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Grand Jury blasts county supervisors

Dan McDonald
Staff Writer
8/8/2012

“Oblivious” and “dysfunctional.” Those were two of the words the Plumas County Grand Jury used to criticize the county’s Board of Supervisors in its 2011-12 report.

The report, which is included in its entirety in this issue of Feather Publishing newspapers, blamed the supervisors for having a “lack of vision” in tackling the county’s budget problems.

“No real long-term solutions have been implemented,” the report stated. “The real problem is lack of strong leadership at the highest levels in the county.”

“This is the 20th Grand Jury report I’ve seen as a supervisor. And I’ll say I’m stunned by this one. I think I can safely say that.”

– Robert Meacher, Board Chairman

The Plumas County Civil Grand Jury is a committee of 16 citizen volunteers. It is an independent body empowered by law to investigate county government or inquire into county matters of civil concern.

The jurors, selected from a jury duty pool, serve one-year terms from July 1 to June 30. The jurors are sworn to secrecy to protect the confidentiality of people they interview.

In addition to blaming the supervisors for the county’s budget problems, the jury also found problems with the school district and the county jail. The jury even blasted the county’s public works department for letting its workers have free firewood.

The Grand Jury also had recommendations for the city of Portola.

Feather Publishing plans to feature in-depth reports on the Grand Jury’s findings in future editions, including comments from county leaders, if possible, and community feedback.

Following are some of the highlights of the Grand Jury’s report:

 

County audit

The Grand Jury said the Board of Supervisors was pushing the county to the brink of bankruptcy and accused the board of not supervising the county’s department heads.

“The board as a whole seems to be oblivious to what is really going on in the departments under its supervision,” the jurors said.

The Grand Jury recommended that the county install a “strong” leader in the county administrative officer (CAO) position. They said the county needs a CAO “of strong moral charter who can stay above and not be swayed by politics of public office.”

Plumas County does not have a CAO. Former CAO Jack Ingstad was fired by the supervisors last fall after his management style was harshly criticized by county department heads.

The Grand Jury said the county is “paralyzed” without a strong CAO. The jurors criticized the former CAO for allowing county employees to “go around his office and consult directly with the Board of Supervisors or county legal counsel with impunity.”

The jury said that allowing county employees to circumvent the CAO led to “chaos and stress” in the system.

The Grand Jury said the county must make additional cuts in expenses and services to balance its budget. However, the jury’s only cost-saving recommendations were to further reduce employee benefits and adopt a stricter sick leave policy.

“This (sick leave) benefit should be used for being sick, not as an additional perk to an employee’s retirement plan,” the jurors said.

The Grand Jury said the county is facing a $1.5 million deficit this year.

“The county needs to face the facts and take action now!” the jurors stated in their report. “We cannot kick the can down the road any further.”

According to figures in the Grand Jury’s report, the county has cut expenses by nearly $2.8 million since 2008.

The supervisors have cut more than 100 county jobs — more than a quarter of the county’s workforce — since the recession began five years ago. The board has also cut or eliminated funding for many non-essential services, including eliminating the tourism and marketing budget, which used to be more than $250,000.

The supervisors recently voted to add a pair of revenue-generating tax measures to the November ballot.

Board Chairman Robert Meacher said he wanted to comment about the Grand Jury’s accusations, but said he couldn’t legally do so until the board, as a body, addresses the jury’s recommendations in open session.

“I am sworn to secrecy about my testimony to the Grand Jury. I can’t comment about what they talked to us about,” Meacher said. “The Board of Supervisors is hung out to dry, with no legal way to agree or disagree with anything they say … other than an official response put together by county counsel.

“This is the 20th Grand Jury report I’ve seen as a supervisor,” Meacher said. “And I’ll say I’m stunned by this one. I think I can safely say that.”

 

County jail

The Grand Jury found a number of inadequacies at the jail.

In addition to calling the jail “an old and literally crumbling county facility,” the jury confirmed the jail was out of compliance with a federal consent decree because it was understaffed.

While the Grand Jury said it is fully aware of the county’s financial trouble, it “strongly recommends and expects” the Board of Supervisors to find the money to fix the jail problems.

“Failure to do so puts Plumas County at extreme financial risk,” the jury said.

The Grand Jury acknowledged that county counsel is “attempting to terminate” the consent decree.

The jury also praised the sheriff and county facilities director for addressing problems with the jail after they were reported.

The Grand Jury said those problems included “grossly inadequate perimeter security, wiring hazards, damaged walls and flooring, unsafe furniture and missing emergency medical equipment.”

The Grand Jury reported that the hazardous wiring and damaged walls and flooring had been repaired.

But the jury said inadequate phone systems at the jail “raises great concern for officer, inmate and public safety.”

The Grand Jury said there was no documentation that deficiencies noted in the 2008 fire marshal’s inspection of the jail have been corrected. They added there was no proof that the jail has had a fire inspection since 2008, even though the state safety code requires an inspection at least every two years.

And the jury said the jail’s policy and operations manual was “grossly inadequate and outdated.”

The jury reported that the sheriff was planning to rewrite and update the manual over a two-year period.

The jurors emphasized they wanted county leaders to pay closer attention to the jail’s needs.

“The Grand Jury strongly recommends that the Board of Supervisors make mandatory a requirement that all members of the Board of Supervisors, the county administrator, the county counsel and all department heads affiliated with the jail operations tour/inspect the county jail at least annually,” the report stated.

 

Portola

The Grand Jury said that “considering the poor economic times” the city was in relatively good financial shape.

But the jury cautioned that “Portola’s future depends purely on its management. Foresight and vision will lead to prosperity. Greed and pettiness will lead to bankruptcy and doom. It is as simple as that.”

The jury “strongly recommended” the city maintain the “weak-mayor” form of government. That means the mayor remain a figurehead, with no formal authority outside the City Council.

The Grand Jury praised the city’s staff, saying it was “performing its duties in a coherent and professional manner” despite a shortage of employees. The jury said the city’s eight workers are forced “to wear many different hats.”

The jury also weighed in on the city’s water situation. Jurors recommended that Portola “fulfill its contractual obligation in obtaining, operating and maintaining the water treatment plant and insure Lake Davis as a primary source of potable water.”

When it came to paying for the water, the jury recommended that the city modify its water rates schedule to offer customers three basic plans. They said the plans should be based on monthly usage of 2,000, 6,000 and 10,000 gallons.

The jury also recommended the city “cooperate fully” with the 398-acre Woodbridge planned community proposed for the south side of town.

“Despite the economic downturn which has delayed the project, Woodbridge Corp. remains committed to the project,” the jury said. “In a time when growth is so badly needed in Portola, Woodbridge is a godsend to the local community.”

 

School district

The Grand Jury said it was “appalled” by the Plumas Unified School District (PUSD) board’s ignorance of student safety.

It also criticized PUSD for its “lack of cooperation” during the jury’s investigation into the hiring process of superintendents.

The jury said subpoenas were required to get some school board and staff members to appear before the Grand Jury.

The jury’s concern for student safety was centered on the consolidation of Pioneer and Quincy elementary schools. The grand jurors said that no study was done regarding the safety hazards of either campus.

According to the jury, the school district felt that an architectural study satisfied the requirement for a safety study. But the Grand Jury said the architectural study didn’t address the proximity of potentially hazardous materials at the Sierra Pacific Industries lumberyard. The SPI mill is within a quarter-mile of the Pioneer school.

On the subject of hiring a superintendent, the jury said there were no existing hiring policies in place. The Grand Jury said there was no evidence that a pre-employment background investigation was completed for the previous superintendent.

“We found no existing policies for hiring a superintendent,” the jury said. “Without a formal hiring policy, the PUSD (and the Plumas County Office of Education) will continue to make decisions based on inaccurate and incomplete information.”

The Grand Jury recommended that the district formulate a policy meeting all the legal requirements for hiring a superintendent “within 90 days of the issuance of this report, and before the hiring of a new superintendent.”

 

Free firewood

The Grand Jury called for an end to a 30-plus-year-old practice of public works employees getting free firewood.

The jurors said the perk amounted to embezzlement of county property, and referred the matter to the district attorney.

Hazard trees are often cut down by public works and brought to one of the department’s five yards around the county.

According to the Grand Jury report, employees of the public works department were allowed to cut the wood — on the their own time and with their own equipment — for personal use.

However, the free wood was only for public works employees, according to the jurors. When another county employee wanted to take advantage of the free wood “he was told that it was only available to public works maintenance employees and not for anyone else.”

After the employee complained and the Grand Jury found out about it, jurors said the free-wood perk was exposing the county to repeated liability.

“Described by some in the department as simply a ‘perk,’ allowing public works employees to take county property is embezzlement, as described under California Penal Code 504,” the report stated.

In a letter to the Grand Jury, which is included in its report, the district attorney said he “didn’t believe criminal charges were warranted against any individuals.”

However, the practice has reportedly stopped.

 

 

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