Grand jury takes agencies to task

June 30, 2003 12:00 am

By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

Del Norte County's government watchdog group, the grand jury, issued its annual report this week, pointing an accusing finger at several local public agencies.

The panel of 19 volunteer community members spent the last 12 months reviewing citizen complaints and investigating the files and general operations of several county institutions.

It found that:

• A Del Norte County Unified School District board member violated a conflict-of-interest code by voting to spend district money on a College of the Redwoods class he was teaching.

• The county tax collector should not require citizens to address bank checks to the individual tax collector instead of to the department itself.

• Smith River Community Services District violated open-meetings law and also should have employed a general manager from outside the district.

• The County Board of Supervisors should have decided to breach Lake Earl earlier than it did.

•The county supervisors and their top administrator should not continue to "micro-manage" departments to balance the budget.

• The district attorney's office is understaffed.

• The jail is understaffed, affecting services to inmates.

A full printout of the grand jury's report is included in today's issue of The Daily Triplicate.

The task of the grand jury is to serve as a depository of confidential complaints about local government and to perform annual inspections of some government agencies, according to the California Penal Code.

All 19 jurors were sworn into office by Del Norte County Superior Court Judge Robert Weir on June 27, 2002.

This year, the jury looked at 18 different agencies, most of which come under authority of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors.

School District

The grand jury found a school board member guilty of misconduct for voting "to expend substantial funds on equipment which would then be utilized in his College of the Redwoods course."

Ryan Bouchard, president of the Del Norte Teachers Association, said yesterday that he filed the complaint with the grand jury after board member Bob Berkowitz failed to abstain from a vote on equipment for Berkowitz's class.

"It looked very suspicious. It was a class set up for Mr. Berkowitz at College of the Redwoods, and the school district purchased $60,000 of equipment for it. And Mr. Berkowitz voted for it. It passed 5 to 0," Bouchard said.

Berkowitz was not available for comment yesterday. School District Superintendent Frank Lynch said yesterday he will not comment on the report until the board meets to discuss it.

Bouchard said the money was spent on video equipment and other electronics for the media class Berkowitz taught.

Bouchard's complaint drove the jury to begin an investigation of the school board in 2001. The issue was deemed too complex to complete and was carried over to this year's grand jury.

County Board of Supervisors

The jury called for several improvements in county administration.

After analyzing many county department budgets and talking with staff, the jury suggested the board was micromanaging the departments to balance the county's overall budget.

Supervisor Martha McClure said yesterday the board and its administrators did what they had to in order to prevent a significant deficit.

"This budget, when it was first submitted, was over $2 million out. So (our administrators) met with the departments to cut and shave the budget down, because it's pretty clear we can't have a budget that's $2 million out of balance," said McClure.

"Otherwise, the board would have to mandate an across-the-board rollback of x dollars for each department, and we can't do that," she added.

The jury also suggested the board needs to "put aside politics and individual loyalties" to better focus on the citizens they were elected to serve.

Spring flooding from Lake Earl of county roads and residences was also blamed on the supervisors.

The jury said the board should have voted in February to breach the lake while it had a permit to do so.

Supervisor Jack Reese said yesterday that the county has no control over flooding.

"God did that, not us," he said.

Tax Collector

Del Norte County's tax collector was asked by the grand jury to change its policy on check payments.

The jury determined that asking taxpayers to make checks payable to the person that is the tax collector could become "problematic."

While not accusing the tax collector of wrongdoing, the jury determined it is better policy for all checks to the county to be made payable to the name of the department and not the name of the person who is accepting it.

Jail

Concerned that a lack of staff makes the jail unsafe for both inmates and employees, the jury implored the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors to fix the budget and allow the sheriff to hire more officers.