ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Detection & Correction: Humboldt County Grand Jury Report 2000-2001

by  ARNO HOLSCHUH


There are a total of 18 sections in this year's Grand Jury report. Some address the same topic; reports 7 and 2 both deal with the county's information technology programs, for instance. In total, 16 areas were covered. Without the space to look into all the issues raised by the report, the Journal chose the three most pressing sections. Here are the others: The protocol for use of the American Flag at the courthouse. The condition of Humboldt County correctional facilities Child Welfare Services The Arcata-Eureka Airport The Carlotta Community Services District The Clark Complex County maintenance services Gang activity in Humboldt County Veterans' Association leases You can find the report online at www.co.humboldt.ca.us/GrandJury/Reports/2000-2001/.According to the introduction to its 2000-2001 report, the Humboldt County Grand Jury is "an investigative body having for its objective the detection and correction of flaws in government."

But how does one do that?

Endowed with powers far exceeding that of a member of the public, the Grand Jury has access to all government records except personnel files and can subpoena witnesses. Acting on the basis of complaints from county residents, the body reviews correctional facilities, interviews officials and explores those corners of government that the ordinary citizen has neither the time nor the resources to inspect.

"We are an arm of the Humboldt County Superior Court, but we are servants of the citizens of Humboldt County," said John Westrick, foreman for the 2000-2001 jury.

Westrick said that for all the jury's powers to investigate, its efficacy as a government watchdog is being hampered this year. The jury wasn't budgeted enough money by the county it investigates to publish its annual report as it normally does -- as an insert in the Times-Standard. This year for the first time the Grand Jury is distributing copies at the library and over the Internet.

When included in the daily newspaper, more than 23,000 copies of the report were printed and distributed. This year, Westrick said, just 120 hard copies are in circulation.

Karen Suiker, assistant county administrative officer, said, "It certainly wasn't the intention of the county to reduce availability." She said the availability of the report on the Internet should offset the lack of printed copies.

Westrick's response is that many civic-minded people -- including himself -- do not have easy access to the Internet.

"I think it's a mistake," he said. "There's an awful lot of people out there who won't get the information."

In an attempt to get information gathered by the Grand Jury over the last year in wider circulation, the Journal takes a look at three of the 18 topics covered in the report. While not complete, this report takes some of the topics the jury considered important to Humboldt County and shoves them into the limelight.

Which, Westrick will tell you, is right where they belong.

 

Misinformation Services?

[photo of computer]What would you say about a computer services firm that delivered products late, wrote programs that didn't work, lost data crucial to your job and billed you in an erratic fashion?

"Goodbye," probably. But imagine this: You cannot fire the firm and look for help elsewhere, because your company requires you use this firm and this firm alone.

Workers at various county agencies have been living in just that digital nightmare, according to the Grand Jury report on the Information Services Division of County Administrative Services. The report alleges theft, incompetence and inefficient organization at the county's in-house information technology service, listing 21 separate problems identified by interviewing county staff.

"It appears to me that it has caused county workers confusion and a loss of efficiency," said Westrick.

That appearance of inefficiency and incompetence is false, said Lindsey McWilliams, Humboldt County's administrative services director who is responsible for overseeing Information Services.

"I've been involved with Grand Jury reports for 10 or 11 years," he said, "and my general observation is that sometimes they do a halfway decent job and sometimes they don't. This is an example of one of the times they didn't."

The allegation that there have been reports of missing or stolen equipment, for example, may be true but is unconnected to Information Services, he said. There was a recent case where a courthouse custodian had been stealing computer components. Not only did those thefts occur outside of Information Services, but the person responsible "has been tried and convicted," McWilliams said.

The report further states that programmers take too long to install or modify software. But McWilliams said that while isolated incidents of computer glitches are inevitable, Information Services has generally done a good job. A programmer working with the Social Services branch of the Health and Human Services department, for instance, will be trying to please hundreds of different users at the same time.

"The programmer may be wrong with a few of the users, but not all of them," McWilliams said. "To take a specific complaint and apply it generally is grossly unfair."

One of the most serious allegations is that Information Services lost warrant information for the sheriff from the state's computer system, which could result in "false arrests or incorrect booking of a subject," according to the jury's report.

But it isn't true, said Brad Walden, manager of Information Services. "There wasn't any warrant information lost."

Walden said the allegation that warrant information was lost originated during the county's year 2000 -- Y2K -- conversion. For about a week the computer program that the county used to receive information from the state failed to show all of warrant information. Although the information was not displayed, it was not lost and "not critical. It was stuff like a person's mailing address."

"Everyone was well aware no information was lost," Walden said. "I was amazed when I saw this [in the jury's report]."

"Misinformation and misunderstanding" lay at the root of the Grand Jury's report on Information Services, Walden concluded. "I don't want to be impolite, but they [Grand Jury members] are all retired. Computers are over their head."

But some of the jury's ongoing concerns are echoed by others in the community who do understand computers. Chris Crawford, owner of an Internet consulting company, Justice Served, and an unsuccessful candidate for 1st District Supervisor last year, said he learned through his own business dealings with the county that its information technology system is outdated, inefficient and costly to maintain. The county continues to waste money by being so slow to innovate, he said.

There has been some improvement. Five years ago the Grand Jury -- and an independent consulting firm hired by the county -- were highly critical of information services and its outdated mainframe system. The county has moved to a system where many smaller servers perform the function of the old central mainframe, which has been removed. Most of them are located at Information Services, just across 4th Street from the courthouse.

Even though the mainframe is gone, the Grand Jury still receives complaints about the availability and reliability of the information stored at Information Services.

When he ran for office last year, Crawford recommended that the county contract out to a private firm for information services, a suggestion he said was not well received by county union employees.

This year's grand jury suggests a less drastic solution -- more decentralization. Instead of storing information with Information Services, individual departments would have their own independent servers. Some departments, like the tax collector's and auditor's offices, have already moved to such a system. Treasurer/Tax Collector Stephen Strawn said that working apart from Information Services has been good for his department.

"Working somewhat independently, we are able to get timely deliveries and installation of our hardware and able to get more timely upgrades of critical software, like virus protection; and able to manage either development or changes to existing software programs within the department," Strawn said.

McWilliams said decentralizing by installing independent servers in each department was "stupid."

"It's the most expensive way to organize the county." If you give the sheriff an independent server, "how many technical staff are you going to give him to support it?"

Walden agreed, saying said the Grand Jury simply hadn't understood much of what it was faced with.

"I think information technology is very complicated and Information Services is not a simple, straightforward fast-food type service," he said. "I haven't seen a grand jury in the last 10 years that had a grasp on information technology."

 

Parking & Access

[photo of disabled symbol in parking lot]The Americans with Disabilities Act has created fear and uncertainty in the business community since it took effect in 1992. The ADA law can make building users and/or owners liable for large legal settlements but it is notoriously hard to understand and often prohibitively expensive to comply with for small business owners. (See Access and Dollars, Journal cover story, March 8.)

The rules governing handicapped parking, however, are "easy to understand," said Jim Hogue of the Humboldt Access Project.

"This is not a complicated issue; it is not one of the vague sections of the ADA. It is clearly stated," Hogue said. There are exact ratios of handicapped to regular parking that are to be maintained in all public lots.

Why, then, hasn't the city of Eureka included enough handicapped-accessible spaces?

The Grand Jury report shows that 32 of the city's 37 lots are out of compliance with the ADA, either because there aren't enough spaces reserved for handicapped individuals or not enough of those spaces are usable by vans that lower wheelchairs to the ground.

The city is trying, said Brent Siemer, city engineer for Eureka.

"We have an ongoing program of resurfacing parking lots, and as they come up we evaluate the ADA standards at the time," he said. Some lots are out of compliance because they haven't come up in the resurfacing rotation.

"I'm not expecting it to take a terribly long time," Siemer said. He guessed Eureka would be able to bring all its lots into compliance within three years.

Arcata "meets and in some cases exceeds" ADA requirements for parking lots, said Frank Klopp, public works director for the city.

Eureka's northern neighbor has already provided the legally necessary spaces as part of a transition plan authored in 1992. The plan details and prioritizes the steps necessary for the city to come into compliance with the ADA.

"We've already done the easiest things," Klopp said, including repainting parking lots.

There are more difficult things on the horizon. The Grand Jury report found that while Fortuna, Arcata and Eureka all have transition plans, none of the three cities is in compliance. Eureka's transition plan, written in 1994, showed the city removing all barriers to accessibility by 1998. According to the Grand Jury report, 10 of 40 barriers have been removed to date.

But the cities are not turning a blind eye to accessibility, Hogue said. He has started serving on the Eureka parking committee and said he sees "a willingness in the city government" to accommodate disabled parking.

And Arcata is considering a plan that brings handicapped parking to the Plaza but reduces the number of parking spaces -- already at a premium.

Klopp noted there is no requirement to put handicapped parking on the street, but the city was willing to designate up to six spaces as handicapped -- reducing the total number of spaces on the Plaza by three. The plan is on hold until downtown merchants can be polled, Klopp said.

 

More rooms, more money

The good news is that most of the problems the Grand Jury identified at Juvenile Hall have been fixed. The kitchen was cramped; it's being remodeled. There was no secure intake area; one is being built. Improvements are on the way that should make the facility safer and more effective.

None of which addresses the over-crowding.

[photo of cots in juvenile hall]"We provide cots in our day rooms and sometimes double them in the single rooms when we find two people who can live together," said Jim Fairbanks, manager of the facility (In bottom photo). He said Juvenile Hall, designed to hold 26, regularly has four to six children too many. (See photo at right)

The crowding isn't just about the comfort of the individuals housed in Juvenile Hall, Fairbanks said -- it is having an effect on the function Juvenile Hall serves.

"Normally it is someplace to hold a person while they are going through the court process, or to provide a wake-up call and some time away from controlled substances," Fairbanks said.

Now, he said, "There are so many violent offenders that we have to let property crimes go." Fairbanks said he has a "population meeting" with the rest of Juvenile Hall staff once a day to "assess which minors could safely be released.

"The unfortunate part is that there are many kids who are not receiving enough of a consequence for their criminal activity because of the overcrowding."

"We don't really have a plan at this point for dealing with the overcrowding," said Karen Suiker, the assistant administrative officer. The county is so strapped for cash that needs like that at Juvenile Hall get pushed out of the picture, she said.

[photo of Jim Fairbanks]There are grants available. The improvements taking place at Juvenile Hall are mostly being funded by a grant from the state Board of Corrections.

The Board of Corrections even offers a grant to expand the capacity of Juvenile Hall facilities in small counties. This February, Fairbanks tried to lobby for the county to apply for such a grant, but was told no by the county.

"I think that proposal was universally supported by the whole board," said 1st District County Supervisor Jimmy Smith. "Unfortunately, we were going through this budget thing."

The budget "thing" is an ongoing crisis that has reduced budgeting to crisis-aversion. The 25 percent local match the grant application required was too much for the county.

That local match would have come to about $643,000, Suiker said. While that was a daunting amount of money for the county to spend, even more troubling were the ongoing staffing costs associated with expanding the facility.

To Fairbanks, who has worked in Juvenile Hall for 24 years, all those complexities are stripped away by the simple necessities he faces in his job -- "more rooms and more money for intensive supervision."

"We have a real need," he said.

 

`Questions average people would ask'

It would be easy to take it for granted that computers don't always work as you would hope, governments are slow to complete projects and incarceration facilities are overcrowded. But when you open your eyes and look past the obvious, details pop out.

A city may not yet have finished retrofitting its parking lots -- what's unusual about that? City officials said they would be finished three years ago, that's what.

It sounds sadly normal that Juvenile Hall is crowded and the county is too poor to expand it. What's unusual is that county government passed up a chance for grant funding because of the cost of the local match.

"It's the job of the grand jury to ask naive questions, questions average people would ask. Why does this cost so much money? What's the return on this investment? Are we wasting money?" said Crawford.

That is the role of the Grand Jury: To examine the complex and everyday problems of government with the common sense of a layperson.

"To suggest to elected officials how to do their job is beyond the scope of the jury," Westrick said.

Serving on the Grand Jury -- and ferreting out places where government might do a better job -- on the other hand, is, according to the report's introduction, "one of the greatest honors a citizen can receive."


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