A bombshell falls on Butte County

Grand Jury report rips into county development process, Chico schools funding

IN WITH THE NEW—This year’s grand jury was sworn in July 8, the same day the outgoing grand jury released its 2004-05 report. In court, members of the new jury were asked to stand and swear an oath to investigate county issues doggedly and impartially. Here, new members swear their oath. Right to left, Don Bean, Cindy Pruitt, Lyle Akin and Sharon Lancaster.

IN WITH THE NEW—This year’s grand jury was sworn in July 8, the same day the outgoing grand jury released its 2004-05 report. In court, members of the new jury were asked to stand and swear an oath to investigate county issues doggedly and impartially. Here, new members swear their oath. Right to left, Don Bean, Cindy Pruitt, Lyle Akin and Sharon Lancaster.

Photo By Tom Angel

Editor’s note: Since publication of this article, former Biggs High School Principal Ralph Vandro has submitted documentation to the CN&R showing that, following an investigation, the Gridley-Biggs Police Department exonerated him of all charges of wrong-doing. In addition, following a hearing before an administrative law judge in 2008, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing dismissed all accusations against him.

The Butte County grand jury issued its final report July 8, and it is one of the meatiest and most scathing such documents in recent memory.

The jury, 19 citizens impaneled each year to examine local government operations and services, took on 15 topics altogether, ranging from the county’s new, automated payroll and financial software systems and discord at Biggs High School to the need for more parking in downtown Chico. But it focused the bulk of its considerable effort on two matters: the Chico schools’ lack of clear systems for handling student funds and the crippling dysfunction in the county’s all-important land-use planning and permitting process.

The county development process is discussed in the story to the right, and the schools findings are discussed in the opposite sidebar. Here’s a quick roundup of the jury’s significant findings on other issues:

Biggs High School—Sparked by reports that the school’s principal had displayed locker-room photos of two partially clad female students to various people “in a recreational, prurient and unsolicited manner” and that teachers who had complained had been put on a “hit list,” the jury began to uncover wide and deep evidence of the use of intimidation and fear tactics by the principal (Ralph Vandro) and a failure to deal with same on the part of District Superintendent Lee Funk.

Veterans Memorial Halls—The county’s veterans halls are used infrequently and bring in only about 10 percent of the revenue needed for “Band-Aid-style” upkeep, the jury found. Also, there is no overall management strategy, nobody in overall charge and no plans to change the situation. The halls are deteriorating, and nothing is being done about it. The jury submits several recommendations for improving management, including possibly selling some halls and replacing them with smaller facilities.

Conflict-of-interest procedures—While investigating unrelated matters, jury members discovered that the financial-disclosure forms required of elected and appointed office holders were not on file and were not being completed, to the potential detriment of individuals seeking evidence of conflict of interest. The jury recommends that county officials develop “a logical system of Form 700 compliance.”

‘A triumvirate of chutzpah’

Report slams board majority for politicizing planning process

Development is a multimillion-dollar industry employing thousands of people locally. It’s also a highly regulated business. In Butte County, unfortunately, the regulation process is a hugely expensive disaster, the grand jury has found after devoting more than 600 member hours to an investigation and interviewing 65 people.

UNDER FIREThe grand jury came down hard on 4th District Supervisor Curt Josiassen, accusing him of “intimidating” county building officials to push through pet projects. Josiassen says he was only trying to serve his constituents. He told the jury, though, that he intended to leave office when his third term is up in December 2008. “I’m pretty much done,” he told the CN&R.

Photo By Tom Angel

The county’s planning and permitting process is in shambles, turnover in the Department of Development Services (DDS) is rampant and morale is low. The General Plan is hopelessly out of date, and a pro-development three-member majority on the Board of Supervisors engaged in an “aggressive clandestine plan to undermine the ability of county government to regulate development …”

The General Plan has been out of date for years, some elements for as long as 34 years, and developers have long complained of slow service. In 1993, the county tried to fix things by bringing all planning and permitting functions under one umbrella, the Department of Development Services. Developers continued to complain.

In 1998 the county began updating the General Plan. But when Paradise Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi joined the Board of Supervisors in 2001, he allied himself with two other supervisors, Bob Beeler, of Oroville, and Curt Josiassen, of Richvale, to form what the report calls “a triumvirate of chutzpah” determined, among other things, to get rid of several top-level county officials, including the then-director of DDS, Tom Parillo. Yamaguchi believed Parillo was “using the department as an instrument of controlling growth in the county.” (Note: The grand jury report refers to people by titles, not names.)

Parillo was fired and succeeded by two interim directors. Then, in July 2002, the county hired Yvonne Christopher as director of DDS and gave her a mandate to sweep out “troublesome employees … and especially those who seemed to enjoy telling the customers ‘no.'” The board majority wanted employees who would say “yes,” even if it meant going around “adopted policy or implementation of the UBC [Uniform Building Code],” the report charges.

The result has been disastrous. Not only are many veteran employees gone, often driven out, but many of those remaining say they feel intimidated and pressured to mislabel projects to avoid fees and speed up approval in the name of “customer service,” the report states. In the meantime, little progress has been made on the General Plan update and service is worse, not better, despite a dramatic hike in permit fees.

Employees were told to go easy on building codes, but not which ones to ignore. At the same time, they feared that doing so would jeopardize their jobs.

“We came to realize,” the report says, “that the director was handed an impossible job of tearing down and rebuilding the department simultaneously with the mandate to say ‘yes’ much more often and not use laws, regulations, and policies to control growth in the county.”

The result is a “politically charged environment” in which the approval process is driven by “situational decisions” rather than sound policies. The jury learned that many structures are not being built to code and that there are “hundreds or possibly thousands of legally non-conforming structures in the county” such as auto repair shops labeled as “storage” facilities.

“When land use laws are abused, and buildings are mislabeled … it is the taxpayer that pays the cost,” the report states.

The report has especially harsh criticism of Dist. 4 Supervisor Curt Josiassen, whom it accuses of exerting undue influence on DDS staff, to the point of intimidating some of them. In a phone interview, Josiassen said he was only doing what his constituents wanted: trying to help out when their projects got jammed up in the system.

Christopher is resigning Aug. 1 to take a teaching job at Butte College; county CAO Paul McIntosh will be filling in as interim DDS director until her replacement is hired.