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Civil Grand Jury Grills County, Cal Fire on Wildfires

Investigations also lead to calls for increased jail oversight, improved pesticide notifications

Rigoberto Herrera of Cal Fire in Mariposa helps citizens get a handle of evacuation orders Wednesday in the Recovery Resource Center at the Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz. PHOTO: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

The Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury has released the results of its eight latest investigations, which typically delve into the inner workings of county and city governmental operations.

While the subjects of the investigations are required to submit responses, they do not have to make any changes recommended in the reports. Most are required to respond publicly within 30 to 60 days.

The Grand Jury, made up of 19 county residents, this year reviewed three of its investigations from 2017-18 and found that many of their recommendations have been implemented. The reports are often telling portraits-in-time of public perception of how taxpayer dollars are being used, and how various aspects of government are being run.

This year’s reports cover the county’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and how the city of Santa Cruz addresses wildfire danger. The Grand Jury also looked at how Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD)—the county’s largest district—dealt with the pandemic.

The Grand Jury also looked at the Santa Cruz County Jail system, including several inmate deaths and violence, in addition to criminal conduct—including sexual assaults—by correction officers.

Additionally, the reports look at how the county is providing broadband internet service to residents, and how the county government responded to the CZU Lightning Complex fires from August 2020.

Chasing Covid 

The report titled “Chasing the Pandemic,” looks at the effectiveness of the county’s Covid-19 testing and contact tracing efforts, and describes the Santa Cruz County Public Health Division as “well-trained, skilled and knowledgeable professionals,” who protected residents during the pandemic.

But the county’s website does not sufficiently help residents find Covid-19 testing sites. Furthermore, the Save Lives Santa Cruz County website does not adequately inform the public of the work being done to manage the crisis, and fails to convey the scope of the pandemic, the report shows.

The Public Health Division should therefore update its website and shore up its public outreach, including providing weekly updates and video reports, the jury recommends.

CZU Response Ripped

In the scathing report titled “The CZU Lightning Complex Fire – Learn…or Burn?,” the Grand Jury focused on how the County Board of Supervisors and the county administration supported residents of Bonny Doon, Davenport, Last Chance and Boulder Creek in the aftermath of the county’s worst blaze.

“The residents whose lives have been devastated were, and are, justifiably indignant over the lack of leadership from their elected leaders,” the report states. “Our county’s residents rightly continue to express doubt and dismay about their devastating experiences and the ability to withstand future fires.”

The report says that the supervisors have not recognized that they are responsible to adequately address residents’ concerns over wildfire preparedness. 

In addition, the Grand Jury excoriated Cal Fire for the disparate “lessons learned” presentations that occurred in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. The one in Santa Cruz lasted for just nine minutes, while San Mateo’s went on for 40 minutes. The supervisors did not hold Cal Fire accountable for this lack of analysis, the report says. In addition, there are no provisions in the contract between the county and Cal Fire to provide such analyses.

“This discrepancy is disappointing and not acceptable,” the report says.

The county was also drilled for its response to a 2020 Grand Jury investigation that looked at the county’s preparedness to wildfire risk. The responses, the report states, “show a lack of engagement with the material and a lack of understanding of their role as advocates for the county” and should be revisited.

In its recommendations, the Grand Jury says that the supervisors should question Cal Fire about its readiness for future fires. The board should also develop a policy for receiving and logging residents’ questions and concerns.

In addition, county policy should require “timely after-action reports” for major fire events, and should advocate for additional resources from the state for fire prevention and protection.

Bringing Broadband

The challenges of providing broadband internet service throughout the county—a goal 10 years in the making—are manyfold. This includes cutting through mountains of red tape and assessing safety and infrastructure issues that come from fire danger.

While the county has a plan to do so, it has committed the technological sin of allowing that plan to become obsolete. 

The county should immediately update its 2015 Broadband Master Plan to reflect regulatory changes on the state and federal levels, the Grand Jury says in the report titled “Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out.” These changes, the report says, should reflect the difficulty of bringing the service to the rural parts of Santa Cruz County, and the challenges brought by the CZU Complex.

The jurors recommended that the county apply for funding to help pay for increased broadband service, and look into the possibility of the county owning and maintaining its own broadband system. 

In addition, the county should work with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education to continue providing internet service for the 2022-23 school year.

A Look at Main Jail

In its required annual look at the county’s jail system, the Grand Jury focused on allegations of sexual assault and illegal sexual conduct by corrections officers that occurred in 2017 and 2020, both of which resulted in convictions.

The report titled “Justice in the Jail” also looked at several separate incidents involving inmates, including one self-mutilation and an assault—both in 2018.

Jurors also looked at a suicide and a homicide, both of which happened within a two-day period in October 2019, and the death of a mentally ill inmate in May 2020.

The Grand Jury also investigated a power outage that lasted for more than 24 hours in September 2019, including the backup power system.

“In the end it comes down to issues of management, having enough resources, and a need for more effective oversight and public transparency,” the report says.

The Grand Jury recommends either appointing an Inspector General or Sheriff oversight board or placing the issue before voters. 

In addition, the report states that the county should increase staff at the jail, since short staffing and mandatory overtime are “detrimental to performance, staff morale, and contribute to human error which can threaten the health and safety of staff and inmates.”

The jail should also revisit its policies of providing razors to inmates, the report says, and should hold monthly status meetings regarding the state of the facilities.

Illegal Camping Threat

The city saw 75 outdoor fires as of May 20, many of which are caused by illegal camping and warming fires from homeless encampments. 

Despite this, the city has cleared these encampments only in “extreme emergency situations,” instead of proactively, the report titled “Wildfire Threat to the City of Santa Cruz” says. 

The Grand Jury recommends that City Council should craft an ordinance to help mitigate these issues.

Furthermore, the grand Jury calls the coordination between the city and the county “insufficient,” and says it is not transparent to the public.

To help ameliorate this problem, the county needs accurate data, including the numbers of homeless people living in the city. 

The report also calls for an outreach campaign for communities with eucalyptus trees—known to be more flammable than others—to help with vegetation management. 

The city should also establish a “firewise community” in every neighborhood that abuts natural areas, known as Wildland Urban Interfaces.

City leaders should also revisit budget priorities surrounding fire safety, and should re-evaluate how state and federal dollars are used, and should look at how the city works with state offices such as CalTrans in dealing with homeless encampments. 

PVUSD Leads the Way

PVUSD earned the Grand Jury’s only laudatory report with its swift response to the pandemic, which included quickly closing schools as the pandemic began to take hold, and then creating a distance learning program. 

When an employee at Rio Del Mar Elementary School tested positive for Covid-19 in March 2020, Pajaro Valley Unified School district closed the school for a deep cleaning.

Just three days later, as case rates began to climb, the district’s Board of Trustees, in an emergency meeting, voted to close all schools in the district.

On April 1, the trustees voted to close the schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year

Soon after that, the district updated its webpage, issued Chromebook computers to the majority of its students and created a distance learning program. PVUSD also created a “safe space” program for students unable to participate in distance learning, or who are struggling under that system. 

The district’s response, the Grand Jury said in the report titled “Distance Learning During the Pandemic in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District,” should be documented and built upon, since distance learning is likely here to stay. 

Pesticide Notifications

The county requires that growers must inform the public when they will be applying pesticide to their crops. But the process of doing so is cumbersome, and the locations provided often cannot be located on a map. This is largely because many farms don’t have an address, and others are made up of several fields, or are oddly shaped. 

That’s according to the Grand Jury’s investigation on the Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commission, and how that agency interacts with the Board of Supervisors and the public. The report is titled “Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office Can Get By with a Little Help from Its Friends.”

The Grand Jury says that changes at the state level—with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR)—must be informed by the County Board of Supervisors, since they wield more influence than the local Agricultural Commissioner.

On Oct. 27, 2020, the Watsonville City Council issued a resolution urging the Agricultural Commissioner to post online in advance of the pesticide use. But at that same meeting, Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo told the council that doing so would burden his staff that was already stretched thin.

The report suggests that, within six months, the Agricultural Commissioner should create a pilot program to teach farmers how to use the CalAgPermits software that helps inform the public about pesticide application. This should come with suggestions about improving the software’s efficiency.

In addition, the supervisors should mandate a notification system for pesticide application, including text and email. The board should also urge the DPR and other state officials to include specific location information on pesticide application forms.

To see the reports in their entirety, and those from previous years, visit bit.ly/3jsH0KL.

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