy and predictable intractability."
The board writes that each of its members had the right to make an appointment to the committee and "each supervisor acted independently in selecting his or her appointee."
The board also rejects the finding that it failed to make available to the public materials under consideration at its meetings in a timely manner.
It writes, "The timing of the committee's release of materials to the public did not violate any policies, rules or laws."
Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi told the board before it voted on Tuesday that she will supplement the letter and make clerical adjustments before it is sent to Judge Desautels.
December 18, 2019
Bay City News Service