Tuesday, December 20, 2022

[Kern County] Grand jury finds unacceptable conditions at Bakersfield senior housing facility

A Kern County grand jury report released Thursday highlighted alarming conditions at a low-income senior housing facility on Wilson Road, ranging from homeless people coming and going at will to inoperable smoke alarms and security cameras to prostitution and drug deals on the premises.

The 13-page account recommended a list of urgent changes to be made next year, such as restoring the facility's food pantry, locking down access and scheduling more on-site activities, while also giving the facility's owner and operator, the Housing Authority of the County of Kern, 90 days to respond to the report.

The housing authority's assistant executive director, Heather Kimmel, took issue Thursday with some of the report's conclusions, saying improvements have been made that were not reflected in the report. But she acknowledged the semi-independent public agency has been frustrated by the impact crime has had on the 199-unit Plaza Towers/Plaza Towers Annex at 3015 Wilson Road.

Several senior county officials declined to address the report ahead of the authority's 90-day deadline to respond to the grand jury. But a commissioner of the agency, Keith Wolaridge, who said he had been unaware of the concerns detailed in the report, spoke up to say they will be addressed.

"My initial thought, you know, (is that) I do have a concern," he said. "It's our responsibility to look after all of our tenants and their safety, and we will take right actions going forward."

Several people living at the facility vouched for many of the report's allegations in interviews Thursday, saying that although some conditions have improved in recent months, security remains a big concern, along with problems like bed bugs, rooms reeking of drugs and cigarettes and a front gate that never closes.

"We don't feel safe," partly because the facility's doors don't lock at night, said five-year resident Irma Cetto. "We have problems with parking. We have problems with everything. They say they don't have money."

Another five-year resident, Lucy Portillo, said the water at the towers "tastes and smells bad." When it rains, the lobby floods, and non-residents have unimpeded access, she said, adding, "It's bad."

Ross Walters, who has lived there for about a year, noted someone recently defecated in the laundry room and that, while people do enter at will, "they have locked it down a lot … in the last month."

The report compares three of the housing authority's facilities, the other two being the Pinewood Glen Retirement property at 2221 Real Road, which serves "low-income" residents, and the Park Place Senior Apartments, serving "very low-income" residents. The towers serve "extremely low-income" residents making 30 percent or less of the area's adjusted median income, which was $59,700 in April of last year.

After interviewing housing authority officials, reviewing budgets, reading crime summaries and speaking with residents, the grand jury concluded security and access are big problems at the towers — but not its only challenges.

The housing authority only has two full-time investigators, which the report characterized as insufficient and in need of addressing on a schedule laid out in the document.

It found a senior food pantry launched there in May 2010 no longer exists and should be restored by March 1. It said a single hour per week of organized activity, a bingo game, is inadequate to keep residents busy.

The report pointed to non-working smoke alarms and disabled security cameras, prostitution and drug sales on the property.

The grand jury witnessed people they said they assumed were homeless entering and leaving the facility during their visit.

Kimmel noted the housing authority recently spent more than $725,000 on security measures, not all of it at the towers property. She added that other deficiencies are being addressed, such as the property's access gates.

She denied the property has been neglected simply because residents there pay less money in rent than do others at facilities that charge more. One problem, she said, is that the towers property has a higher concentration of residents and is surrounded by a neighborhood with greater crime problems.

In one example, it noted someone has been living unauthorized on one of the towers' roofs, and that the person has caused more than $35,000 in damage so far this year.

"Trespassers are occupying the laundry rooms, stairwells, bathrooms and sleeping within the facility often locking stairwells, preventing residents' access," the report noted.

Another concern raised in the document was that the property's crime log does not match that of the Bakersfield Police Department, whose records showed incidents not noted by the property's management.

John Cox
December 15, 2022

Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Elusive Quest for Environmental Justice at Hunters Point [San Francisco]

The failed cleanup of a Navy site in San Francisco is a worrisome test of federal policies.

In the long-running battle for environmental justice, the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco is a crucial beachhead. The Navy and EPA have been trying to clean up the radioactive site for decades, so that it can be handed over to the city for lucrative real estate development by the shipyard’s master developer, Lennar Corp. But a series of remediation scandals and controversies have plagued the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, which has been called “a textbook case of environmental injustice.” If the Navy and EPA can get away with a subpar cleanup at one of the Navy’s most hazardous sites, in one of the nation’s most historically progressive cities, environmental justice advocates fear a cascade of similar losses around the country.

The Navy bought the shipyard on the edge of the San Francisco Bay just 11 days after Pearl Harbor and employed 18,000 people there toward the end of World War II, one-third of whom were African American. Components of “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, were transported across the Pacific from Hunters Point by the USS Indianapolis. The post-war shipyard became home to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory for the study and decontamination of ships used in the nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands. Top-secret radiological defense and fallout research, waste disposal, and repair of heavily radiated ships coming back from Bikini Atoll left the shipyard with extensive toxic contamination, but low on documentation of what was disposed of where. The shipyard was declared an EPA Superfund site in 1989, due to contamination from asbestos, as well as PCBs and radioactive materials.

Racist housing policies led many African Americans to settle in the Bayview-Hunters Point area in the years following the war, and the area still has the city’s largest African American population. Twenty-seven percent of the neighborhood’s 35,000-plus residents currently live within a quarter mile of contamination risk, according to a new San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report, “Buried Problems and a Buried Process.”

The cleanup at the EPA Superfund site devolved into scandal in 2014, when investigators discovered that workers from Navy contractor Tetra Tech EC had faked remediation of radioactive soils. The massive eco-fraud scandal deepened further when investigators found that at least 90 percent of Tetra Tech’s work was suspect. More than $250 million in taxpayer dollars was wasted. Two Tetra Tech EC supervisors were convicted and sentenced to eight months in federal prison in 2018. Parent company Tetra Tech Inc. tried to scapegoat the duo as “rogue employees” purportedly acting on their own.

The Department of Justice joined ongoing false claims lawsuits against Tetra Tech EC later that year, suggesting the DOJ doesn’t buy that narrative. Tetra Tech’s attempt to distance itself from the alleged lone miscreants took another hit in 2020, when the San Francisco Bay View reported on how another Tetra Tech subsidiary was caught up in similar radiological sampling/testing controversies at another EPA Superfund site in Ohio in the 1990s.

The ongoing controversy surrounding Hunters Point recently flared up again this fall, when the EPA made it known that it doesn’t intend to hold the Navy responsible for a full cleanup at the site. Failure to do so would disregard Proposition P, a measure passed overwhelmingly by San Francisco voters in 2000 (and adopted by the city’s board of supervisors in 2001), which urged that the site be cleaned up to the agency’s most protective standards for safe residential use without restrictions.

“On one hand, EPA talks about the importance of community input, but on the other hand says it is free to ignore Prop P, one of the strongest expressions of community input imaginable,” Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)’s Pacific Director Jeff Ruch said in a statement. His concern was echoed by other watchdogs and activists in the Bay Area.

“Rather than assure that the site is cleaned up to its most protective standards, the EPA intends to allow the use of far weaker limits and let the Navy walk away from much of the pollution at the site, relying on unenforceable land-use restrictions and covering up rather than cleaning up the radioactivity and toxic chemicals,” Daniel Hirsch, an environmental policy analyst, wrote for the San Francisco Examiner. This amounts to “regulatory capture,” which happens when an agency is influenced to act in favor of the entities it’s supposed to be regulating. Hirsch has previously outlined this and much more in four comprehensive reports on Hunters Point Naval Shipyard (HPNS) for the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an advocacy group for which he is president.

Hirsch and Ruch were part of a local stakeholder group that met with EPA upper management in 2021 to discuss community recommendations for moving forward with the cleanup at Hunters Point. In an email memo to the group that PEER published in October, the EPA said they had convened an interagency working group with the Navy “to identify and resolve issues affecting remediation activities.” The working group was said to include “senior leadership from EPA headquarters and Region 9, the Navy, and California state regulators.”

When queried as to the identities of the working group personnel, an EPA spokesperson would only say that it includes “senior managers from EPA Region 9, EPA Headquarters, the Navy, the California Department of Toxic Substance Control, the California Department of Public Health, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health.”

These are the same agencies that Hirsch says have proven untrustworthy at Hunters Point, based on their prior actions and failures to protect public health at the site. The EPA seems to be taking a page from Uncle Sam’s playbook portrayed in a scene at the end of Steven Spielberg’s classic film Raiders of the Lost Ark, when archeologist Indiana Jones meets with Army Intelligence officials to discuss what’s going to happen with the Ark of the Covenant. “We have top men working on it right now,” one of them says assuredly. “Who?” Indy asks skeptically. “Top men!” comes the response.

The EPA’s vague assurances only lead to more questions. In the same EPA email to stakeholders, the agency noted that “the Navy has also hired an independent contractor to provide third-party quality assurance review.” According to Derek Robinson, the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure Coordinator & Environmental Program Manager, the independent contractor is Battelle, an Ohio-based firm that happens to be a longtime partner to the Navy and US Department of Energy.

A prior review at Hunters Point from Battelle turned out to be not so independent after all. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, the Navy hired Battelle in 2010 to conduct a cost-cutting study to optimize the radiological remediation work being done by Tetra Tech. Battelle in turn hired the Argonne National Laboratory – which then relied on data that was in part provided by Tetra Tech and vetted by the Navy – to produce a report that offered contrived changes to cleanup rules to save money for the Navy. Now the Navy and EPA are again asking the citizens of San Francisco to trust Battelle as an “independent” provider for “third-party quality assurance review” of radiological rework by the Navy at Hunters Point.

Asked how the Navy can still consider Battelle to be an independent entity, Robinson could only reiterate the Navy’s previous position: “Battelle was hired to provide additional oversight for radiological remediation activities at Hunters Point. The Navy, federal agencies, and state agencies also provide oversight for work being performed to ensure the public is protected and contamination is properly addressed.”

Earth Island Journal
Greg M. Schwartz
December 5, 2022

Palo Alto rejects recommendations to have [Santa Clara] county vet its ballot questions

City's response letter claims Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury proposals would impinge on city's constitutional rights

Defying recommendations from the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury, Palo Alto will not submit its ballot measure questions to the county for review before future elections, according to a response letter that the City Council plans to approve next week.

Palo Alto was among the cities that the grand jury singled out for falling short earlier this year after it conducted a survey of misleading language on ballot measures. The report, titled "If you only read the ballot, you're being duped," analyzed what the grand jury called the "tricks of the trade" that municipalities use to make their ballot measures seem more favorable to voters.

The grand jury specifically took issue with the wording of Measure L, which affirmed the city's historic policy of transferring revenues from the gas utility to the general fund and which overwhelmingly passed last month. The grand jury felt that the phrase in the ballot that states that the tax would be in place "until ended by voters" is misleading because the measure itself does not include a mechanism for ending the practice.

The language, which was also found in other jurisdictions, is cited as an example of poorly worded ballot questions that "may not be illegal, but if they withhold information to shield what is really at issue, they are unethical," the report stated.

"There are insufficient workable checks and balances to prevent this ongoing issue from being curtailed," the grand jury report states. "Not doing anything about this only adds to the distrust of government."

But its proposed remedies — submitting ballot language to a Santa Clara County counsel or to a third-party panel for review — are unlikely to be adopted any time soon. In a defiant response to the report, Palo Alto officials strongly disputed the grand jury's finding that Measure L language was in any way misleading and argued that the proposed remedies would trample on the local control over elections.

The response letter, which the council is scheduled to approve on Dec. 12, maintains that the Measure L language is accurate despite the fact that the measure does not specify a process for voter repeal. That's because the state's Election Code already gives voters that power through the process of circulating a petition.

"It is therefore a true statement that if a tax ordinance is approved by the voters and does not have a fixed end date, then it will be in effect until it is ended or repealed by the voters," the letter states.

City officials are also pushing back against the grand jury's recommendations and argue that ballot language is already well scrutinized by professional staff, approved by the council and subject to legal challenges if it falls short. The formal response, which the city is required to submit, reflects that arguments that City Attorney Molly Stump and Mayor Pat Burt made in the days after the grand jury report issued the report. Burt told this news organization at the time that he believes the grand jury misunderstood local election law and called Measure L language "common and appropriate."

While Palo Alto's response letter concurs with the grand jury's finding that "local governmental entities that sponsor ballot measures have a responsibility to ensure that ballot measure language is clear, accurate, and useful to voters," it disagreed with all three of the recommendations that it was asked to respond to: voluntarily submitting ballot questions to the county counsel; approving a local ordinance or resolution requiring counsel review of ballot questions; and submitting them to a specially created Good Governance in Ballots Commission. The city argues that these recommendations are not warranted and makes clear that they will not be implemented.

The county counsel, the letter notes, is "appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the County Board of Supervisors." The grand jury's proposal to empower the county counsel to potentially modify ballot questions is "not appropriate for cities like Palo Alto, which are separate government entities with independent constitutional authority to control our own elections," according to the letter.

"Giving authority to the County Counsel to review and edit ballot questions for the City of Palo Alto would impinge on Palo Alto's constitutional authority over its elections," the letter states. The effect would be to reduce local control by shifting authority to a government entity that is not accountable to Palo Alto residents."

Palo Alto Weekly
by Gennady Sheyner
December 5, 2022

Thursday, November 24, 2022

EDHCSD threatens [El Dorado County] grand jury integrity


To understand the detrimental impacts of the El Dorado Hills Community Services District’s astonishing actions begin with the grand jury role. The state of California Courts Judicial Branch confirms the grand jury acts as a representative of county residents in promoting government accountability. 

The civil grand jury exists to assure honest and efficient government. As an independent watchdog, a grand jury operates separately from the entities and officials it investigates. These reviews are conducted under the auspices of a Superior Court judge. 

The El Dorado County Grand Jury followed these guidelines in its 2021-22 report (edcgov.us).

EDHCSD is engaging in a toxic campaign designed to demean, discredit and intimidate the grand jury, El Dorado County officials and EDH residents.

EDHCSD directors and staff lower the public discourse with inflammatory language about the grand jury as “slipshod,” “egregious,” “ignorant, “false,” “unsupported,” “troubling,” “irresponsible,” “suspect,” “calculated,” “speculation,” “embarrass,” “narrow-minded,” “deliberate,” “inaccurate” and “a work of fiction.”

The cost of their response to taxpayers is estimated more than $30,000. The board members should look up the meaning of “accountability” as applied to their conduct. 

The EDC Grand Jury process encourages citizens to safely and confidentially submit concerns. Its deliberations are closed to the public and held secret. GM Kevin Loewen falsely twisted the mandated protection of privileged information into a bizarre conspiracy theory of wrongdoing, suggesting, “Grand jury investigations have been destroyed.”

Director Sean Hansen called the grand jury report “obnoxious and egregiously wrong … a work of fiction” without providing evidence supporting his bluster. Board VP Noelle Mattock insisted they “are doing what 99% of the rest do,” presumably to follow like lemmings off the cliff.

The EDHCSD board and management crossed the line in its defamation of hundreds of the engaged seniors of Heritage Village seeking accountability. On one occasion, GM Loewen aggressively ripped away a banner peacefully displayed by the seniors. The grand jury documented other board abuses. EDHCSD absurdly characterizes Heritage residents as a selfish, narrow-minded, small minority who “do not wish to be gracious members of the EDH community.”

EDH residents must stand firm in support of the integrity of the grand jury. The board of directors should carefully reconsider their actions and response.

El Dorado Hills Village Voice
Concerned Residents of El Dorado Hills Heritage Village
November 24, 2022

Saturday, November 19, 2022

OBSERVER Reporter Lands Statewide Honor

California Grand Jurors’ Association Presents Award For Best Reporting 2021-2022

The OBSERVER’s Genoa Barrow recently was awarded the California Grand Jurors’ Association’s (CGJA) 2022 Best News Media Reporting Award.

The senior staff writer received the award for “extensive, unbiased and continued coverage” stemming from the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors’ decision to give millions in federal funds meant for pandemic relief to the sheriff’s department to balance its budget. Barrow’s award reception was held Oct. 23 during the CGJA Annual Conference in San Rafael.

Barrow and The OBSERVER broke the story in August 2020. Activists demanded answers and ultimately, the board asked County Executive Nav Gil to resign.

After a yearlong investigation, a county grand jury released a report in February titled “Sacramento County Board of Supervisors Abandons Responsibility for COVID-19 CARES Act Spending.” The grand jury nominated Barrow for the award.

“The journalist conducted herself with integrity and provided the community with critical information that revealed the misuse of public funds,” the nomination reads.

The CGJA’s Excellence in Reporting Award program recognizes individuals and media that have created positive changes in their communities by increasing awareness of the California grand jury system.

Barrow shared with association members that being honored was a full-circle moment, as late OBSERVER co-publisher Kathryn C. Lee was the first African American to serve on a Sacramento County grand jury in 1973.

Observer Newsroom
Staff Report
November 17, 2022

Council Pushes Back On [Santa Clara] Grand Jury Report

The City Council majority pushed back against suggestions made by the Civil Grand Jury about some council members' connection to the 49ers.

It was almost paint-by-numbers during a Santa Clara City Council meeting responding to findings of the civil grand jury report that alleged the Council majority are puppets for the 49ers.

In a special meeting Wednesday, Nov. 16, the Santa Clara City Council picked apart a scathing grand jury report released in October. Less than a month before the midterm election, the report questioned the ethics of the so-called “49er Five,” a derisive nickname for Council Members Kevin Park, Karen Hardy, Raj Chahal, Anthony Becker and Vice Mayor Suds Jain.

Becker narrowly lost his vie against Mayor Lisa Gillmor in the election, and Hardy and Chahal won their re-elections. Not surprisingly, the meeting was essentially a rehashing of old feuds and issues between the Council majority and minority.

The report detailed several ways the City could improve what the grand jury saw as major issues stemming from the Council majority’s relationship with the 49ers. Those accused denied wrongdoing while Gillmor and political ally, Council Member Kathy Watanabe, maintained their positions that, essentially, the other five council members are in the team’s pocket.

City Attorney Steve Ngo said he will aggregate the responses, which boiled down to agreeing or disagreeing with each of a dozen findings and providing direction on 19 recommendations. Ngo asked each speaker to select whether they believe the recommendation has already been put in place, should be put in place, needed further analysis before it could be put in place or will not be put in place.

Both Gillmor and Watanabe agreed with every finding and suggested putting nearly every recommendation into practice. While far from unanimous, the remainder of the Council frequently voted to not put the grand jury’s recommendations in place.

Among the report’s findings and recommendations, a few themes emerged, both in how the jurors characterized the Council majority and also in how the council members responded to that characterization.

Chahal repeatedly called out jurors for “cherry picking” information that fit a preconceived notion, one that unfairly put him and his fellow council members under the gun. For instance, he returned to the idea that the grand jury singled out the 49ers as lobbyists, acting as though jurors’ observations were unique to the 49ers when they apply to any lobbyist.

Others, notably Hardy and Jain, repeatedly criticized the report’s vague language. All of those accused took issue with the characterization that they are a voting bloc, designed to act in unison.

“At some point, we need to understand that because people are voting the same way doesn’t make them a bloc,” Becker said. “There is no substantiation of the claim.”

For their part, Gillmor and Watanabe continually referred to the “optics” — i.e., politician-speak for something looking bad — of the Council majority taking operational tours, meeting with the 49ers and firing former City Manager Deanna Santana.

The Council majority poo-pooed recommendations that would see the City hiring an ethics consultant and establishing an independent ethics commission. Jain repeatedly said such measures are redundant since the City already has a governance and ethics committee, which has not met since June because of budgetary issues brought on by the pandemic.

Gillmor iterated statements made previously about how the Council “cannot police itself.” The governance and ethics committee is made up of Jain, Gillmor and Chahal.

Frequently throughout the meeting, the accused were chagrined by the lack of evidence provided in the report.

“Facts are substantial, which means you have evidence and proof,” Becker said. “Assumptions, concerns, suspicions are not facts. Facts are facts. You cannot mix facts up with assumptions.”

Many also pointed to inconsistencies in the grand jury report, such as its claim that those that took operational tours of Levi’s Stadium broke the City’s rules regarding such tours, only to later recommend that the City put a policy in place. The Federal Fair Political Practices Commission has received a complaint but has not started an investigation into whether the tours broke the law.

In a Kafkaesque moment, Watanabe agreed with a recommendation that council members appear in the Council Chambers or be visible on camera during meetings.

“This has to be required,” she said.  “The public is there to see you. In an effort to be open and honest, the best way to do that is to be visible, and if you can’t be visible in person, there in the chambers, at least be visible on camera, where people can see you and observe you.”

While fellow council members said they could see Watanabe on camera, she was not publicly visible for most of the meeting, claiming she was having “camera issues.”

Public comments were limited, but old guard Council gadfly Deborah Bress phoned in to lambast Gillmor, telling her she should be “ashamed of herself,” calling her a “hypocrite,” more crooked than “a barrel full of fishhooks,” asking her who she “paid off” to get the grand jury report published and calling Watanabe her “handmaiden.”

“These people didn’t do anything wrong. They are trying to clean up your mess from when you were the head cheerleader,” Bress said.

Ngo said he will incorporate the comments into responses to the grand jury, which the Council had 90 days to do from Oct. 8. The Council will review the responses at its Dec. 6 meeting, with a possible followup meeting Dec. 8 should discussion spill over. 

The Silicon Valley Voice
David Alexander
November 18, 2022

SUSD pens 2nd [San Joaquin] grand jury response, confusion ensues

Stockton Unified School District has provided additional responses to the June San Joaquin County Grand Jury report showing financial mismanagement and dysfunction. 

The follow-up response provides reasoning — not evidence — for items the board disagreed with but provided no additional context in their original August response. On a motion from Trustee Zachary Avelar, the board voted 5-2 at their Nov. 14 board meeting to approve the follow-up response to the Grand Jury. Trustees AngelAnn Flores and Maria Mendez voted no. 

At the meeting, there was confusion as to why the board was providing additional response. SUSD’s contracted lawyer Dr. Jack Lipton told the board the additional responses were drafted upon a request from the grand jury. Interim superintendent Traci Miller said the follow-up letter was written by legal counsel and interim Chief Business Official Joann Juarez. 

Trustees Mendez and Flores both said they hadn’t seen the request letter from the Grand Jury — no one on the board fessed up to actually seeing the letter — and asked to be looped in. When asked by Mendez how he obtained the letter, Lipton said he “did not recall specifically,” and did not acknowledge he was able to produce the letter.

The school district has been unable to produce the letter in question upon request by The Record. The San Joaquin County Grand Jury has not responded to The Record’s request for the letter or clarification. 

SJ schools chief:‘Disappointing’ SUSD board refuses to accept it violated Brown Act

The board’s Nov. 15 follow-up states the board or district “disagrees wholly” with six findings — it does not address the rest of the 50 findings — ranging from conflicts of interest and contracting issues to no plans for ongoing costs and one-time fund expenditures. The board disputed nearly half of the grand jury’s 50 findings in their first response. 

Flores, who told The Record she sounded the alarm resulting in two scathing Grand Jury reports and a state audit looking for fraud and illegal fiscal practices that’s currently underway at the district, expressed her outrage with the latest board response. 

“I am a part of this (vote) and I agree with everything this grand jury investigation says. Everything,” Flores said. “I speak for myself, and everything I’ve seen up here firsthand for the last two years — this is another spit in the face to our community, to our teachers, to our staff, our students and our constituents. Please don’t put my name on this response ever, because I am not in agreement with it.” 

Flores, often the sole opposition to the current board supermajority, is currently the only sitting board member with enough votes to win reelection with 846 votes, more than double the runner-up in the Area 2 race. Trustees Scot McBrian and Avelar are both trailing by wide margins in their bids for reelection to newcomers Sofia Colón and Kennetha Stevens, who both ran on transparency and financial accountability. Donald Donaire is handily ahead to replace Trustee Mendez, who is terming out, in the area 5 seat.

28,830 ballots remain to be counted in the county as of Nov. 16, according to the San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters. 

The Record
Ben Erwin
November 17, 2022


Mendocino Unified disputes Grand Jury findings that district failed to properly identify, provide Special Ed services

Kylie Felicich had been trying to get her son — who had an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, for speech at Mendocino Unified School District’s K-8 school — assessed for special education services in math for years before administrators conducted an assessment, she told The Mendocino Voice this summer. Felicich said her daughter could not read, write, or spell in kindergarten or first grade, but administrators maintained that she simply needed “a longer runway.” After their experiences trying to get necessary Special Education services, Felicich’s family would eventually leave the district for good — and they are not the only ones.

Felicich said one teacher told her that she could “get in trouble” for advising that Felicich pursue Special Education services due to her son’s struggles in math. She’d hear the same thing from another teacher a couple of years later.

“[His teacher] said, ‘I need to tell you something — your son has a learning disability, and the school doesn’t want you to know,” Felicich said in a phone conversation with The Mendocino Voice over the summer. “And I said, ‘Why would they not want me to know?’ She said, ‘They don’t want to allocate resources to your son. He’s not a behavior problem. He’s really smart. In other words, they just want to push him through. But I’m telling you that there’s something really wrong with a kid that’s this smart that has this specific issue.”

A year later, by an independent party, Felicich’s son would be diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Parent-reported experiences like Felicich’s prompted a report from the Mendocino County Civil Grand Jury this summer, which — among other findings regarding Mendocino Unified’s Special Education program — found that the district’s failure to provide Special Education services mandated by IEP agreements to several students led families to file due process complaints. Then, the Grand Jury found, Mendocino Unified settled these legal disputes with funds set aside for extraordinary legal expenses in the Mendocino County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) budget. SELPA’s budget consists of pooled special education funding from districts around the county; so when Mendocino Unified settles a lawsuit, any attorney fees paid by the district are reimbursed from SELPA funds, in the Grand Jury’s words “hold[ing] the district financially harmless.”

The Grand Jury found that SELPA has reimbursed $94,190 in attorney fees to Ukiah Unified School District, Mendocino Unified School District, and the Mendocino County Office of Education from fall of 2020 to spring of 2022, with $26,750 of those funds going to Mendocino Unified.

“Families never received cash settlements,” the Grand Jury reported, “ — they finally received the mandated educational services they should have received via the IEP agreement.”

The specifics of Felicich’s arrangement can’t be discussed due to documents she signed when settling her complaint against Mendocino Unified, but as she told The Voice, “It would be very challenging for Joe and Sally Smith to get the district to cover the costs for an Independent [Educational] Evaluation (IEE) without a lawyer, even though there are some cases where the school district is obligated to give that student an IEE.”

The Grand Jury posits that as a small “basic aid” school district — meaning one funded entirely by property taxes and not by state aid — Mendocino Unified is disincentivized to provide adequate services to students with disabilities, as these services are complex and expensive, and the district’s revenue stream is the same regardless of whether those students remain in school.

The district’s board disagreed with the Grand Jury’s findings and declined to implement its recommendations, as outlined in a response document of more than 100 pages that included documentation of one family’s settlement. The board published this response ahead of its October 20 meeting, and used part of the meeting as a forum to discuss what its members saw as a “half-hearted inquiry” into the school’s program. Superintendent Jason Morse told The Voice that he was happy with the board’s response and found it thorough.

“I’d like to say that our district is and has been committed to the success of students with disabilities,” Board Chair Michael Schaeffer said. “The board takes the allegations and inaccuracies from the Grand Jury report seriously [and] has issued a thorough response to the report, which we hope will serve to correct the record, ease concerns, and restore relationships and trust within our valued community of parents and students.”

The board said in its response that only four families had filed due process complaints against the district in the past decade. The response also disputed claims and methodology from the Grand Jury report.

The report had alleged that parents who settled due process complaints were made to sign non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs. The board declared in its response that NDAs are not part of the process, but all final compromise and release agreements resulting from due process complaints include a clause on confidentiality. Here’s that clause from a 2020 agreement the board included in its public response, with some identifying information redacted:

By their signatures, the parties acknowledge that they will carry out the terms of this Agreement, which shall be maintained as a confidential document by all parties except as required by law. Specifically, Parents shall not share the terms of this Agreement with anyone except the Parents’ legal counsel or their accountants. However, for the limited purpose of resolving questions of implementation and enforcement of the Agreement, the parties mutually consent to disclosure and admissibility of this Agreement. This Agreement may be disclosed for the purpose of obtaining providers to contract with the District for the purposes of implementation of paragraph 2.1. If Parents or District violate the confidentiality of this Agreement, then this will constitute a breach as described in Paragraph 9 of this Agreement.

The Grand Jury interviewed the Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools, staff from the Mendocino County Office of Education, the Superintendent and the K-8 Principal of Mendocino Unified, school district and MCOE business managers, the Executive Director of SELPA, members of the MUSD school board, parents of MUSD students with IEPs, and legal counsel. Jurors also reviewed budgets, legislation, the California School Accounting Manual, the California Department of Education Special Education Governance and Accountability Study, information from the SELPA Administrators of California, and the MUSD Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).

In its response, the board expressed concern that the Grand Jury did not utilize subpoena power to review due process complaints, settlement agreements, the IEPs themselves, or California Department of Education compliance data. The board provided examples of several of these documents in its response.

The board also included four messages of support from families sent to Superintendent Morse in September of this year, expressing satisfaction with the districts’ Special Education program.

“Without the educational and emotional support, kindness, understanding and love they received from many people in Mendocino K-8, there is no way possible the kids would be in the shoes that they are in today,” one person wrote of their custodial grandchildren’s experiences in the district.

Several former district parents, though, attended the October meeting to share stories of their struggles receiving services.

“We had meetings [from kindergarten] all the way through sixth grade, SST [Student Study Team] meetings, at least a couple a year,” Crystal Leatherwood said, saying her daughter would have not been able to graduate from high school without her IEP. “I had one meeting with the principal, which was just finding solutions to keep her distractibility down in the classroom. By sixth grade … I was just meeting with the teachers only. … By this time I’m frustrated. My child is not succeeding in the classroom. She’s not getting the help she needs. And I decided to pull my child out of the school. I also had a first grader who I also pulled from the school, and then I had a child who was going to be entering kindergarten, and I decided not to let him attend the school, [though] it would be really convenient. I was talking to a friend about my frustrations and she mentioned, ‘Why doesn’t your child have an IEP?’ And I said, ‘What is that?’ I had no idea that this existed. After six years of SST meetings, I never knew that that was an option for my child, that she could be assessed, that she could have this help.”

After enrolling her children at Caspar Creek Learning Community, Leatherwood said her daughter had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and had an IEP within three months.

Sasha Graham said her teenage son went to Mendocino K-8 for his elementary and middle school, where he struggled to get evaluated for an IEP despite ongoing behavioral struggles that impacted his learning.

“I’m an involved parent, a retired health care provider, and know how to advocate for my son,” she told the board. “Because of our financial situation, I was able to afford private testing, professional opinions, and evaluations that for many parents would be out of reach. Despite all this support, it took over a year to get not only the appropriate but vital individualized learning plan.”

She added, “In high school, he is extremely bright, but he still considers himself dumb and a bad kid.”

Jenifer and Matthew Westmoreland, with whom The Voice spoke in August, came to the district with IEPs already in place for both their children; their older son had been diagnosed with autism.

“We were warned that the school tried to push kids out that had IEPs, that they didn’t want kids there with IEPs,” Jenifer said. “We were told stories as we were going into the school from other parents, like, ‘Good luck with that.’”

The couple said K-8 Principal Kim Humrichouse insisted on an informal plan for navigating their younger child’s tumultuous drop-off at school, despite his having an IEP. Meanwhile, administrators continued to attribute their older child’s struggles to “attention-seeking behavior” although the family was later told that he should have been receiving speech therapy, occupational therapy, and counseling. This family has since moved out of the state and is now home-schooling their son.

“This is all stuff that, if we had known years before, we could have done something about, but instead I have a child who can’t even leave the house anymore,” Jenifer said. “And it’s heartbreaking because when he started at that school, one thing that people told us all the time was his smile would light up the room. He would skip into class. He was happy as can be, he was so excited to go to school — and now he’s depressed and hiding.”

Grand Jury Foreperson Kathy Wylie told The Voice this summer that as a civil watchdog, the Grand Jury is used to responses disputing their findings.

“There’s been a shift in attitude from the responding agencies that have figured out that the Grand Jury is really not their enemy, that we are really trying to help,” Wylie said. “So even when an agency says, ‘You’re all wet, you got everything wrong,’ then when we go back and actually look, we actually weren’t all wet, and they adopted our recommendations.”

The board said in its response to the report that it plans to request that SELPA implement two informational nights in the 2022-23 school year, to outline parental rights and what supports are available to families in the district. At the October meeting, board members and Superintendent Morse expressed a desire to hear more from families about the apparent dissonance between the services they hope to provide and the experiences reported by some special education students and their parents.

“I’m hearing [board member] Mark [Morton] talk about the report and talk about the history of special education and how it came to be up to the present day,” said Jessica Grinberg, one of Mendocino Unified’s board members. “But I feel that we rise above the history. I feel that we need to be more in tune with families, we need to look at every student, and certainly students with IEPs need to be celebrated with compassion for the opportunity we have to educate them and help them work through their struggles. I think we do have amazing staff … and I’m not going to criticize anybody in this process, but I think there’s a miss. I think that we’re not in tune to the families in need.”

Morse is focused on improving Mendocino Unified’s existing programs — including bolstering the board’s knowledge of special education processes.

“That’s going to be the focus of our January 5 workshop, as we’ve already determined, training for the board and just also, what does an IEP look like? How does it happen?” he said at the meeting. “Our staff comes and goes, and we have a lot of transition. I feel like our staff last year and this year are, in my 11 years as superintendent, the best Special Ed staff we’ve had … Our numbers are on par with other districts our size, as far as number of assessments. So we are assessing kids at a very huge rate right now. One thing we can do is to keep trying to improve.”

The Mendocino Voice will continue to report on Special Education in Mendocino Unified School District. The Grand Jury report and school board response are available online.

The Mendocino Voice
By Kate Fishman
November 18, 2022

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Voters just gave everyone at [Marin County] MMWD a clear message

If early results hold, the voters just gave Marin Municipal Water District directors an unambiguous message.

The public wants water security, including a four-year reserve – no more kicking the can down the road. Act and do it now. Planning is essential, but with the time and money already spent on studies, MMWD leaders need to make up their mind and implement decisions.

That message apparently wasn’t received until election night by expected outgoing directors Jack Gibson, Larry Bragman and Cynthia Koehler.

Koehler chose to retire instead of running for reelection after serving 17 years. Given the substantial vote margins between the candidates so far, it appears there’s little doubt the two incumbents, Gibson and Bragman, were defeated.

The nonpartisan election wasn’t about personalities; it was about policy. It’s widely agreed that Gibson, Bragman and Koehler are dedicated public officials and talented individuals. Likewise, few dispute that all three of the victors are accomplished in their professional and civic lives.

The Marin County Civil Grand Jury report, “A Roadmap to Water Resilience for MMWD” was damning and pivotal. Its central point was clear. “Last year’s drought emergency could have been avoided if MMWD had taken sufficient measures to provide for a resilient water supply. With the mounting challenges posed by climate change, the mistakes of the past cannot be repeated. MMWD must establish a roadmap for achieving water supply resilience without delay.”

After threatened water rationing, it didn’t take much to convince central and southern Marin voters and the agency’s 191,000 customers that change was due. The leading vote-getters, Ranjiv Khush (over Bragman), Matthew Samson (over Gibson) and Jed Smith (leading to succeed Koehler), all have committed to implementing new water supplies at the earliest possible date.

All candidates sought endorsements from community-based organizations and leaders to give them credibility.

In the water board elections, support from Marin’s COST, the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, turned out to be decisive. COST’s goal was targeted: encourage new candidates who will aggressively advocate for innovative water sources at a reasonable price.

It’s not just that the candidates on their slate, Khush, Samson and Smith, all won. COST was involved early in recruiting them to enter the contest. Rep. Jared Huffman was separately involved in convincing venture capitalist and environmentalist Smith to jump into the race. Conversely, the vaunted Sierra Club endorsement failed to deliver for its endorsees, Bragman and Gibson.

While the role of conservation remains an important component of achieving adequate water availability, new sources need to not just be studied but obtained. There are ample practical options. They include raising dam heights to increase reservoir capacity, capturing winter Russian River water flowing to the Pacific Ocean and storing it in Sonoma’s aquifer, plus desalination. Whatever the conclusion, 2023 must be the year of decision, and implementation needs to follow soon thereafter.

The spotlight now isn’t just on the three likely new directors. It’s on the two directors who’ll see their terms expire in 2024: Monty Schmitt of San Rafael and Tiburon’s Larry Russell, the MMWD board’s current chair.

Voters’ tolerance for dithering is over. If Schmitt and Russell don’t get their acts in gear and work with the three new directors to deliver reliable water, they may either choose to retire like Koehler or experience the electoral fate of Gibson and Bragman.

MMWD is blessed with a first-rate staff who properly follows the policy directions of elected board members. We can expect these pros led by MMWD general manager Ben Horenstein to act promptly once the new board sends them clear marching orders. If that happens and actions are taken to implement those decisions, water consumers may soon see light at the end of the (water) tunnel.

Marin Independent Journal
Dick Spotswood
November 12, 2022

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Mendocino Unified School District board refutes majority of [Mendocino County] Grand Jury report

At the regular board trustee meeting on October 20, the Mendocino Unified School District board members issued a formal, written response to the Mendocino County Grand Jury’s assessment of the district’s Special Education program for K-8.

The district’s 102-page response disagreed with most of the findings and recommendations in the August 2022 Grand Jury report and included reasons and evidentiary support to present the board’s position.

The Grand Jury’s summary stated that their investigation had been initiated by “multiple citizen allegations of denial of special education (SpEd) services within the Mendocino Unified School District (MUSD).”

Given the testimony by “several families,” the Grand Jury investigation found that “the school district failed to properly identify and provide mandated SpEd services to several students, which resulted in California Office of Administrative Hearings lawsuits compelling the district to offer additional student services to correct their practices.”

In the body of the report, the Grand Jury listed ten findings that described “the problems” in the MUSD program for SpEd. The first four findings focus on weaknesses in the county’s Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA). By law, every school district is part of a regional system of districts that is guided by a Master Plan to provide a quality education program for students identified with special needs.

The other six findings focus specifically on MUSD’s educational philosophy for SpEd, its administrative oversight system, and its alleged quick willingness to financially settle with parent complaints rather than address the root causes of a student’s lack of progress.

The MUSD board trustees response to those six findings found fault with the Grand Jury’s reasoning, its failure to request essential records from the district, and its incomplete interview process which did not include many persons directly involved in the complaint cases the Grand Jury referenced.

The board’s strongest rebuttal addressed the Grand Jury’s misuse of the term “lawsuit” when noting parents’ legal actions against the district. Parent filings, the school trustees noted, that are adjudicated by an Administrative Law Judge for the Office of Administrative Hearings, are not “lawsuits.” The filed paperwork is a “due process complaint” concerning an unresolved disagreement between parents and a school district.

Any parent of a SpEd student may legally file a due process complaint at any time. In fact, this procedure can be quite common in public school districts. Since confidentiality is mandated to protect a student’s privacy, it is not unusual for the parent population in a school district to have no personal knowledge of a filing or its outcome.

The trustees also stressed that no parent had ever been “forced” to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA). All parties simply agree to a routine confidentiality clause in the student plan paperwork to ensure family privacy regarding a student’s particular educational needs.

The school board’s response noted that the Grand Jury had subpoena power to obtain confidential records of the students in question. The trustees included a thorough list of documents that the Grand Jury should have requested in order to obtain a more complete picture beyond the interviews they conducted. The trustees also included several written testimonials by parents of SpEd students who are supportive of the district’s program.

The district trustees reported that in the past ten years there has been a total of four due process complaints filed against the district. Furthermore, there have been no lawsuits. Their response also asserted that transferring students to a SpEd program in another school district “is not inappropriate.”

Of equal importance, the district pointed out that the State of California routinely expects SpEd unresolved disagreements and allots some funds for those situations. The trustees also added that SpEd history in California shows settlements with parents are the rule, not the exception.

Creating an education plan for a SpEd student is a collaborative process involving many educational professionals and the student’s parents. Some parents also bring in a SpEd advocate to support their interests.

The guiding principle of a SpEd student plan is to provide “a free and appropriate public education” for identified students. The vague wording itself opens the door to misunderstanding and promotion of opinions rather than data-driven evidence. The opportunity for adversarial gridlock seems inadvertently built into the process.

While most of these meetings result in approval of educational plans by all parties, occasionally parents may object strongly enough that no plan for the student is agreed upon. These situations are usually resolved with more discussion, or parents file a due process complaint. Only very few situations ever lead to actual lawsuits against a school district.

In regards to the Grand Jury’s assessment that the MUSD budget was not transparent enough for public review of SpEd settlement costs, the trustees maintained that the budget is a matter of public record. Settlements are reported out by the school board, but no budget line item would list a family’s name in reference to a settlement.

The trustees agreed that some of the school district’s general funds were applied to SpEd costs. Funds provided by the state and federal agencies never cover the complete costs of SpEd students’ needs. However, school districts are required by law to fulfill a SpEd student’s needs regardless of cost and use some general funds to finance SpEd services needed by students.

The Grand Jury report also presented six recommendations linked to the numbered findings. The first three are directed to the county’s SELPA.

The other three recommendations targeted the district’s perceived biased disregard for delivering “early intervention” services for SpEd students and its failure to ensure parents’ understanding of SpEd students’ rights. Other recommendations addressed the district’s unspecific professional training program for staff.

The board trustees described the Grand Jury’s opinions about the district’s lack of early intervention policies as “indefensible,” and the trustees claimed no knowledge of the North Coast Diagnostic Center, identified in the Grand Jury report, which provides SpEd testing, training, and technical services.

Most likely, the Grand Jury report was referring to the regional center located in Fremont which is one of three that serve the state’s school districts, students, and their families. Assessments are free, but requests for services must be made by school districts.

The trustees reported that MUSD has approved, specific professional training plans in place. They also conceded that the parent seats on the county’s SELPA committee were vacant, but added that SELPA bore the responsibility to fill those seats. However, the trustees stated that the district would hold informational meeting nights whenever SELPA scheduled its county meetings within the MUSD borders.

Grand Jury recommendations are not legally binding. The viewpoint of MUSD trustees is that the recommendations will not be followed “because they are not warranted and/or not deemed reasonable.”

Fort Bragg Advocate-News
By Mary Benjamin
November 3, 2022