A year ago, the 2017-2018 grand jury made a number of findings and recommendations across the various agencies it elected to investigate. Most of those findings and recommendations were rejected or side-stepped.
Yet in the year that has passed, events have proven the grand jury was correct.
Starting with Napa Valley Unified School District, the grand jury recommended greater budget transparency. And the district agreed it would have a “budget page with all relevant budget-related information in one place” updated quarterly. But it hasn’t happened. The most recent posting is a November 2018 slide-show that is almost impossible to read, much less understand.
We read almost daily of potential school closures and Measure H projects that cannot be fulfilled. The grand jury found the Bond Oversight Committee (BOC) had failed to keep the public informed. It also found that NVUSD would likely be seeking a new bond measure. The district disagreed.
Yet the BOC has issued but one report, in June 2018 for Fiscal Year 2016-2107. The report was already a year out of date. The grand jury had already found cost overruns had not been accounted for in the plan that went to the voters. No bond measure? The Register reported on June 12 that NVUSD is considering a bond issue or parcel tax for 2020. The problems of declining enrollment, under-funded projects and increased costs didn’t just arise in the last year. The public has not been kept informed.
The Board of Supervisors rejected as unnecessary the grand jury’s recommendation that the board conduct a study to find a productive use for the over-staffed, under-utilized Juvenile Hall. As the grand jury noted, juvenile crime is at historic lows statewide. In fact, San Francisco is closing its juvenile hall. Other counties are looking hard at their juvenile-justice facilities.
But here, the situation is troublingly different. Napa’s cost per incarcerated juvenile is the fourth highest in the state. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on April 26, “In Napa, taking drastic action to trim costs is off the table for now, despite the $430,000 it currently spends [annually] to incarcerate each child, a cost 129% higher than eight years ago.”
“It’s complicated,” Chief Probation Officer Mary Butler told the Chronicle. Yes, that’s why the grand jury’s recommended study made good sense.
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The grand jury reported on the lack of information concerning the costs and progress of the new jail. In response, the Board of Supervisors promised a website page where such information could be found. None has been created. Such information as exists is found in the board minutes. Jail funding continues to be a moving target. In May 2018, the Board of Supervisor contemplated a $20 million loan would be needed as part of the $128 million price tag. On April 26, the Register reported the Supervisors had not settled on a plan – maybe only a $10 million loan, maybe none. Perhaps the jail will come in on budget, perhaps not.
The separate, supposedly completed, re-entry facility was supposed to have a “soft” opening by mid-December 2018. But the public is just learning about punch-list problems that have delayed the opening. (Register, June 13.) The point the grand jury made is correct – the public is not being kept informed.
The grand jury urged the completion of the Climate Action Plan and more public input. The Board of Supervisor said there had been enough public input; the plan would be ready by April 2019. It’s not ready; more public input is being requested.
The grand jury pointed out that no current farmworker housing-needs assessment exists in the county, the latest dating from 2012. Affordable housing is on the lips of every public official in the county. The Board of Supervisor agreed an update was needed. The request for proposals was due December 31, 2018. None has been issued.
The grand jury is hailed as the public’s watchdog. But government seems happier when the watchdog’s muzzled. Dedicated volunteer citizen-grand jurors devote hours every week to their tasks. Soon the 2018-2019 grand jury’s findings and recommendations will be released. Public officials would do well to pay closer attention to what the grand jury has to say. Voters should make sure they do.
Alan Charles “Chuck” Dell’Ario, Foreperson
2017-2018 Napa County Grand Jury
Editor's note: Full copies of the grand jury reports and official responses can be found at napa.courts.ca.gov/grand-jury.