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Grand Jury Weighs In on Failures at Santa Cruz City Hall and More

Report says public has ‘lost confidence in the city leadership’s ability to function effectively.’

Last year, the Santa Cruz City Council was rocked by allegations of misconduct and a toxic environment at City Hall. PHOTO: CEBE LOOMIS

The Santa Cruz County Grand Jury has released its reports for the year, a sizable agglomeration of 10 investigations ranging from behavior at City Hall to fire services to voter information security.

The all-volunteer group convenes every year to take a deep dive into local governmental affairs, a process codified in California law.

“It’s about citizens really keeping their government accountable,” says Bruce Gritton, who served as foreperson for this year’s 19-member Grand Jury.

After a grand jury report is released, the agencies in question typically have up to 90 days to respond. These responses usually contain several agreements and disagreements with the allegations. 

The agencies are not, however, bound by law to follow any of the recommendations.

But Gritton says that the jurors go into the year-long project knowing the reports do not carry any real legal weight.

“The real pressure for change needs to come from the citizenry that sees the reports,” he says. “They need to make sure their government is held accountable.”

As of press time, the Grand Jury had released seven of its reports (with the final three set for release this week); here is a look at each of their investigations:

A City Divided

In the latest chapter in Santa Cruz’s leadership soap opera, the Grand Jury slammed city leaders for not following or enforcing policies governing workplace behavior.

And even if it did, the City Council’s policies are not a sufficient tool by which to guide good behavior, the report states. In addition, those policies leave new city council members ill-prepared for the position.

City employees who reported harassment said they did not feel supported by management.

The City Council also took some heat for its inability to control disruptive behavior at meetings, which the Grand Jury says “increases meeting length and inhibits a representative cross-section of the public from participating.” Perhaps the most telling line in this report was the line, “The public has lost confidence in the City Leadership’s ability to function effectively.”

Risky Business

In a hefty 60-page tome detailing the county’s preparedness for risk from calamities such as financial catastrophe, natural disaster and global pandemic, the Grand Jury found that local government agencies are underprepared, and that cities should align their risk assessment framework with that of the California Auditor’s Office.

“Our findings indicate that all of our cities are just one economic shock away from serious financial distress, and that their current approach to risk management is not adequate to effectively manage and mitigate the range of risks that are typically confronted by local governments,” the report states. 

The Grand Jury also urges the county’s jurisdictions to get a grasp on the risk associated with rising pension costs, and prognosticates that with Covid-19 having brought the world to a financial halt, financial calamity is likely on its way.

A Vote for Security

The Grand Jury made no allegations that the Santa Cruz County Elections Department has mishandled voter registration data. In fact, the report offers its praise, stating that its procedures “comply with all local, county, state, and federal laws and regulations governing Collected Data and Distributed Data.”

But it said the department should change the way it distributes publicly available voter registration data. 

Rules governing such distribution, the report states, were established in 1994, long before identity theft and phishing attacks were a thing.

Those requesting such data could be doing so for fairly innocuous reasons, such as politicians contacting constituents or sending political mailings.

Under current procedures, however, voter data lists include personally identifiable information such as full birthdays, which can also be used for nefarious purposes such as identity theft, illegal sale of voter registration data, attempted election disruption, fraud, and cyber-extortion.

That should change to include only a birth year, the report states. The Elections Department should also ask those requesting voter data to include a narrative on why they are doing so.

Inspecting the Inspectors

After looking at six of the county’s 13 fire agencies responsible for performing safety inspections, the Grand Jury found that Santa Cruz and Watsonville Fire departments, along with Santa Cruz County Fire, have not “adequately inspected all schools, hotels, apartments, and licensed residential care facilities for fire and safety,” as required by state law.

Felton Fire District, meanwhile, has not accounted for its inspection of those facilities, the report states.

The agencies should tell their governing agencies what resources they would need to perform the necessary inspections, the Grand Jury recommends, and should all publish annual reports of their inspections.

The Aptos and Central Fire Districts, meanwhile, received praise for the “persistence shown” in performing their inspections and reporting the results.

Caught in the Web

The county’s website is replete with “missing, out-of-date and inaccurate” information, along with several broken links, the report says. The lack of updates makes it harder for citizens to inform themselves and to navigate county services.

This includes missing information from public meetings, among other things.

Furthermore, the county lacks a process by which the website is reviewed and improved, and does not have a way for users to be alerted to website updates.

Finally, the investigation found that, while web content providers often know the reasons behind the missing or out-of-date information, such information is typically not provided to the public.

To ameliorate the problem, the Grand Jury recommends formal processes for evaluating content, including a quarterly review.

A Power Struggle

The Grand Jury excoriated the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office for being unprepared during a 26-hour power failure on Sept. 28, 2019, that affected the Main Jail and the Blaine Street Women’s Jail.

“Services were lost and backup failed to properly operate in several critical areas,” the report reads. “Clearly, the safety of inmates and jail personnel was compromised. This cannot be tolerated.”

The power outage killed all overhead lights in the jail housing units, along with perimeter security cameras and the ventilation system. In addition, fire evacuation doors were inoperable, the kitchen lost power and jail officials had to complete arrest records on paper. 
The investigation revealed, among other things, that the backup generator lacked the power for “mission critical” operations, and in any case there was not sufficient fuel to run the generator.

The report blames jail personnel for a lack of communication before, during and after an emergency, and for the fact that the jail had no policy for its response to such an emergency.

All of this violated county policy that among other things requires a working generator capable of a “seamless transition in the event of a loss of power,” those responsible for the generators were unaware.

The jail has since gotten a new generator, but has not yet tested it, the report says.

A Hole Lot of Trouble 

A half-century anniversary after DeLaveaga Golf Course was built, the Grand Jury’s investigation into the facility shows that it is a poorly managed and underutilized money drain, annually adding to the county’s deficit.

This could be abated, the report states, by marketing the course through such organizations as local chambers of commerce and the Northern California Golf Association.

The 18-hole, 6,010-yard course is owned by the City of Santa Cruz and managed by the City’s Parks and Recreation Department.

According to the report, DeLaveaga Golf Course has been operating at a deficit for the last several years, and it will keep doing so through at least 2023. 

The course’s financial woes stem largely from senior maintenance personnel salaries—to the tune of $1 million annually—and from pension benefits. The yearly half-million dollar water bill also takes a bite.

A lack of routine inspections led to problems that took more than $1 million in recent repairs to bring the restaurant/lodge up to code. It’s set to re-open sometime this year.

The Grand Jury recommends that the course tweak its green fees and readjust its staffing system, among other things.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Anita

    July 1, 2020 at 4:23 pm

    Thanks for a view of some of the Grand Jury’s investigations. A mention of how to apply to be on the Grand Jury (Grand Jury portion of the SC County website) would have been useful.

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