By Kent Gray
Triplicate staff writer
If a grand jury can't get local governments to change bad practices, at least it has made the public aware of the problems.
That was Del Norte County Grand Jury Foreman Gary Leal's reaction after several county departments indicated this week that they are unwilling to follow the grand jury's recommendations.
"Of course it's our intent that they change their ways. It's the intent of the grand jury to make government more responsible, to make them more in tune with the citizens, and to make sure complaints are investigated," Leal said yesterday.
"But it's also our intent to make the public aware of what's going on and leaving it up to the voters to decide if this is how they want their officials to perform," Leal said. "Hopefully, they'll remember."
The yearly grand jury report is an examination of how well local government offices are run. If the jury identifies a problem, the agency involved must prepare a response to the complaint, but it is not required to follow the jury's recommendations.
In its June report, the grand jury identified several problems with how the county manages its money, manages its staff and makes decisions affecting the public.
In each case, the departments involved responded that there was either no problem, or that a problem could not be fixed because of factors out of their control.
The Del Norte County Unified School District and Smith River Community Services District gave similar responses.
"What we reported and the gravity of each case varied. Basically, what we are talking about is how government is run on the local level," said Leal. "Just because something may not be a glaring, glowing violation of the law, it still comes down to the public trust."
For example, the grand jury said county government did not allow enough public input into its general plan. The county responded that it allowed plenty of input.
The jury said that Lake Earl should be breached when it reaches six feet and that past breaching decisions may have violated property rights. The county dismissed those findings as "solely opinions of individuals" and said the jury's conclusions were incorrect.
Grand jury recommendations to increase staffing for the Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office were met with statements that all departments are understaffed due to tight budgets.
The Del Norte County Probation Department said it doesn't have enough employees to carry out the grand jury recommendation that at least two employees travel with each juvenile hall inmate during transport.
The county's Information Services Department said the jury's concern about how it monitors computer use by local law enforcement agencies is unwarranted.
The grand jury recommended the county tax office direct taxpayers to make checks payable to the office and not to any individual. Tax Collector Dawn Langston responded that checks made payable to the individual tax collector is a widely held practice in California and is perfectly legal.
"Yes, it is done that way. But sometimes laws allowing some of these practices date back a hundred years, and that's not a good excuse to continue them," said Leal. "As a citizen as a taxpayer I would sleep better at night if the checks were made payable to the office and not to an individual. I'm not saying anything bad is happening there. But this way, there's less chance for a crime, for an accident, for a mistake to happen and the money ends up in the wrong account.
Leal said he would like to see governments here compare themselves to other California governments.
"It would be nice to encourage them to do something ... proactive," said Leal. "Instead of responding to a situation, they should compare themselves to how government is run in other counties around the state. I don't think we see enough of that here. The mindset is often, We're in this little corner of the state, and we do things the way we see fit.'"