Report: County in good shape
Grand jury finds no scandals, settles some arguments, and offers some recommendations
As the former chief administrative officer of Butte County, John Blacklock, who’s now retired, was a natural to be chosen—by presiding Judge James Reilley—to be foreman of the 2007-08 Butte County grand jury.
His insight into government helped transform the group of 19 strangers from Biggs, Paradise, Chico, Forest Ranch, Oroville and Magalia into the “watchdogs on the public’s behalf.”
With “no preconceived notions,” the jurors investigated complaints and reviewed agencies, looking not for the good, the bad or the ugly, but only the truth, Blacklock said by phone Tuesday (July 1). “A transparent government is the best government.”
For the most part they found agencies worked hard and efficiently even if they were understaffed or funded. There was some controversy this year, but there were no scandals like those surrounding the Chico Unified School District and the auditor-controller’s office in recent years.
Here are a few highlights from the report.
CUSD Measure A
Just days after empanelment in July 2007, the grand jury received letters of concern regarding the funds authorized under Measure A, the Chico Unified School District’s $48.7 million construction bond, which voters approved in 1998.
Some of the money was intended for—and has been spent on—school improvements. But the remaining bonds—worth some $39 million and intended for construction of a new high school—have not yet been issued, although in 2004 the district did spend $479,360 to buy a parcel west of Bruce Road just north of Raley Boulevard for the proposed Canyon View High School.
In the years since Measure A passed, however, demographic changes in Chico’s elementary-school populations indicated that the new high school was no longer needed. In September 2007, the school board adopted a resolution determining that “construction of a traditional high school such as Canyon View does not meet the current needs of our secondary students.”
Instead, the district wanted to spend the remaining money on improving the existing high schools—something that angered voters who believed they were being given a bait-and-switch on the bond measure.
The grand jury sought to determine whether the district could and should spend the bond money for purposes other than the acquisition of land and construction of a new high school.
After four public “facilities workshops” held at district schools in October and November 2007, the school board approved a proposed expenditure plan divided into three phases.
Phase I consists of a Performing Arts Center at Pleasant Valley High School. Estimated cost: $9 million.
Phase II consists of additional permanent classrooms at Chico High School. Estimated cost: $13 million.
How the final $17 million will be spent during Phase III has yet to be debated and decided. Phases I and II are scheduled to begin this year.
The jury upheld the district’s decision on spending the Measure A bond funds, but it recommended that it examine whether to continue to hold the Bruce Road property in light of the 2007 decision not to build Canyon View High School.
City of Biggs
The jury found that “serious concerns regarding trust of the City Council decision-making process, transparency of government, and insufficient consideration of the public good in the City Council decisions exist among many Biggs citizens.”
Some of their concerns stem from a general-plan debate. A proposal to amend the city’s current general plan to allow for commercializing 20 acres away from downtown, at the B Street and Highway 99 intersection, was countered by the City Council, which opted instead for a complete general-plan update.
The jury obtained testimony from several Biggs citizens that explained the vice-mayor opposed B Street development because it would negatively affect his downtown Biggs restaurant. The vice-mayor retorted he simply “did not like strip malls.”
Beyond the general-plan debate, the jury discovered Biggs has been operating with a council vacancy since July 2007, leaving four members instead of the required five. The mayor said he could not find a “qualified” candidate, but after interviewing three former council members still living in Biggs, the jury learned they’re at odds with the political agenda of the mayor and vice-mayor.
The grand jury recommended Biggs fill the vacancy immediately and that, in order to maintain public trust, the members recuse themselves if conflicts of interest arise.
Gridley animal shelter
The Northwest SPCA in Oroville, the Butte Humane Society in Chico and the Paradise Animal Shelter run good shops, the grand jury reports. That leaves the Gridley Animal Haven.
Grand jury verdict: It’s deplorable.
The small shelter building is a converted gas station in the downtown area, made of cinderblocks and bordered by an asphalt parking lot. There, animals spend all their time in cages, where they urinate, defecate, eat and sleep.
The seven-day facility operates with one five-days-a-week employee who answers road calls away from the shelter.
Unless immediate action is taken to bring the substandard operation up to par, the jury recommends that the city of Gridley consider closing its shelter and contracting with nearby shelters.