Thursday, November 24, 2022

EDHCSD threatens [El Dorado County] grand jury integrity

EDITOR:

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
ROBERT WILLIAMS
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

Expert: 49ers’ pushback against [Santa Clara County] grand jury report could invite legal jeopardy

The San Francisco 49ers investigated members of a Santa Clara County civil grand jury that sharply criticized the team’s political influence over the Santa Clara City Council, accused the grand jurors of corruption without evidence and released personal information about them, documents and interviews show.

Three experts on civil grand juries, watchdog panels convened by California courts to probe local government, said they had never before seen this level of aggressive criticism. One of them, retired state senator and San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Quentin Kopp, said the attacks by the team, which operates publicly funded Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, may have crossed the legal line.

Kopp, who supervised civil grand juries in his years on the bench, called comments about the panel members by 49ers spokesperson Rahul Chandhok “rife with personal innuendoes.” Kopp acknowledged subjects of a grand jury report are free to rebut the panel’s findings. But after reviewing Chandhok’s statements, Kopp said, “They appear to have investigated personally every grand juror.

“If I were the grand jury judge, I would issue an order to the 49ers... to show cause why they should not be held in contempt of court,” Kopp said. “I believe personal attacks on individual jurors could amount to jury intimidation.”

Chandhok dismissed the report as “election propaganda” in an email Thursday to The Chronicle. He also wrote, “We did not and would never use any kind of intimidation tactics.”

The grand jury report was critical of the 49ers’ influence over the Santa Clara City Council in a long-running battle over stadium management and revenue. Three days before the report’s scheduled release, on Oct. 7, a leaked copy was posted by the Silicon Valley Voice, a news website.

Chandhok soon distributed a 1,200-word statement calling the report “a shocking political hatchet job” containing “dozens of lies.” He claimed the grand jury had been “stacked” with Mayor Lisa Gillmor’s allies. The 49ers have spent millions of dollars in an effort to unseat Gillmor, a vocal critic of the team and CEO Jed York.

The 49ers learned the home addresses and religious practices of the jurors, according to an email Chandhok previously sent to The Chronicle. Chandhok wrote that “several” jurors lived within one mile of Gillmor or former City Attorney Brian Doyle. Chandhok also noted one juror (whom he named) went to a church attended by Doyle, a longtime 49ers critic fired last year by the team-friendly council majority.

Chandhok described the grand jury to reporters as a “kangaroo court” and “a partisan group of cronies co-opting the justice system,” according to news accounts. He also accused grand jurors of “corruption,” telling several media outlets, “This corruption of the justice system is outrageous, unethical and the public deserves an independent investigation.”

Anthony Becker, the mayoral candidate whom the 49ers are backing in this year’s election with more than $2 million in contributions, made similar comments in a press release, calling the report “a political hit piece.”

Neither the grand jury nor the county’s judges have responded publicly to the 49ers’ criticism.

In the ensuing days, two grand jurors said they were followed or surveilled by people they didn’t know, The Chronicle has learned. It could not be determined who was responsible for the alleged surveillance.

One juror complained of being “tailed” by another motorist while driving, according to two sources familiar with the juror’s account. The sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

A second juror complained of seeing an unknown intruder on their property, according to the sources. At least one of the jurors’ accounts was relayed to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. A spokesperson for the district attorney declined comment.

The civil grand jury remains in session through the end of December. If grand jurors have been intimidated, that could affect future investigations.

The grand jury, a 19-member panel of volunteers screened by county judges and selected by lot, began an investigation in July of the 49ers’ financial disputes with Santa Clara over the operation of Levi’s Stadium. The panel’s 61-page report, titled “Unsportsmanlike Conduct,” charged that five City Council members regularly “put the 49ers’ interests ahead of the city’s interests” and may have violated state and local ethics laws.

When the grand jury released the report, it noted two panelists had recused themselves from working on the investigation. State law requires recusal if a grand juror is biased or appears to have a conflict of interest.

Chandhok seized on the information about the recusals, falsely claiming “at least two members of the jury involved in creating this report have already been removed due to conflicts of interest.” He also said, “We anticipate more will be uncovered.”

Chandhok didn’t elaborate on how he thought the grand jury came to be “stacked” with Gillmor’s friends. Nor did he cite evidence of corruption or conflicts of interest. But it was clear from his statements that the 49ers had begun investigating the grand jurors before their report was issued.

The identities of the jurors are public, on the Superior Court website, but their home addresses are not listed. In addition to finding the addresses and the jurors’ places of worship, the 49ers also examined the panel’s personal relationships: Chandhok named one grand juror as the “current or former partner” of a “Gillmor ally.” In fact, that juror had been divorced for years, and the former spouses had little contact with one another, people who know them said.

Chandhok wrote that another grand juror, whom he named, was a “close relative” of a Gillmor “real estate ally,” whom he also named. But that grand juror was one of those who recused themselves, The Chronicle has learned.

A second expert on civil grand juries said it’s not uncommon for the targets of a probe to push back. But he said he had never heard of grand jurors being accused of corruption, or having details of their personal lives investigated and publicized by the subject of a probe.

“I’ve not seen what you’re describing,” said Lou Panetta, outgoing president of the California Grand Jurors’ Association, an organization that provides support for grand juries. “I’ve not seen anything where the subject of an investigation does backgrounders on grand jurors and makes an attempt to undermine their credibility.”

Peter Hertan, president of the Santa Clara County chapter of the grand jurors association, read the grand jury report and didn’t see the “evidence of bias” the 49ers claimed. Hertan said of the team’s criticism of jurors, “If you don’t have the facts on your side, you go after the law. If the law is not on your side, you go after the opposing team.”

San Francisco Chronicle
Lance Williams, Ron Kroichick
Nov. 3, 2022

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Renovation to turn JFK Library into Vallejo police HQ expected to cost $38M to $53M; City officials revealed the information in an official response to the Solano County Civil Grand Jury.

The city of Vallejo says preliminary estimates indicate that it will cost the city $38 million to $53 million to convert Vallejo’s downtown library into a new police headquarters.

City officials revealed the information in an official response to the Solano County Civil Grand Jury which issued its findings over the summer admonishing the city for the delays in getting the department a new building, arguing such delays are hurting the department and community.

The Vallejo City Council is set to approve the official response during a special meeting on Tuesday.

In the city’s official response, City Manager Mike Malone said that a new building would help attract and retain new officers, but he pointed out other issues that were also hurting the city’s ability to hire new officers.

“However, there are a range of other factors including, compensation, workload, training, diversity and community support that also impact law enforcement recruitment,” Malone wrote. “In addition, there is a nationwide challenge in the ability of local governmental entities to attract and hire new employees. The City is actively working to continue to improve and work to employ strategies to recruit and retain department employees.”

The grand jury further recommended that the city look for state and federal grant funding to help renovate the building, something Malone said that “has not been readily available, so it is likely that a local funding source will be required.”

In April, the council directed city staff to begin looking at moving the department from its aging facilities as 111 Amador St. to the John F. Kennedy Library in downtown Vallejo. That study is expected to be revealed to the council during its Sept. 27 meeting.

Shifting focus away from 400 Mare Island Way was a major victory for opponents who argue that the two-story building located along the waterfront is the wrong location for the police force. They say that the department shouldn’t be rewarded with a new building while it is being investigated for a number of police shootings and killings, and they question the location of the building near the water as sea levels continue to rise over the century.

The city said it “agreed in part” with most of the recommendations, but disagreed with the grand jury finding that a “significant portion” of the existing Vallejo Police Department building at 111 Amador “is no longer usable because of asbestos and lead contamination” and that Vallejo “is spending thousands of dollars quarterly to pay for testing and cleanup of areas contaminated with asbestos and lead.”

Malone said about 10% or 2000 square feet of the building including the former indoor shooting range “is currently closed to employee access with shooting range activities currently occurring offsite.”

“Lead and asbestos abatement and cleaning in those areas was completed and is monitored to ensure employee safety,” Malone said.

The city further disagreed with a finding that the current JFK library is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The JFK Library building has two elevators,” officials wrote. “ADA compliance relating to the Library overall are part of the City’s draft ADA Transition Plan.”

Vallejo purchased the 400 Mare Island Way property for $13.5 million in early 2019 with the expressed intent of transforming it into a new police headquarters. Earlier this year, the council considered obtaining a $30 million loan from the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank (IBank) to fund design and retrofit work at the building.

The council, however, changed course during its March 8 meeting, complying with demands from some members of the community that the city look at other possible locations for a new police headquarters.

Malone also addressed the status of a Community Assistance Resource and Engagement (CARE) Center which was opened at 400 Mare Island Way in May 2021. Police officials previously said the center provides a safe space for adult and child victims of abuse by working with local advocacy groups and the police department.

The unveiling of the new center caused protests over the department’s lack of transparency when officials held a virtual opening ceremony at the last minute after advertising an outdoor ribbon-cutting. It was believed the change was made due to planned protests of the department continuing to use the building.

The grand jury recommended that the center remain at 400 Mare Island Way, which received a mixed response from Malone.

“The City has no immediate plans to move the Care Center,” Malone said. “However, depending on the long-term choice for a new or rehabilitated police facility, it may be appropriate to relocate the CARE center at that time.”

Additional response to grand jury

The Vallejo City Council will also be asked to approve a second response to the Solano County Civil Grand Jury in response to that body’s June report calling out Solano County’s lack of ability to address any future public safety emergencies.

Malone, Police Chief Shawny Williams, and Fire Chief Kyle Long all agreed with the recommendations from the grand jury including that the Solano County Board of Supervisors “broaden efforts to fund and promote the establishment of a modern digital county-wide emergency communications system.”

The trio also agreed with a suggestion that the county expedite the creation of a joint powers authority “to develop consolidated communications system,” and that the county “establish a county-wide fire department to serve the unincorporated areas of Solano County.”

The grand jury argued that the county consolidate all existing emergency management, planning and prevention services into one Department of Emergency Management.

“This new department would provide an umbrella to coordinate existing county and city functions related to emergency and disaster events,” the grand jury wrote.

The grand jury also argued against raising taxes as a way to provide services since the “economy was badly damaged by the Covid pandemic, those searching for solutions to address the emergency needs of our community need to look beyond new taxes, which could exacerbate the already fragile personal financial health of many Solano County residents.”

The Vallejo Sun
By John Glidden
September 16, 2022

Marin [County] water supplier defends drought response in report

Marin Municipal Water District is pushing back on a Marin County Civil Grand Jury report asserting the agency nearly faced depleting its reservoirs this year because it had not taken past steps to build a more resilient water supply.

The grand jury assessment lacked credibility, included factual errors and is now being used to incite more critique of the district’s handling of the drought last year, the district Board of Directors said.

“It certainly was very angry at the district for failing to do something,” board member Cynthia Koehler said during a discussion on the report on Sept. 6. “But if you go through it, they actually never had the courage or conviction to say what that thing should have been.”

“The thing has been weaponized, I can tell you that much,” board member Larry Bragman said of the report.

The grand jury report came after two winters of drought in 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 threatened to deplete local reservoirs as soon as mid-2022. Last year, the district prepared to build an emergency $100 million pipeline across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to pump in Sacramento Valley water to prevent that outcome. The project was put on hold after several large storms at the end of 2021 nearly refilled the district’s seven reservoirs in the Mount Tamalpais watershed.

The grand jury report recommended the district, which serves 191,000 residents in central and southern Marin, create at least a four-year water supply. The district’s reservoirs make up about 75% of its annual supply and have about a two-year supply of water. The remainder of the district’s supply comes from Russian River water imports from the Sonoma Water agency.

The district last faced depleting local supplies in the 1976-1977 drought. After building a temporary pipeline across the Richmond Bridge to avoid running out of water, the district expanded its reservoir supplies by doubling the size of Kent Lake, its the largest reservoir, and building the Soulajule Reservoir.

In a statement, grand jury foreperson Pat Shepard said she had no further comment other than to say “the report was investigated, written and approved by the 19-member 2021-2022 grand jury and stands on its own.”

In its responses, the water district noted that the western U.S. is going through a historic drought, with the last 22 years being the driest in the past 1,200 years, according to a study published by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“I would have liked to have seen something that maybe stepped back and sort of explained the bigger and more complex picture that California water management has become with climate change,” board member Monty Schmitt said of the grand jury report.

The district’s response stated that it “took all necessary and appropriate steps to assure continued water service to its customers.”

These steps included conservation incentives, water use restrictions, pursuing the pipeline project, upgrading the Kastania Pump Station to increase the amount of Russian River water it is able to import and creating a new agreement with Sonoma Water to buy more water during high winter flows on the Russian River.

The district said it is following many of the grand jury’s recommendations, including currently studying a variety of new water supply options, including desalination, a pipeline, expanding reservoir storage and new water supply possibilities with Sonoma Water such as groundwater storage.

Kimery Wiltshire, president of the Sausalito-based Confluence West nonprofit organization that works on water issues in the West, said the previous 2012-2016 drought was a wake-up call to water districts throughout California.

She said that MMWD “hit the snooze button” and was the only water district in the Bay Area to require drastic water cuts that impacted the economy and quality of life during the drought.

“While other districts kicked off water recycling, desalination, and reservoir projects, initiated smart-metering, and adopted drought-resilient budget-based water rate structures, Marin Water leaned mostly on asking ratepayers to conserve, hoping for rain,” Wiltshire said.

Larry Minikes, a Marin Conservation League board member and former member of the water district’s citizens advisory committee, said the grand jury report did not acknowledge the role that residents have played in rejecting new water supply projects such as a desalination plant.

“When we have tried to increase water supply — and I was part of that community back in 2000 — we didn’t want to see it by an overwhelming margin,” Minikes told the board. “Everyone was concerned about Realtors and growth and changing the character of the community.

“Now we’re screaming bloody murder — ‘Where the hell is our water?'” he said. “You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.”

Marin Independent Journal
Will Houston
September 13, 2022