by Judy Hodgson

By the time you read this you may already know that The Journal has filed a lawsuit against the County of Humboldt and, specifically, the Board of Supervisors. I would like to explain why and what we hope to accomplish.

Readers may recall in May we published an investigative report on county politics triggered by the forced resignations of the county administrative officer and the planning director. While gathering information for that story, we discovered what we believe to be a violation of the Brown Act, the state's open meeting law. Supervisors had invited the chairman of the Planning Review Committee, an advisory committee, into a closed session to discuss a candidate they were considering for interim planning director. When the chairman could not attend, they asked an alternate member of the committee who did attend.

To a skeptical person -- a reporter, for instance -- these invitations might mean that someone other than the Board of Supervisors had veto power over who was going to fill this important position. At the very least, the supervisors' selective invitations could be interpreted to mean that that person's opinion was more valuable than the excluded members of that committee.

And what about the opinions of members of the Surface Mining Advisory Committee? Were the supervisors interested in what they had to say? What about members of the McKinleyville Citizens Advisory Committee? I'm sure they have important opinions to share about who should guide the Planning Department. What about the rest of the public?

We filed a formal protest and expected the county to rectify what may have been just a mistake by revealing what went on in that closed session. (The public has a right to know.) Instead, the supervisors responded through their special attorney that they did nothing wrong.

Since the supervisors are refusing to admit any wrongdoing, it is highly likely they will do it again. So we are now taking the next step by asking the courts to decide. If the court rules that the supervisors did indeed violate the Brown Act, it also has the option to order them not to do it again under penalty of contempt. The court may also order them to release minutes of the meeting or to reconstruct what transpired in that meeting to remove the cloud of secrecy.

The issue of the alleged Brown Act violation was raised in this column in May but was not included in the cover story, "The new majority." We decided it would detract from the substantive issues that were raised in the article. Many of those same issues have now been raised by the Humboldt County Grand Jury in its final report released last month.

Some parallels between what has been previously reported and the Grand Jury report:

  1. The Journal reported ongoing battles between the county administrative officer and some board members, and the CAO and various department heads. The Grand Jury found "poor communications, lack of policies and procedures, and deficiencies in management style." Its report recommends training for the board itself and that the supervisors require and receive regular department head performance reviews.
  2. The Journal first reported that Social Services Director John Frank used proceeds from two statewide conferences held in Eureka in 1990 and 1994 to purchase office furniture for himself and to set up a trust fund in his father's name that benefited a children's shelter. The California Welfare Directors Association is demanding that the money -- $25,000 -- be returned.
    The Grand Jury recommends that the supervisors take action to retrieve and possibly return the funds to the CWDA. It was also recommended that money spent on Frank's office furniture, shelter furniture and donations to employees' recreation fund "be retrieved by a charge against the proper department budget line items."
  3. The Journal reported on the reasons for the county's chronic budget problems and the practices of using one-time monies and across-the-board cuts in dealing with shortages. The Grand Jury report recommended against these practices.
  4. Last fall, the Times-Standard ran a three-part series on how the funding plan for the new Justice Facility fell apart. (The project was cancelled this spring.) The Grand Jury took its investigation a step further by handing out blame, criticizing the Board of Supervisors (for not reading contracts, among other things), the Public Works director (as original project manager, for not bringing over-budgeted design changes to the board), the architect (for not obtaining design changes in writing and for not asking for a contract amendment for nearly a year), the county administrative officer (for wresting away fiscal oversight from Public Works) and the courts (for being unaware of, or ignoring, the fiscal impacts of design changes).

As expected, the Grand Jury continued its examination of Child Welfare Services and this year found some encouraging news. The jurors noted "increased confidence in Humboldt County child protection system ... in the face of ever increasing caseloads."

The Grand Jury also took positive note of an amendment to the state Welfare and Institutions Code in January that put more emphasis on protection of children and less on parental rights. Many who have been following this issue know that there has been an imbalance for too many years that gave preference to family reunification sometimes at the expense of a child's safety.

To be sure there are children still known to Child Protective Services living in dangerous situations, but at least social service workers have more sensible state guidelines to follow.

The Grand Jury also recommended that the Board of Supervisors consider expanding the role of the Citizens Child Welfare Advisory Board to include selective review and sampling of cases in response to concerns raised by mandated reporters (teachers, health care workers). There is a need to protect confidentiality, of course, but this oversight function would be another way to insure that we are doing everything we can to protect children within the system.

Finally, the members of the Grand Jury deserve our sincere appreciation for their voluntary year of service to the people of Humboldt County.

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