Katherine Evatt, Volcano
The following bullets are summarize some of what was said at last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting regarding the Grand Jury Special Investigative Report on the Health and Human Services (HHS) Building leases. I typed notes during the meeting while I listened online. But since this summary is not a comprehensive or complete version of who said what at the meeting, I suggest that those who are interested listen to the entire audio recording of the meeting when it’s posted on the county website. My personal comments are noted as such.
· - County Counsel Greg Gillott said the grand jury report was “an overreach” not based on sufficient facts (Comment: The county counsel’s job is to represent the board, not the public). County Administrative Officer Chuck Iley said the decisions on the HHS leases were not the best and said this, “I would implore you not to do anything along those lines in the future.”
· - Former Behavioral Health Director Pat Houghton of Pine Grove described how the high rent for the HHS lease resulted in cutbacks to critical local mental health services and took the board to task for treating the grand jury members so badly. She asked why anyone would consider volunteering for that job in the future, considering.
· - Supervisor John Plasse said the report was done in “a malicious manner” and later in the meeting, criticized Presiding Judge Steve Hermanson for ending a longstanding practice wherein the county supervisors reviewed the list of potential grand jurors before they were selected. (Comment: This was a surprise to me, especially since part of the grand jury’s job is to investigate county agencies.)
· (Comment: No one seemed to know whether grand jury service was mandatory, like other jury service. It’s not.)
· - Retired county audit staffer Becky Podesta claimed that the grand jury report misquoted her and said she saw no evidence that the renegotiated lease benefited any public official.
· - Former District 1 Supervisor Rich Escamilla, who served on the board when it approved the 2006 and 2008 HHS Building leases, said the grand jury was made up of people who had moved here from somewhere else (Comment: not true) and defended the board’s previous actions and decisions.
· - District 4 Supervisor Candidate Frank Axe of Pine Grove pointed out that the grand jury report and board of supervisors’ draft response conflict with one another, that it’s hard to tell where the truth lies, called for an independent review and asked how the county is going to prevent these problems in the future. He asked what policies will be adopted to avoid this kind of problem in the future, etc.
· - Jim Laughton of Jackson spoke at length. He has read the grand jury report and disagrees with 14 of the board’s 19 responses. He had many comments and concerns. He asked if it was proper for Supervisor Forster to ask for a delay in issuing the report. The supervisor replied that he did that because they were looking at a “two-week time frame” and it wouldn’t be fair to issue the report without giving the board time to respond. (Comment: Supervisor Forster made the delay request on April 12, well before the primary election in June.) Laughton told the supervisors that citizens were watching them and complained about how they treat members of the public in their meetings. Supervisor Boitano responded, “We’re watching back.”
· - District Attorney Todd Riebe said the report was not delayed by Supervisor Forster’s request and said he had verified that with Presiding Amador County Superior Court Judge Steve Hermanson. Curiously, Riebe said he is an advisor to the grand jury, but took himself off this investigation in year two for reasons he’ll reveal later.
· - Mike Kirkley of Sutter Creek asked the board to “tone down” the report as it relates to the grand jury itself, to “take some of the vitriol out of the response.” He questioned the cost of the lease and asked why the board renegotiated a lease they already knew was too costly and a bad deal. Supervisor Oneto claimed that the grand jury “twisted” the facts. Kirkley replied that they didn’t need to do that and commented that the situation was already “pretty ugly.”
· - Jim Laughton asked questions about the legality of the remodeling of the Bartleson Building on Clinton Rd and about the CalTrans easements for the HHS Building. Greg Gillott said the grand jury didn’t find the remodeling expense to be improper (Comment: As I recall, they actually did question it).
· - Supervisor Forster said “Let’s get answers.”
· - Supervisor Lynn Morgan said she had never heard from anyone why the lease was renegotiated in 2008. She criticized the draft board response as defensive, overly critical, unprofessional, and not written in a way “that befits elected officials.” She asked what motivation 20 citizens would have to not do a reasonable job. The other supervisors defended the tone and language of the draft response.
· - Supervisors Forster and Oneto agreed that the leases were not their best decisions and took some responsibility for that, but they also blasted the grand jury and continued to blame county staff. Supervisor Forster called the investigation a "witch hunt” led by a small faction of the grand jury and complained that the county counsel can’t control what the grand jury does. He also remarked that some members of the grand jury didn’t understand what they were putting their names to.
· - Supervisor Boitano defended his past actions and claimed that at least one grand jury member (of 19) had a conflict of interest. Supervisor Boitano also justified the original lease by saying they needed to relocate staff because of mold and other problems in the Bartleson Building that housed county staff. He also suggested that perhaps the Administrative Office of the Courts should look into the grand jury’s behavior.
· In the end, with Supervisor Morgan dissenting, the board approved its response on a 4-1 vote.