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Cal Co Grand Jury Completes Final Report

A costly misfiring computer system, cushy benefits and cozy relationships in special districts, and an overcroweded jail are among topics the 2003-04 Calaveras County Grand Jury took upon itself to investigate.

The 19-member citizen panel, sworn in on July 1, 2003, was charged with the responsibility to determine if government agencies here are doing their job in accordance with the law.

The jury´s complete final report is inside today´s Calaveras Enterprise.

Some of those criticized by the Grand Jury strongly dispute the panel´s findings and recommendations. The law requires subjects mentioned in the document to prepare written responses within a specified time.

Some of the more significant reviews prompted early replies.

Here are some highlights:

The Grand Jury investigated two complaints against the Calaveras County Water District regarding a number of items, including pursuing unnecessary projects, questionable hiring practices, fiscal mismanagement, conspiracy among administrators to enhance personal finances, and censorship of correspondence to the district Board of Directors.

“We´re very disappointed at the effort,” said Alan Turner, CCWD´s chief counsel and acting general manager.

On two occasions, Turner said, grand jury members were invited, in writing, to meet with board and staff concerning their issues.

“And they did not do that,” Turner said.

As a result, he said, panel members relied on incorrect, mistaken or misleading information.

One allegation in a complaint focused on Turner himself, accusing him of engaging in “self-dealing” with public tax dollars.

In its findings, the Grand Jury stated Turner created a management unit benefit package that includes lifetime health, dental and vision coverage after just two years of service.

Turner said he, himself, does not have those particular benefits and does not have a severance package.

Two others, former General Manager John Stewart and paralegal Gail Steinman, do have that benefit, Turner said.

Stewart´s contract was a negotiated agreement with the Board of Directors, Turner said.

Steinman, too, negotiated her contract with the board. She was entitled to the enhanced benefits at her previous employment, and retaining those at CCWD was a condition of her taking the job, Turner said.

He added that when he was offered the legal counsel job, he told district directors he wanted an adequately staffed office.

The board concluded the cost of in-house legal service, including the paralegal position, was less expensive than going outside, Turner said.

Turner receives $125,000 a year and the same benefits as other CCWD staff, he said.

The cost of receiving similar legal counseling from a contracted attorney would be hundreds of thousands of dollars more than that, he said.

Turner also found many of the complaints and findings ambiguous.

The report states CCWD has “undertaken the pursuit of programs not consistent with its approved Legislative Platform.”

“We don´t know what programs they´re talking about,” Turner said.

The only item that might fall under CCWD´s legislative platform is a proposed study to be conducted by the district and the Army Corps of Engineers with a $500,000 federal grant.

The study would focus on watershed and water storage issues in the county.

No agreements or specific projects involving that grant have been approved at this time, and any undertaken will require board approval, Turner said.

Other accusations were flat-out denied.

One finding stated that correspondence written and hand-delivered by a former senior-management employee on behalf of six other employees was censored and presented to directors in closed session as an anonymous letter.

“That´s absolutely untrue,” Turner said.

It was an anonymous letter, he said, and was considered in closed session because it appeared to involve legal claims.

As for another claim that directors did not respond to employees complaints about “callous” treatment from management, Turner said that was investigated by an outside attorney.

He then presented the board with recommendations and the executive management team was restructured, Turner said.

Another item brought up in the report was addressed years ago, he added.

The Grand Jury finding said CCWD staff had advised management it was bad financial practice to use revenue from water treatment projects to support losses at sewer treatment systems.

Turner said that practice was abandoned years ago.

“We haven´t (done it) for years and we will never do it,” he said.

Directors will prepare more detailed, official responses to each of the Grand Jury´s findings and recommendations, Turner said.

Those will be released to the public the same time they are sent to the panel, he added.

The Grand Jury zeroed in on the county´s $775,000 software system that it bought in 1996, and which has still not been fully implemented.

The automated payroll and accounting software made by Bi-Tech is designed to be run by the Human Resources Department. But that department hasn´t implemented the program, so the Auditor´s Office has been picking up the slack.

Auditor Linda Churches implemented the Bi-Tech program six years ago in her office and has had to track and monitor benefits such as health and life insurance.

“Those are a lot of benefits that should be administered in HR,” Churches said. “I guess we would like to share the pain.”

“I know there have been implementation issues as far as filtering things down to the departments,” Tom Mitchell, county administrative officer, said.

“In my opinion Bi-Tech is an extremely complex system that is not user friendly,” Mitchell said. “It´s difficult for people to work with on an occasional basis. If you´re a person who works with it everyday, I think you can do fine with it.”

“We use the current system … therefore (HR) could have been doing their own work during the interim also,” Churches said. “They have access to our module.”

“(HR) can say whatever they like, that doesn´t negate the fact they´ve been working on this for years,” she said.

Howard Stohlman of the county Technology Services Department said that´s not necessarily true.

HR didn´t make the decision to go automated until a couple of years ago, he said.

“That got off to a great start but they ran into some difficulties with blending auditing code into what HR wanted,” Stohlman said. “The process was reinitiated several months ago and is off to a great start again.”

“We expect to be testing by September and hope to be in a go-live position in October,” he said.

The process has been difficult and costly, the Grand Jury report said. Further hindering the process is the “Technology Services Department does not have the training to support this software program.”

The county contracts with Bi-Tech for software support, Stohlman said.

The Grand Jury is asking the county to fully implement the Bi-Tech software system and for the Board of Supervisors and Mitchell to ensure cooperation between the departments and the software developer.

Additionally, the jury asked the board to review the Bi-Tech contract “to ensure fulfillment of installation and training agreements.”

“I don´t think that´s the issue,” Mitchell said. “I think we got what we paid for. What it´s lacking is the training and an implementation plan. We would have to hire Bi-Tech to train us.”

When asked if he would do that, Mitchell said, “I´ll examine all of the options.”

In it´s report, the jury pointed out the software has been the topic of Grand Jury investigations before.

“The new (software) program is not yet in independent operation. The full system was scheduled for operation January 1998,” the 1996-97 Grand jury report said.

“… recommendations have not been implemented due to lack of adequately trained staff and difficulty in getting the computer system and software installed and operating efficiently,” the 1998-99 report said.

The 1999-00 report said Churches´ tenure has been marked with controversy as a result of the purchase of the Bi-Tech software, over the recommendations of others.

“It´s inappropriate for me to comment on because I wasn´t part of the decision to purchase the Bi-Tech software,” Mitchell said.

“Had I been involved in the decision, I would have picked something that was more user friendly, but that´s water under the bridge,” he said.

“We´ll be pulling all the parties together to talk about where we are with the overall project and adopting an implementation plan for who´s responsible for completing various tasks,” Mitchell said.

When asked if the entire system could just be scraped and start again, Mitchell said, “It´s too significant an investment. We´ll have to find ways to make it easier.”

A complaint was made to the Grand Jury against the Performing Animal Welfare Society´s Ark 2000 Sanctuary in San Andreas, but the panel made no recommendations that action be taken.

“It´s a sigh of relief,” said PAWS Co-executive Director, Pat Derby.

The complaint alleged a fence was constructed inside a 100-foot non-development buffer zone; that fencing around Ark 2000 is inadequate and that county Planning Department staff provided false information to the Board of Supervisors, among other items.

Aerial photographs and documentation from the Planning Department were reviewed by Grand Jury members who also toured the sanctuary and interviewed staff members there.

The Grand Jury found that the California Department of Fish and Game determined that moving a chain-link fence that was built within the non-development buffer zone “would likely result in a greater impact on the integrity of the buffer zone than to leave it in place.”

The panel said the Department of Fish and Game considers the matter closed.

The United States Department of Agriculture inspected the fencing around the sanctuary and made recommendations to PAWS staff. Those suggestions were promptly addressed, the panel found.

The Grand Jury found no evidence to substantiate the claim that false information was provided to the Board of Supervisors, the report said.

“We always try to do the right thing,” Derby said Thursday. “This is a huge property and everyone with large properties has problems.”

She said PAWS tries to diligently protect the public, especially the sanctuary´s neighbors.

“If we ever have a problem, we´ll fix it,” Derby said.

Calaveras Enterprise reporters Craig Koscho, Vanessa Turner and Mike Taylor contributed to this report. For More Calaveras news, click:calaverasenterprise.com