Grand jury blasts CPUD board, former fire chief
The Chester Public Utility District’s board of directors didn’t do its job. The county jail situation is still a mess. The Board of Supervisors treats the chief probation officer poorly. And the district attorney deserves a raise.
Those were some of the findings reported by the Plumas County Grand Jury in its 2012-13 report released this week.
The grand jury, a 15-member panel of county residents who serve a one-year term, included the results of seven investigations in their 57-page report.
The complete report is included in this week’s editions of Feather Publishing newspapers.
In addition to reports on the CPUD, county jail, probation department and the county’s legal salaries, the grand jury investigated the county’s budget, school safety and the Grizzly Lake Community Services District.
Jury foreman Dennis Doyle, of Graeagle, said the grand jury was also working on a report about economic recovery, but wasn’t able to finish before the deadline.
Doyle, who was also a member of the 2011-12 grand jury, said he was proud of the effort from this year’s jurors.
“We did a hell of a lot of work on this report,” Doyle said. “I can’t begin to tell you how much time and effort are involved. But we (jurors) feel very privileged to do it.”
Doyle added that he believes the grand jury’s work does lead to positive changes, even though the report is essentially a year behind by the time it is released. “Sometimes the change happens slowly,” he said. “But it does change.”
The jurors handed out some praise. But much of this year’s report was directed toward issues they said needed to be improved. In addition to their findings, the jurors included dozens of recommendations.
The grand jury interviewed more than 100 citizens, looked at more than 5,000 document pages, toured county facilities and attended various board meetings as part of its investigation.
“The Grand Jury found that overall Plumas County residents love their county,” the jurors wrote in the report’s cover letter. “However, there is an overwhelming concern that the dwindling job market and the loss of tourism dollars will continue to contribute to the downward spiral of Plumas County.”
Following is a snapshot of the grand jury’s report.
The grand jury blasted the members of the Chester Public Utility District board of directors for not understanding their role.
In particular, the jurors criticized the board for failing to supervise the district’s former fire chief, who was also the district’s general manager.
The jury said the former manager operated “completely independently and without supervision.”
Only two of the board members who were serving during the grand jury’s investigation are still on the board. And the fire chief/general manager retired in November 2011, although he remained in the position through 2012.
But the jury chastised the board members for not understanding that the general manager was supposed to work for them.
Instead, the jury said, “The CPUD Directors who were sitting at the time (of the investigation) came into the position with adamant faith in the Manager of the District, namely the Fire Chief. This mulish confidence prevented the Board from recognizing the Fire Chief/Manager’s behavior as improper, possibly illegal.”
On July 9, the Plumas County district attorney filed a felony embezzlement complaint against the former manager.
The jury said the former manager was in a position of complete and unchecked power. He reportedly set the agendas and ran the board meetings.
He would “sign the agenda as ‘Assistant Secretary,’ post the agenda and would even determine whether or not a Board meeting needed to be postponed or canceled based solely upon his availability,” according to the grand jury.
The jurors said there was evidence the manager changed the draft minutes of meetings. They said he might have amended the minutes of the Jan. 12, 2010, meeting to include an attachment titled “Fire Chief’s Salary Schedule,” indicating at the bottom of the document “Approved by BOD on January 12, 2010.”
The jury said the manager was allowed to submit his own pay vouchers to the district’s CPA with no review or approval. “There was one voucher in the amount of $31,549.01 which simply stated ‘other pay’.”
Four of the five board members interviewed by the grand jury said they felt betrayed by the former chief.
“We believe that the Board set themselves up to be betrayed by allowing the Fire Chief/Manager to assume the governance power that they should have assumed,” the grand jury reported.
Included in the grand jury’s recommendations was that “above all else” the CPUD arrange for governance and Brown Act training for all of its current board members.
County budget getting better
After a stinging report last year, the grand jury said the county “is still in poor financial shape” this year. “But it seems the ship is turning around and heading in the right direction.”
The jury said the county is still struggling to recover from the recession. As an example, the report noted property tax revenue in fiscal 2011-12 continued a downward trend. It was $450,000 less than the previous year.
“The Board of Supervisors and management have made substantial cuts in spending by eliminating non-essential services, reducing the number of employees, employees’ hours and benefits,” the jurors wrote.
But the report was still critical of the county for continuing to spend more money than it makes.
The grand jury said the general fund revenues were $950,503 less than the previous year, but expenditures were only down $688,583. “Herein lies the problem,” they said. “Plumas County is spending more than it is taking in.”
However, the report credited the county’s departments for working together. It noted that conflicts the previous year were the “major reason” the previous county auditor controller resigned in early 2012.
Unlike last year, when the grand jury said the supervisors needed to hire a new administrative officer as soon as possible, there was no mention of a CAO in this report.
Instead, the jurors praised the county for balancing the 2012-13 budget and for implementing several budget workshops with the help “of a sharp and strong local budget consultant.”
“To the county’s credit, it seems to have come through this rough period intact, and is now on a new path of constructive problem solving.”
DA deserves a raise
The grand jury questioned the large discrepancy in pay between the county’s counsel ($168,000) and the district attorney ($103,000).
The jury recommended a 10 percent raise for the district attorney and a 10 percent pay cut for the county counsel.
“The pay disparity between Plumas County’s County Counsel (CC) and District Attorney (DA) is 163 percent,” the grand jury reported, noting that it surveyed 12 like-sized counties in the state. “No other county in the study pays their DA less than Plumas County and only Mono and Butte counties pay their (county counsel) more than Plumas.
“While the grand jury does not diminish the role of either of these positions, we are concerned about the pay disparity and the fact that the budget cuts were apparently heavy in the DA’s office while the funds were increased for the CC’s office.”
The grand jury said, “The simple fact is that the District Attorney’s office appears to have been asked to do more with less while the County Counsel’s office appears to be receiving more resources.”
County needs a new jail
Continuing on a theme that no county officials have publicly denied, the jury wrote, “It is painfully obvious that Plumas County needs a new jail.”
The grand jury toured the facility, which is more than 40 years old, during its investigation for the report. In addition to a lack of staffing, the jurors said the jail is outdated and run-down. They said it presents numerous safety hazards for inmates and staff. “The building is one of only 3 linear, cinderblock jail structures remaining in the state. This antiquated type of construction is inefficient, costly to maintain and has numerous safety and liability issues.”
The jury was critical of the Board of Supervisors for not having “public safety as a number one priority.” They said the majority of the supervisors had not toured the jail in the past 12 months.
The grand jury reported the sheriff is working to acquire a USDA loan and grant monies to buy the property formerly known as the Trilogy building in East Quincy for a new jail site.
“Should the acquisition of the Trilogy property fall through, the Board of Supervisors should be prepared to move forward in purchasing property away from parks, ball fields and schools in the area recommended by the Sheriff,” the report stated. “Any monies put forth for the existing jail is putting good money after bad.”
Board targets probation
The grand jury accused the Board of Supervisors of not supporting the county probation department.
The jury called interaction between the supervisors and the chief probation officer “confrontational, demeaning, and unprofessional toward the (chief probation officer).”
The grand jury said it elected to review the probation department’s operations in response to a letter alleging mismanagement.
“These allegations were found to be false and without merit,” the jury reported.
In addition, the jury accused one of the supervisors of having a “conflict of interest as well as a personality clash” with the chief probation officer.
“The Grand Jury found some County Supervisors to be unprofessional and this put undue turmoil onto the staff and the Department as a whole.”
The jury said the probation department was significantly underfunded and understaffed, with nine of its 21 positions vacant.
“The current shortage of probation officers, combined with increasing numbers of AB-109 referrals and the ongoing offenders adjudicated for probation means that intensive supervision cannot be assigned to every case that warrants it,” the jurors said.
The grand jury recommended the Board of Supervisors “should place an emphasis on returning the Probation Department’s staffing levels to sustainable working levels.”
The grand jury reported it was “impressed with the due-diligence put forth in the area of student safety by personnel at each school within the Plumas Unified School District.”
The jurors said the personal responsibility demonstrated by members of the school staff “was found to be exemplary.”
Collaboration between the schools and law enforcement and other agencies is occurring, according to the report.
The jury said it did find the school district’s emergency action plan had not been updated since 2005. “The plan was not site specific and appeared to be more of a guide rather than a plan,” they said.
Although the jurors said they were surprised by the outdated plan, they said they were impressed when the district responded by updating the plan in February.
The jury made nine recommendations in its report, including establishing a “regular schedule to collaborate with school personnel, law enforcement and pertinent agencies regarding school safety.”
Grizzly Lake CSD problems
The grand jury initially launched its seven-month Grizzly Lake Community Services District investigation to look into a conflict-of-interest complaint against a district employee.
The complaint alleged the employee was steering district business to a business owned by the employee’s spouse.
The complaint was resolved during the grand jury’s term, with the employee receiving a $4,000 fine from the California Fair Political Practices Commission in February.
However, the jury reported its investigation revealed several problems including “gross mismanagement.”
“Maintaining an antiquated sewer and water system is a big expense and a legitimate reason for the District’s lack of funds,” the jurors said. “But upon investigation, many of their financial problems are self-induced. Management has cost the District thousands of dollars that could have been used for more productive endeavors like system repairs and improvements.”
The jurors said “bungling” management has resulted in fines from the Internal Revenue Service, Cal Occupational Safety and Health Agency, California Fair Political Practices Commission and a lawsuit by a local sanitation business.
The jury recommended the services district fill the vacant general manager position. It said the district should compile a thorough operations manual within six months and make sure all employees are trained to use it.
However, by the end of its investigation, the grand jury reported that conditions at the district were improving.
“Most of the district’s management problems have been or are being corrected and the results are positive,” the report stated.
“Although the GLCSD is facing a major challenge in supporting itself, the Grand Jury feels the District, barring any major catastrophe, is now on the right path to financial solvency.”