Thursday, January 14, 2021

Animal welfare groups successfully sue [Monterey] county to enforce its own cockfighting ordinance.

Blog note: This article refers to a 2019 Monterey County grand jury report.

There are good reasons why cockfighting is outlawed in all 50 states. It’s not just cruel and inhumane for the roosters who are drugged, outfitted with razor-sharp spurs and forced to fight to the death. It’s dangerous to people, as well as being a potential source of disease, say animal welfare groups. Two groups filed suit against Monterey County in August, asking a Superior Court judge to compel officials to enforce the county’s rooster ordinance meant to curb what activists contend is a flourishing practice here.

That ordinance was passed by the Monterey County Board of Supervisors in a 3-2 vote in 2014. It made it illegal to keep more than five roosters on a property without a permit, and it also set certain standards for debris cleanup and treatment of the animals and prohibited anyone convicted of cockfighting or animal cruelty from obtaining a rooster-keeping permit. The law was challenged in 2015 by two men who argued the ordinance was unconstitutional and violated their civil rights. They lost in Monterey County Superior Court in 2016 and an appeal in federal court was denied in February 2019.

In 2014, the county estimated there were possibly hundreds of cockfighting operations. Yet the ordinance went essentially unenforced, according to a 2019 report by the Monterey County Civil Grand Jury. Witnesses testified there were closer to 1,000 operations.

The grand jury concluded that enforcement was hampered by a complicated reporting process, confusion over the roles of county agencies and some agencies’ inability or unwillingness to enforce the ordinance. In written responses, county officials disagreed with some of the grand jury’s findings but agreed they had a lack of staff to respond to issues.

The grand jury requested improvements be made in 2020, but when that failed to happen the two animal welfare groups – Humane Farming Association and Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, known as SHARK – as well as a resident identified as Jane Doe, filed the lawsuit in August. On Dec. 18, the plaintiffs and the county agreed in court to a stipulation that includes plans for better enforcement. During negotiations, the county hired additional animal control officers, bringing its staff up to four.

Officials agreed to form a task force with representatives from Animal Services, county counsel’s office, the District Attorney’s office, the sheriff’s office, SPCA Monterey County, and a representative from the Board of Supervisors. That group has not met yet; a six-month progress report to the court is due on May 25.

Attorney Vanessa Shakib of the firm Advancing Law for Animals, representing the plaintiffs, says there is a greater cost to the public when cockfighting is allowed to continue than there is to enforcement. One example is a 2002 California poultry epidemic of Virulent Newcastle Disease attributed to cockfighting operations which cost an estimated $180 million to eradicate. Cockfighting has also been known to spread zoonotic diseases – those spread from animal to human. “We’re not just talking animal welfare,” Shakib says.

Monterey County Now
Pam Marino
January 11, 2021 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Editorial: More can be done to curb Marin opioid overdoses, deaths

 Blog note: This editorial refers to a Marin County grand jury report.

Marin County health officials have been in the forefront of efforts to stem the prescription of opioid pain relievers and deaths to which their abuse frequently leads.

Their initiatives made a difference, reducing the flow of prescriptions and saving lives.

But in 2019, the cases of opioid-abuse hospitalizations and overdose deaths rose to levels that caught the attention of the 2019-20 Marin County Civil Grand Jury, which recently released a report on its investigation and recommendations for further action that needs to be taken.

While lately most of the public’s focus has been on the coronavirus pandemic, Marin residents serving on the grand jury offered a sobering reminder that there continues to be other health threats.

While they credit the county with leading the creation of “robust prevention and treatment programs,” the jury is justifiably worried about the uptick in abuse cases and deaths seen in 2019, after years of progress in reducing both.

“Despite prevention efforts, the opioid problem in Marin has not gone away,” the jury writes in its report, “Opioid Misuse: Strengthening Marin County’s Response.” The jury reports that “opioid deaths of county residents in 2019 approached the high levels not seen since the end of the last decade.”

One of its recommendations should be easy — expanding the availability of naloxone, a widely used emergency drug that can save lives from overdoses.

The county, through its RxSafe Marin initiative, has already broadened the drug’s availability, providing it to first responders such as police and firefighters, as well as to family members of known abusers.

It has also worked on increasing medication-assisted treatment available in Marin, but the grand jury says the statistics show more needs to be done, noting the county lacks sufficient long-term residential treatment care for those who need aftercare and recovery.

The grand jury is also recommending the expansion of its “navigator” program, where someone counsels and assists those who wind up in the emergency room due to an overdose away from their addictive and dangerous behaviors.

The local civil grand jury often does a public service in shining the light of public attention on issues or problems that may not be well known, but are important to the community.

The 2019 statistics showcased in the jury’s report are good reason for the county and community medical-care providers to do more in addressing opioid abuse and overdose deaths.

They can be prevented by providing medical care providers the tools they need and by taking measures that limit access to such dangerous drugs.

There is no question, the county has done a lot in recent years to try to respond to a situation that was clearly out of control. The grand jury has shined the spotlight on the need to do more and effective measures that can make a difference — including saving lives

Marin Independent Journal
By MARIN IJ EDITORIAL BOARD
January 3, 2021

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Evacuation planning lacks leadership, [Marin County grand] jury finds

Choke points would abound in an emergency evacuation of West Marin. In Inverness, the problem is Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. In Bolinas, it’s Mesa and Olema-Bolinas Roads. And for the entire coast, any of the over-the-hill routes—through the San Geronimo Valley, past Nicasio or around Mount Tamalpais—would become congested if thousands of people were trying to leave at once.

Despite this threat to public safety, nobody in Marin is taking responsibility to plan for evacuation, according to a Marin County Civil Grand Jury report issued last month. The 19-member watchdog group calls on the Transportation Authority of Marin to step up and include evacuation as one of its criteria when planning or funding projects. The grand jury also urges public works departments of cities, towns and the county to prioritize evacuation, and argues that these governing bodies should address evacuation infrastructure needs as they update their general plans.

The Woodward Fire heightened anxiety around evacuation and prompted the grand jury to revisit the issue. Bolinas resident B.G. Bates fled the blaze despite it being miles away, because she feared a collective rush to leave town. “Once you get to Mesa Road, there are several places where the trees come up on both side and meet in the canopy,” she said. “It’s beautiful, but that’s not where you want to get caught. I think about it all the time: What are my solutions? It depends on which way the fire is coming from, I guess.”

Inverness resident Francine Allen is particularly worried about having to evacuate at the same time as thousands of visitors to the Point Reyes National Seashore. “It’s something I’ve been concerned about for a long time, and nobody seems to be thinking about it. It just hasn’t gotten any traction anywhere,” she said.

Preparing for an evacuation involves many interconnected components: educating the public, cutting back vegetation, improving mapping and signage, designating refuge centers and executing the evacuation during emergencies, along with actually building and improving the infrastructure to support a mass evacuation. The barriers to improving evacuation outcomes are both physical and political.

“In interviews with the grand jury, many officials expressed reluctance to take on these specific evacuation infrastructure challenges because of the enormous costs, potential litigation, environmental complexities, neighborhood resistance, and lack of authority,” the report states. “Furthermore, it is not clear who has responsibility for addressing this critical need. Nevertheless, the dire consequences of failing to address this challenge could result in a catastrophe that far outweighs the cost of improving our roads to support mass evacuation.”

Some public works directors told the grand jury that they believe first responders are in charge of plans, but law enforcement officers said they focus on evacuation only during active emergencies. Other elected officials anticipate that the new Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority will handle planning, but the scope of its work is limited and does not include infrastructure improvements. The Transportation Authority of Marin has denied that it has any role or responsibility for considering evacuation needs in its transportation projects, but the grand jury disagrees.

The transportation authority was established in 2004 as Marin’s congestion management agency, required by state law in every county. Funded by grants, a half-cent sales tax and a $10 vehicle registration fee, the authority is tasked with coordinating roughly $40 million in annual funding for a multitude of transportation projects, from improving routes to schools to widening the highway, all with the goal of improving mobility.

The agency was chartered when traffic was high on Marin’s priority list and wildfire evacuation was a remote concern. But times have changed, and the agency hasn’t changed with them.

The jury first looked at evacuation routes in 2019 and made the initial call for the authority to prioritize evacuation projects and require that every proposed project consider its impact on mass evacuation. At the time, the authority responded that it “is a funding agency and does not set local policy.” But the grand jury argues that the authority is ideally positioned for the task, as the only entity with countywide authority over transportation projects. Because its board is broadly representative of Marin’s jurisdictions, it can support large cross-jurisdictional projects along Marin’s major evacuation routes.

“Contrary to its previous responses to the grand jury, the Transportation Authority of Marin is not precluded or constrained from incorporating evacuation planning needs as a criterion in its infrastructure projects. The Transportation Authority of Marin’s decision-making process is inadequate unless it includes evacuation as a criterion when funding improvements,” the grand jury found.

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who sits on the transportation authority board, believes that both the authority and departments of public works should revise their policies to look at evacuation when funding projects. “I think it’s a good idea, and it’s something they should do with all of their projects,” he said.

The transportation authority wouldn’t work alone. The Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority, composed of 17 fire agencies, was established last year and has a nearly $20 million annual budget. The agency has allocated $1 million for a traffic study of evacuation routes this year, a first step in identifying problem areas. The agency will also fund major vegetation management projects along evacuation routes and create evacuation route maps, but it does not have the ability or the funding for major infrastructure improvements, such as widening roads. Thus, the transportation authority should work with firefighters, and a transportation representative should serve on the wildfire prevention authority’s advisory and technical committee, the grand jury argued.

The buck ultimately stops with the Board of Supervisors. The jury calls on the board to adopt a resolution urging the transportation authority to consider evacuation needs in public works projects, and for the county to update the safety elements of its general plan this year to include evacuation planning. Each agency has until March 14 to respond.

Point Reyes Light
By Braden Cartwright
January 6, 2021

Thursday, December 31, 2020

[Santa Clara County] grand jury accuses San Jose Unified of misleading public and its own board about lobbying efforts

San Jose’s biggest school district left the public and its own governing board in the dark about lobbying activities that were carried out on its behalf — and possibly violated government ethics laws in the process, according to a new grand jury report.

San Jose Unified School District hired a consulting firm to help it with a proposal to build affordable housing for district teachers and employees but didn’t disclose to its board or the public that the consulting firm was also lobbying city officials, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury said in a report issued last week.

Indeed, district staff members repeatedly denied to the board the consultancy was doing any lobbying for the district, according to the report.

Meanwhile, SJUSD obscured for the public and its board the lobbying activities another firm it hired was doing at the state level, according to the report.

“The vagueness, inaccuracies and lack of transparency surrounding the consultant contracts cause the Grand Jury to further question whether the district was evaluating these contracts for compliance with government ethics laws,” the grand jury said in its report.

“The Grand Jury is concerned about the district’s lack of attention to this responsibility; the consultants’ failure to disclose their financial interests; and the fact that the public is unaware that consultants may have disqualifying financial interests in the work they perform for the district.”

The district declined to immediately comment, saying it would issue a formal response to the report “within the statutory timeframes.”

SJUSD denial

SJUSD hired planning firm The Schoennauer Company, LLC, a registered lobbyist, in March 2019 at a rate of $2,500 a month to help with its affordable housing proposal. At the time, the district was exploring a plan to relocate some of its schools and construct housing on the properties.

The proposal was opposed by many of the neighbors of the schools facing potential closures. Schoennauer helped SJUSD narrow its list of 10 potential sites for the affordable housing development to four.

The grand jury report also criticized the district’s relationship with a second housing consultant who worked with Schoennauer, Snider Consulting. The agreement with Snider was characterized by a trustee as “very vague about what was to be done.”

From nearly the beginning, opponents criticized the district’s move to hire Schoennauer and questioned the work it was doing for the district. Under questioning from the board, district staff members denied Schoennauer was lobbying for the district.

In fact, though, Schoennauer partner Erik Schoennauer repeatedly met or spoke with city officials, including Mayor Sam Liccardo and Kelly Kline, the city director of land use, about SJUSD’s proposal, according to lobbyist reports filed with the city that were cited in the grand jury report.

“The district repeatedly denied in public meetings that the consultant was lobbying on its behalf despite clear documentation to the contrary,” the grand jury said in its report. “These actions adversely tainted the public contracting process by misleading the board charged with approving the use of public funds for the consultant’s hiring.”

Even if district officials didn’t direct Schoennauer’s lobbying effort, they had little excuse to not be aware of it, the grand jury said in its report. Invoices submitted by the consulting firm to the district explicitly stated that it was performing “political lobbying services” for the district, according to the report.

“I don’t see what the concern is about having a dialogue with the city of San Jose,” said Erik Schoennauer of the Schoennauer Company. “Ultimately, any teacher housing project has to be approved by the city. So certainly it makes sense to check in with the mayor and others in the city to ensure that the direction the district may head in is consistent with the policies and the visions the city has. We should be having more communication, not less.”

Schoennauer said all meetings between city officials and him were lobbying only in the city’s definition of the word.

The city defines lobbying as “influencing or attempting to influence a city official or city official-elect with regard to a legislative or administrative action of the city or redevelopment agency” according to its lobbying ordinance.

“Any communication with a city official is lobbying. Their definition is very simple and very clear,” Schoennauer said. “That’s why our firm included the communications about San Jose Unified in our lobbyist reports to the city. But everyone needs to decide what their definition is of lobbying.”

He added the meetings were to ensure the district and the city were working well together to construct new housing for teachers.

Despite that, when Schoennauer’s contract came up for an extension, district staff declined to correct their previous statements and inform SJUSD’s board about Schoennauer’s lobbying effort, according to the report. Instead, district staff appeared to intentionally obfuscate the work Schoennauer was doing for SJUSD, the grand jury said.

“In response to public comment and a trustee’s request for an update on the consultant’s work, staff provided detail at great length on the consultant’s activities that sound like lobbying without actually using the word ‘lobbying,’” the grand jury said in the report.

With the affordable housing project, SJUSD is seeking to provide homes for its educators and staff in one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation. Some teachers within the district have told the board in meetings that they are having extreme difficulty paying rent in the area where they teach.

But the project has garnered considerable pushback from some affluent residents concerned it would decrease property values, increase traffic and endanger pedestrians in the area.

A table displaying Schoennauer’s lobbying activity for the district. Source: Santa Clara County Grand Jury.

No disclosure forms

While it’s legal for the district to lobby city officials, that activity by consultants such as Schoennauer can trigger state financial disclosure requirements that seek to prevent conflicts of interest. Under state law, government bodies are supposed to file a document — Form 805 — with the Fair Political Practices Commission to identify outside consultants who are helping them make governmental decisions.

After an agency files a Form 805, the consultants mentioned in it are required to file their own, separate financial disclosure forms.

But the district hasn’t filed a single Form 805 in the past three years, according to the report. And despite doing extensive work on behalf of SJUSD, including lobbying, neither Schoennauer nor Snider filed the financial disclosure forms, the grand jury reported.

“Without this information, the board and public may not be able to identify areas in which the consultants are potentially prohibited from participating due to their financial interests,” the grand jury said in the report.

Indeed, the grand jury identified one such potentially disqualifying conflict of interest. One of the four sites now being considered for affordable housing is yards away from a house owned by Kelly Snider of Snider Consulting. Snider is also a district parent. Although the district knew about the conflict, it didn’t disclose it to the public or its board, determining that it didn’t need to.

“The school district’s attorney reviewed my contract and all the payments (related to the project) were sent to my house,” Snider told San José Spotlight. “My address is public. I have a business license with the city of San Jose at this address. So this is not a conflict in any way. All of the business I do is out of my own home.”

Snider did not believe her property constituted a conflict of interest, and denied doing any lobbying.

“I did no lobbying, and no one I worked with did any lobbying,” she said. “I am not aware of any lobbying, including the collaboration I did with the other consultants who were working on the project.”

Essentially, the district chose to avoid the issue rather than being transparent about it, the grand jury said. And by doing so, it could have violated state ethics laws.

“While the ultimate resolution of alleged state ethics law violations rests with other public bodies, the Grand Jury’s investigation found deficiencies in the district’s process for identifying consultants who are required to file public statements of economic interests,” the grand jury said.

Lack of transparency

The grand jury also found problems with SJUSD’s lobbying at the state level. Last year, the district hired Ball/Frost Group, LLC to represent it in Sacramento, according to the report. But the contract it signed with Ball/Frost isn’t readily available to the public, and the district didn’t clearly and fully disclose the work Ball/Frost was doing on its behalf, the report found.

Ball/Frost was not immediately available for comment.

“Nothing is remotely transparent about the state lobbying contracts,” the grand jury said in the report.

The grand jury issued four recommendations. It asked the district to be more transparent and accurate in communicating with the public, to revise its contracting procedures to make sure lobbyists are more clearly identified when they work with the district, to clearly place any lobbying business on its agenda and to have a better method to inform contractors of their obligations to disclose information, including information that should be sent to the FPPC.

Civil grand juries are responsible for examining the administration of county services, hearing citizen complaints from county officials and serving as a financial watchdog for public funds, among other duties. They generally release reports on their findings several times a year.

SJUSD educates approximately 30,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade and employs more than 3,000 teachers and staff. Its boundaries stretch from north of downtown San Jose to Almaden Valley.

San Jose Spotlight
Lloyd Alaban
December 30, 2020

Colusa County grand jury releases annual report

 The 2019-2020 Colusa County Grand Jury recently released its yearly report, highlighting several investigations they conducted over the past year as well as recommendations for the county moving forward.

The grand jury consists of eight officers and 10 members. The citizens act independent of the court and implement investigations into all agencies and departments within their area.

“Our most challenging event this year was the same challenge affecting every community in America, the pandemic of COVID-19,” said foreperson Kristen Simmons in her letter to Judge Jeffery A. Thompson. “Its limitations affected continuing investigations and restricted our assembly as a group. However, all issues brought to the attention of the jury were investigated and received the required consideration.”

Here is a breakdown of the report:

Tri-County Juvenile Rehabilitation Facility and The Maxine Singer  Youth Guidance Center

As the primary sites for youth offenders in the area, the Colusa County grand jury conducted their yearly inspection of the Tri-County Juvenile Rehabilitation Facility and the Maxine Singer Youth Guidance Center – also known as Camp Singer – on Jan. 24, 2020.

Colusa County utilizes the facilities located in Yuba County because it does not have a juvenile detention center of its own.

According to the report, the grand jury completed an in-depth investigation that included programs offered and a comprehensive comparison between the two facilities, finding that in its current state, the facility continues to function adequately. The jury also concluded that inspections at the facility are up to date and a safety plan is in place for staff and inmates.

It was noted that in spite of the age and wear of the facility, which was built in the 1950s, both facilities were well maintained and clean.

“The kitchen and dining hall, which is shared by juvenile hall and Camp Singer, was exceptionally clean and well organized,” read the report.

The facility is equipped with an Intervention counselor and offers a variety of programs focused on anger management, antisocial emotions, gang rehabilitation and parenting in both individual and groups settings. A tattoo removal program is also offered at the juvenile hall.

At the time of the inspection, there were 14 youths housed at the juvenile hall, two of whom were from Colusa County. None of the 16 youths housed at Camp Singer were from Colusa County at the time of the jury’s tour.

Colusa County Jail

The grand jury conducted its annual inspection of the Colusa County Jail on Oct. 25, 2019. Their findings indicate that the facility continues to function adequately. However, as stated in previous reports, safety risks for both staff and inmates exist due to the current building layout.

According to the report, the jail is a single floor facility with an authorized housing capacity of 92 inmates and is staffed by 13 Sheriff’s Department employees.

At the time of the inspection, 81 inmates were in custody at the facility.

 

According to the report, the information for the investigation was sourced from a tour of the jail facility, interviews with jail administrative staff and line personnel, interviews with male and female inmates and reviews of past jail inspections and state inspection reports.

During the interviews with the inmates at the facility, they confirmed that they are provided with all their physical needs – which includes three meals per day, restroom facilities and a bed – while they awaited sentencing or served their time at the jail.

“Reasonable commissary, education facilities, basic liberal arts classes and religious services are also available for interested inmates,” it was stated in the report.

Mosquito Abatement

The grand jury launched a review of the comprehensive operations of the Colusa Mosquito Abatement District because, according to the report, those had not been reviewed in recent years.

The review looked into the district’s responsibilities, boundaries, abatement operations and procedures, incidence of West Nile within the county, education and prevention, safety training and communication strategies.

The district’s boundary encompasses 160 square miles in eastern Colusa County, including the city of Colusa, as well as 20 square miles of Sutter County and the Butte Sink National Wildlife Refuge.

Large areas are agricultural lands, wetlands and river banks which provide prime breeding conditions for mosquitos that are in close proximity to humans, according to the report.

“From late April to early November, CMAD provides abatement services in the city of Colusa and outlying areas within the District boundary,” it was stated in the report. “Application of pesticide is based on mosquito populations and disease activity determined by surveillance.”

The district follows an integrated, ecosystem-based strategy mosquito management program that focuses on long term prevention of mosquitoes through a combination of techniques.

The grand jury found that the District provides a high-level of mosquito control services and public health protection while implementing good abatement practices and maintaining a confident, multi-functional employee team.

“Their facility and equipment are well maintained and the employees take pride in their work and service to the community,” it was stated in the report.

Colusa County Sun Herald
By Lynzie Lowe llowe
December 30, 2020

Report: ‘Frat house culture’ blamed for lack of female firefighters in Santa Clara County

Blog note: This article refers to a Santa Clara County grand jury report

Women trying to become firefighters in cities throughout Santa Clara County face gender bias, a hostile work environment, a conscious lack of recruitment and other major obstacles, according to a newly released grand jury report.

The report on the lack of women firefighters in Santa Clara County offers recommendations for how the male-dominated firefighting profession can take steps to better reflect the county’s demographics by hiring more women.

Issued by the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury Dec. 17, the report surveyed nearly 1,500 firefighters across four departments and 96 fire stations in the county. It found that only 4% of firefighters were women — far below the 17% target recommended by Women in Fire, an advocacy group.

The San Jose Fire Department, the largest in the region with 665 firefighters, has the lowest percentage of female firefighters — just 16, or 2%.

Of the 95 firefighters in Palo Alto, five are women or approximately 5%. Mountain View has seven women among its 70 firefighters, about 10% of its force, and the Santa Clara County Fire Department has 16 women among 235 firefighters or 7%.

The civil grand jury found it was more difficult for women to be recruited for firefighting jobs because of “insufficient female recruitment, gender bias and lack of inclusivity” among departments.

The report saw a recruitment system that favored men over women, a hostile work environment for women, a lack of women-specific equipment and complaints from female firefighters about harassment from male firefighters.

“The current procedures for recruiting and hiring female firefighters in the Santa Clara County region have resulted in maintaining a male-dominated fire service that does not reflect the face of the community it serves,” read the report.

“For the SCC fire departments to have more female firefighters in the workforce, they must hire more women,” it continued. “This will require a concentrated and continuous effort. Female firefighters should expect appropriate behavior from all colleagues, separate living accommodations for privacy, formal mentoring, opportunity for promotion and properly-fitting work gear.”

According to a survey conducted by the National Report Card on Women in Firefighting, only 35.6% of women said their department recruits and hires women above its general recruiting efforts. When asked the same question, 65.9% of men firefighters said their department went above its recruiting efforts for women.

In addition, leadership positions are almost exclusively male. Female firefighters were approximately 15 times more likely to be verbally harassed, 60 times more likely to report sexual advancements against them at work, 23 times more likely to be exposed to pornography at work and 13 times more likely to be hazed compared to their male counterparts.

Departments also lacked separate changing and living facilities for women, the survey found.

Not wanted

The grand jury report cited four specific instances of female firefighters being harassed in the county. In one instance, a female firefighter could not get transferred to a fire station because that station allegedly “did not want women working there.”

Another firefighter dealt with inappropriate teasing and a third said she heard complaints from the wives of male firefighters about their husbands working closely with women. A fourth firefighter said she didn’t feel supported at the male-dominated firefighters union meeting.

“How do you change that frat house culture? That’s what we’re wrestling with,” read a statement from Curt Varone, a retired deputy fire chief who served 29 years in the Providence Fire Department in Rhode Island. The county used a quote from him in its report. “Hearts and minds have not changed on this issue and that’s the only way we’re going to see progress.”

The report suggested fire departments implement a recruitment process specifically for women firefighters, ensure a non-gender biased hiring process, better living and working conditions for women and more mentoring resources for prospective women applicants and issued six recommendations for implementing such policies.

‘Good old boys’ club’

Matt Tuttle, president of San Jose Fire Fighters Local 230, said he believes there could be better recruitment with more funding.

“For years the fire service has had to combat the ‘frat’ stigma and even a stigma of the fire department being a ‘good old boys’ club,'” Tuttle said. “I believe a lot of that stigma comes from members of the fire department being legacies, for example, sons and daughters of firefighters continuing a family ‘tradition’ of working in the fire service.”

Tuttle said he’s seen a reduction of firefighter applications due to tighter budgets and losing out to other high-paying jobs in the region, such as tech jobs.

Part of San Jose’s efforts to increase women numbers at SJFD includes its SJFD Women’s Boot Camp, which held its second event in March. The boot camp, facilitated by some of the department’s women firefighters, gives participants the opportunity to go through a day in the life of an actual firefighter — everything from grueling physical workouts with the department’s equipment to first aid demonstrations and workshops with women firefighters.

Although the department said it was too soon to review and implement the recommendations from the grand jury report, it said it is actively trying to ensure SJFD reflects the demographics of the city.

“The San Jose Fire Department does enforce a zero-tolerance policy for workplace discrimination,” said Erica Ray, the department’s spokesperson. “And we did implement this annual women’s boot camp to give interested candidates the opportunity to be mentored directly by our female firefighters. It really gives them the hands-on access to what it’s like to be a firefighter.”

The civil grand jury is responsible for examining the administration of county services, hearing resident complaints from county officials and serving as a financial watchdog for public funds, among other duties. It generally releases reports on its findings several times a year.

“If Santa Clara County can cultivate an environment that leads to hiring more women firefighters, it will find its way to equitable female representation in the county,” said the report. “More diverse departments in the SCC region would encourage other Santa Clara County fire departments to change their view, and the balance of genders may inspire additional counties to do so as well.”

San Jose Spotlight
Lloyd Alaban
December 29, 2020

 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Upland City Council wants future city attorney to look into [San Bernardino County] Grand Jury report

In an about face, the Upland City Council last week decided not to hire a private investigator to dig into a grand jury report accusing the city of deceiving the public and hiding information on city pension debts.

However, the Nov. 2 report issued by the San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury will remain a thorny issue for several months for the City Council and for City Manager Rosemary Hoerning.

The City Council on Jan. 11 will take up the report’s 16 recommendations for bettering the way the city deals with its finances and being more transparent. One suggestion is to place pension debt reports on the city’s website.

“I’m really nervous this will be brought up again and again if we don’t resolve them,” said Councilwoman Janice Elliott at the  Dec. 14 City Council meeting.

Despite strong pushes by new Mayor Bill Velto at two previous meetings to hire a private firm at a cost of $50,000 to investigate the city, he failed to gain the votes. On Dec. 14, new council members Shannan Maust and Carlos Garcia did not indicate support for the idea.

Instead, Maust suggested the investigation be done once a new city attorney is hired, a process underway. A new city attorney would be impartial and could conduct interviews of current and past city personnel and find out what led to the Grand Jury’s findings, she said.

“There might be a need for disciplinary actions,” she added, hinting that either a city staffer or council member could be called out for wrongdoing. Velto concluded that his earlier calls for a private investigative firm to investigate the city were moot. The entire City Council agreed on the new approach.

“I felt it was better that we complete the hiring of the city attorney and allow that party to conduct an investigation,” Velto said in a Dec. 22 interview. The new city attorney would review the Grand Jury’s 17 findings and 16 recommendations.

“If we are able, to obtain any basis for those findings from the Grand Jury. Then we will allow the city attorney to use that information to conduct an investigation,” Velto said.

Appointing newly elected City Treasurer Greg Bradley as chief investigator was supported by Lois Sicking Dieter, who ran for mayor and came in third, and Albert Pattison, long-time Upland resident.

But Velto said that would place too much of a burden on the new treasurer and was not his role. He said he has spoken with Bradley and has increased the role of city treasurer in city finance discussions and city meetings — issues at the heart of the Grand Jury report.

The Grand Jury found:

• Five times in early 2019, the city covered up a handwritten notation from then Upland City Treasurer Larry Kinley indicating the city had a bill of $112,039,675 in unfunded pension liabilities by removing it from the city’s monthly Treasury Report. Altered reports were filed with the City Clerk and presented to the City Council for approval, but the Council was not made aware of the changes by city staff. In July 2019, the Finance Committee became aware of the altered reports and stopped the practice, but no disciplinary action was taken.

• The witnesses interviewed agreed unanimously that the city’s pension debts “posed both a serious threat and a financial liability to the citizens of the City.” Also, the City Council was not educated on the implications of such a large pension debt.

• The city purposely deceived the public about pension liabilities because it didn’t want the public asking difficult questions. Back in 2016, the city reduced the role of the city treasurer and prevented him from participating in other meetings involving city finances.

Among the Grand Jury recommendations: Any changes to the City Treasury Report after signed, be documented in writing to the city manager, treasurer and mayor; the treasurer should present his report at City Council meetings monthly; all fiduciary duties be restored to the city treasurer; city should support the appointment of a deputy city treasurer; providing training to council members on unfunded pension liabilities; placing Finance Committee meeting minutes and a report on pension liabilities with a 10-year cost projection on the city’s website.

The report’s recommendations must be implemented by the end of March. But the city doesn’t have to do them all.

“It is not required that the city implement the recommendations but state it is going to implement (some) or isn’t going to (implement others) and what its reasons are,” said Interim City Attorney Steven Flower.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
By STEVE SCAUZILLO
December 28, 2020

Friday, December 25, 2020

Santa Barbara County is building a new $116 million jail branch. Here’s when it will open

Blog note: This article refers to a Santa Barbara County civil grand jury  report

Construction on the Northern Branch Jail is now estimated to be finished by the end of the year, with a 2021 opening date.

The biggest Santa Barbara County capital project in history is even further behind schedule with mounting costs, and the Sheriff’s Office reports that the Northern Branch Jail has a new opening date in spring 2021.

Construction should be substantially completed by the end of the year, followed by on-site training for custody staff, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Raquel Zick said.

The “final completion” date is now estimated at Feb. 26, with its opening soon after.

The jail was expected to open in spring 2018, but numerous delays — including the engineering firm allegedly quitting — have pushed the timeline longer, and the cost higher with extended and amended construction-related contracts.

The new facility was built to reduce overcrowding at the run-down Main Jail near Santa Barbara, and was located in the North County to reduce travel time for booking agencies and court-related transportation.

With 376 beds, the Northern Branch Jail is not sized large enough to replace the Main Jail, even with the lower population because of COVID-19 policies and the push for pre-trial releases.

The sheriff’s department reports an average daily population of 607 people since April, which is a 33% drop from the previous year.

Diversion programs, bail reform and alternative sentencing could affect future jail populations, but the county plans to spend about $25 million in major renovations on the Main Jail in the next few years, since both facilities will need to be open.

Each month in 2018, the Main Jail had an average of 15 to 60 “floor-sleepers,” with no bed assigned, because of the lack of capacity, according to data released in response to a California Public Records Act request from Noozhawk.

In July, the county settled a federal class-action lawsuit alleging dangerous and unconstitutional conditions at the Main Jail, and the agreement called for providing each inmate with a bed and clean clothes, among other improvements.

A Civil Grand Jury report released this year raised concerns about the understaffing at the sheriff’s department custody division and the new jail’s lack of in-person visitation areas and small exercise areas.

According to that Grand Jury report, custody costs at the Main Jail are $120 per day per inmate, or $43,800 per inmate per year.

Sheriff’s department records show that in 2018, on average, one-third of unsentenced jail inmates were being held on bail of less than $5,000, and 42% of inmates had bail amounts of less than $10,000.

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY JAIL CONTRACTS

The county amended its Main Jail medical services contract to include the new jail, but it doesn’t have an agreement yet for food services.

The sheriff’s department contracts with Aramark Corp. for jail food services and inmate commissary services, and the Board of Supervisors approved contact extensions for both agreements in November.

Since there is a “fluctuating” opening date for the Northern Branch Jail, near Santa Maria, the amendments will keep services going at the Main Jail facility while they work on a new agreement to cover both facilities, according to the staff report to the Board of Supervisors.

The Sheriff’s Office’s Programs Unit used to oversee the commissary program, but now it is contracted out to the Aramark Corp.

County supervisors approved a 90-day contract extension for $221,000 on Nov. 10, and approved a contract with Keefe Commissary Network LLC on Dec. 15.

“This is a revenue-generating contract where commissions pay for the vendor’s services,” Lt. Dulce Brooks of the Sheriff’s Office’s Inmate Services Unit wrote.

The Keefe Commissary Network provided commissary services at the Main Jail from 2011 to 2016, when Aramark took over.

People held in custody at the Main Jail have to pay for toiletries, including shampoo and tampons, which are sold at the commissary.

A Keefe Commissary Network menu from 2013 includes toiletries, shoes, stationary, reading glasses, and food items such as ramen, peanut butter, hot chocolate mix, chips, cans of chili, peanuts and cookies.

Inmates in the jail who have no money rely on a hygiene kit that includes a pencil, a razor, a toothbrush, a comb and a small bar of soap.

They get one kit per week, but defense attorneys have said the small soaps might last for only three showers, with careful use.

Noozhawk
BY GIANA MAGNOLI
DECEMBER 24, 2020

Thursday, December 24, 2020

[Calaveras County] Grand Jury addresses complaints against Assessor’s Office

 The Calaveras County 2019-20 Grand Jury has released a report addressing citizen complaints of a backlog of properties at the county Assessor’s Office which has caused hefty, unexpected bills sent to taxpayers and an undetermined amount of revenue loss to county funds.

The report, which can be read in full at grandjury.calaverasgov.us, details problems including understaffing, inefficient workload management, and an influx of damaged properties due to the 2015 Butte Fire as contributing factors to the backlog of over 6,800 re-appraisable events.

“The current backlog can sometimes result in the need for years of supplemental bills to be issued for residential properties. Sometimes the taxpayer receives these supplemental bills at or near the same time,” the report reads. “Significant issues can arise if the property changes hands multiple times before a reassessment is completed. Property owners may be unaware that additional tax bills will be issued.” advertisement

The report acknowledges that recommendations made by the 2016-17 Grand Jury to close an approximate three-year gap on residential property reassessments and a four-year gap on commercial property reassessments were not acted upon, specifically by the county’s Administrative Office.

The report did not find any wrongdoing by County Assessor Leslie Davis, who has held the elected position for 12 years and has served as president of the California Assessors’ Association. Alternatively, the Grand Jury pointed to insufficient departmental budget increases of roughly $100,000 over the past 15 years resulting in a staffing deficit.

“Many citizens in Calaveras County are upset with the Calaveras County Assessor’s Office because late reassessments are creating unexpected tax bills,” the latest report reads.

One such individual is Katherine Searcy, a Bay Area resident who decided to pay her retired father-in-law’s several-thousand-dollar tax bill on his West Point property after he was slapped with the unexpected expense.

“It doesn’t seem like a very fair way to do it when they get five years to reassess, and seniors on a fixed income have to turn around and pay out of pocket,” Searcy said.

Taxpayers have the right to an informal interview with the Assessor’s Office as well as the right to appeal within 60 days of the notice in question, though Searcy says she chose not to appeal due to interest and fees charged by the Treasurer/Tax Collector’s Office if the amount goes unpaid.

During fiscal year (FY) 2019-20, there were 108 appeals filed with the Assessor’s Office.

Taxpayers also have the option of undertaking an interest-free payment plan for taxes in excess of $500, though the Grand Jury found that method often delays by years the collection of county funds.

“All taxes comprise about 25% of the total projected General Fund revenue for FY 2020-2021. This tax revenue is in part comprised of real property and personal property taxes. Understanding the value and economic loss to the county as a result of the backlog is difficult to determine. Until a reassessment occurs, the accurate assessed value cannot be taxed,” the report reads. “At the time of this writing, according to the (Assessor’s Office), if the residential reassessments were updated to within six months from the time of a title change, a one-time increase to General Fund revenues would be approximately $2 million to schools and approximately $1 million to county, city and special districts.”

To expedite this process, the Grand Jury recommends that the Assessor’s Office cease comparative market analyses and instead utilize the “Value Concept,” a less accurate but more timely method of assessing property values based on sales price.

“As an alternative ... assessors have the discretion to conduct a comparative market analysis, a more time-intensive method,” the report explains. “This comparative analysis is mainly done when the sales price does not seem to accurately reflect the true market value of the property.”

In all other counties interviewed by the Grand Jury, the Value Concept method was used and backlogs were within the range of two months to two years.

“Accuracy was considered paramount in all counties, but it was acknowledged that less than 100% accuracy was sometimes acceptable in order to keep up with the workload,” the report reads. “It was acknowledged that a lower assessment value was acceptable in order to move through reassessments in a timely manner.”

It was also recommended that the Assessor’s Office should develop a more time-effective work-flow method than its current “first in, first out” policy for reassessments.

Beyond recommending that the county Board of Supervisors “should maintain sufficient funding in the Calaveras County Assessor’s Office budget to bring all reassessments to within one year of all re-appraisable events by June 30, 2022,” the Grand Jury also called on the county’s Administrative Office to follow through with their 2017 pledge to complete a “comprehensive staffing and work methods analysis.”

As is customary, responses to the grand jury’s findings and recommendations are required from elected officials within 60 days of the report’s release, and within 90 days from governing bodies.

Calaveras Enterprise
by Dakota Morlan
December 23, 2020

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Failure to Communicate: Orange County Wildfires Highlight Long Standing Emergency Communication Problems

 Blognote: This report references a 2019 Orange County grand jury report

 Orange County residents witnessed three wildfires in the last three months, and while no lives were lost, the event served as a sobering reminder of serious communication problems long present in the county’s emergency communication system. 

Editors Note: This three-day series takes a look at the ongoing risks for many Orange County residents who are living near wildfire zones that are burning more often with each passing year. This is the first story in the series. In the second story, Hosam Elattar examines what the fire means for Chino Hills State Park, with the fire burning more than 60 percent of the parkland.

Over 30,000 acres burned between the Silverado, Blue Ridge and Bond Fires, all of which saw unique communication responses that failed to inform the public in different ways.

In a series of press conferences during Silverado, public officials largely praised their own response to the blaze and their communication with the public, despite resident complaints on social media and in community meetings that emergency responders failed to effectively communicate evacuation orders. 

A grand jury report in 2019 documented how Orange County emergency responders have long struggled with giving timely information to the public, painting a response that failed to communicate clearly to the public throughout the evacuation process.

The grand jury made a variety of recommendations on how to improve the situation, several of which were implemented including updates to the AlertOC notification system.

But similar issues to the Canyon 2 Fire still persisted this year in the county’s fire response.

New issues also arose with the county’s first major emergency during the coronavirus pandemic. Evacuation centers quickly filled up, requiring a mass expansion, and in one fire no evacuation centers were opened by the county at all for fear of the virus’ spread.

Silverado: Interagency Breakdowns

The first two fires this year showed the difference between when cities stepped up to lead versus the county’s decision making.

The City of Irvine, the first and largest city forced to evacuate during this year’s wildfires, focused more on communication with the public than any other city during the wildfire: City council members were publishing updated information on the fire ahead of or in sync with the city’s own police department and emergency response teams, utilizing an evacuation plan drawn up last year.

however, the evacuation plan hadn’t been updated to reflect the COVID pandemic, and the city quickly filled up over a dozen evacuation centers in a few hours. Voice of OC reporters on the ground saw centers fill up in under 20 minutes, and Irvine city staff frequently closed and reopened centers throughout the first few days of the fire.

The city’s leading role also saw discrepancies between evacuation advisories with other agencies. In their live maps, the Sheriffs’ Department and Irvine had big differences, with some residents under no evacuation order or advisory on one map and under mandatory orders in the other.

A similar problem cropped up in 2017, with the OC Sheriffs’ Department and the city of Orange sending out conflicting maps within 20 minutes of each other showing different regions of the city that needed to evacuate during the Canyon 2 Fire.

Irvine Police Sgt. Karie Davies, the police department’s Public Information Officer, said all the data on their maps and mandatory evacuations were issued based on advice from the Orange County Fire Authority, and could not speak on what was represented on the sheriffs’ maps.

But when asked by Voice of OC reporters, OCFA’s public information office said that all evacuation orders were under the sheriff’s control, and decisions were made based on incoming information between OCFA and the sheriff’s department.

Carrie Braun, Public Information Officer for the OC Sheriff’s Department, said evacuation decisions were made at command posts as a unified decision between the different agencies responding to the fires, including OCFA and individual city’s police departments, and that map updates were handled by trained county employees.

A firefighter stands by the 133 South toll road highway entrace observing an active fire that is happening a couple of yards away on Oct. 26, 2020.

Blue Ridge: Evacuation Center Confusions

Over a month after the Blue Ridge Fire, it still remains unclear who was actually in charge of setting up evacuation centers.

When reports of a fire in the hills east of Yorba Linda first popped up it was being called the Green Fire, and then swiftly had its name changed to the Blue Ridge Fire, prompting some confusion among local officials as to whether or not they were two separate fires nearby or one and the same.

The OCFA also didn’t have any public information officers available to respond in the early hours of the Blue Ridge Fire as they were focused on the Silverado Fire, slowing initial efforts to find official updates on the status of what would become the larger fire.

But once public information officers were on site, OCFA and the Sheriff’s Department largely handled all updates surrounding the fire. Voice of OC found no disparities between the evacuation information being released by county agencies and subsequent data from the cities of Lake Forest, Mission Viejo and Yorba Linda.

However, officials struggled more with the establishment of evacuation centers in the Blue Ridge Fire compared to Silverado, which had a series of staffed centers up and running swiftly and was forced to open several previously unplanned locations.

Initially, the Blue Ridge Fire only had one advertised evacuation center, set up at the Thomas Lasorda Jr. Field House several hours after the first round of mandatory evacuations were issued, leaving many residents with no set place to go after leaving their homes.

When asked by Voice of OC who was in charge of arranging evacuation centers, no clear answers were offered by public agencies.

Braun said that there is generally one trained county employee in charge of coordinating evacuation efforts with cities if they requested it, and that individual cities would have more knowledge on how they handled their evacuations.

But the city of Yorba Linda refused to answer questions about their part in the evacuation, directing all questions about the effort back to Braun.

The surrounding cities of Mission Viejo and Lake Forest were also forced to evacuate small portions of the city and both contract with the OCFA and OC Sheriffs’ Department for their public safety offices, leaving it unclear who was responsible for setting up evacuation centers in those cities.

The 2019 grand jury report pointed out similar confusion surrounding fire communication and evacuation procedures last year, finding that, “Lack of coordination among the involved agencies caused Emergency Public Information sent out about evacuations during the Canyon 2 fire to be inconsistent, and confused residents.”

The Orange County Fire Authority’s Board of Directors issued a short statement on the grand jury’s finding.

“Public safety agencies have a responsibility to coordinate messaging to ensure the public will receive factual and concise information. That practice is challenged by media messaging, social media posts and a wildfire that was quickly escalating. In this case, it was a matter of life and death and the best information at the time was sent.”

Bond: Power Down

The worst breakdowns in communication came during the Bond Fire, which set Silverado Canyon ablaze for the second time in two months. Before the fire started, Southern California Edison informed customers they would be turning off the area’s power due to a red flag fire warning in the area.

When a house fire started just a few hours later, residents were unable to call 911, forcing them to go in person to the fire station to report the blaze. According to one complaint sent to the California Public Utilities Commission, residents couldn’t get word to firefighters for half an hour, and neighbors were trying to suppress the blaze with garden hoses.

When evacuations started, residents did not receive notices on any of their devices due to the power outages, and many reported having to run door to door telling their neighbors to get out as the blaze moved forward. Officials also chose not to open any evacuation centers due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, despite having opened centers for fires just weeks before.

The issue was not unknown: multiple residents have shared letters they sent to the commission outlining those same concerns.

“You need to understand that when you turn the power off in Silverado – We have no cell service therefore we could not call 911 if an emergency arose or a fire did in fact start. When you turn the power off you are endangering the lives of everyone in our community,” wrote Megan Dornbush, who sent an email to the utilities commission the day before the start of the Bond Fire. 

Spenser Li, another resident of Silverado Canyon, began asking Edison questions about the shutoffs after the Silverado Fire, and was shocked by some of the answers.

“I told them that one day there will be a fire and no one in the canyon will know because we can’t get 911. One of them downright told me ‘someone will knock on your door when the fire is close by,’” Li said.

In response to questions from Voice of OC, Edison said that residents were warned in advance that the power would be shut off, and local authorities have repeatedly refused to speak about power shutdowns during any of the fires.

“I think it’s something we’re going to have to explore with them in the future,” said OC Sheriffs’ Lt. Gary Knudsen at a community meeting with residents on Dec. 5. “Unfortunately, they’re not here.”

After action reports on all three fires are still ongoing, with OCFA participating in the investigation behind Silverado and Bond while San Bernardino County handles Blue Ridge, which started in Chino Hills.

Voice of OC
By Noah
December 21, 2020