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County Notes: Complaints, Violations & Worries

Here are just a few excerpts from a few of the many county employees who complained to the supervisors last Tuesday about the County’s failure to address long-standing salary shortfalls and the impact this delay is having on them, their work, their families, and the County itself.

Julie Beardsley, President of Mendocino local 1021 Service Employees International Union: 

“In 2019, the board realized how desperate the situation had become, how far below market value our salaries were, and authorized a 9% increase over the three year term of the contract. That helped. But they are still way below market value and we struggle to retain employees. Now with the current contract negotiations with the San Francisco law firm the county has hired, we are told there is no money for a cost-of-living adjustment. We are told that we should suck it up and tighten our belts because it's cheap to live in Mendocino County. The figures they provided as proof of that were so low — they were about one decade off. You can google what the median home price in Mendocino County is and it is over $500,000. I personally found their presentation insulting and not good-faith negotiations. We have requested several solutions to affording a modest 5% cost-of-living adjustment in times of a 9% inflation. The county has not brought forth a single recommendation or idea of how to support employees or increase recruitment. We have examined the budget and your claims of having no money. It just doesn't add up. So stop pointing fingers. Instead of being risk-averse, what we need is leadership. If the board members do not have a clear picture of the county budget, that needs to be remedied. We know the county needs to live within its means. But we know the board has a range of tools that can and should be used to finance a modest increase. Let's stabilize our workforce by providing a COLA, recruit for the non-general fund and revenue-producing positions, and grow the county budget. Falling behind in employee compensation will result in a lack of services, phones not being answered, long wait times for permits… And it will put the most vulnerable in our county at risk. Your board needs to step up and make the people who make this county work your priority.”

Patrick Hickey, Local 1021 Field Rep: 

“There's been a lot of noise and a lot of finger-pointing lately. We are here today to propose a way out of this mess. We have been hearing that the county cannot afford a cost-of-living increase because there is a financial crisis. But is there? In a word: No. The financial crisis is concocted. It is an illusion. The only potential funding shortfall is in cannabis taxes. Everyone who was paying attention knew that was coming. Every other funding stream is increasing. How can the board take action to support county employees? How can they save them from a 9% wage cut due to inflation? Here are four easy steps: 1. There are 264 funded unfilled positions. Repurpose some of those funds. The county has argued that there is no money there because it gets used up by overtime and extra help. But you need to look at the actual data. If you look at past budgets and the recently completed annual financial report you'll see that that is not true. There is an increase in overtime and extra help but it does not come close to using up the savings when those positions are not filled. 2. For this year's budget the county projects no increase in sales tax revenues. How well has the county done in forecasting sales and use tax revenues? In the last four fiscal years the county underestimated those taxes by 27.7%, 112%, 6.2%, and 31% respectively. What about the other revenue sources? Property taxes, transient occupancy taxes — those are underestimated every time every year. In 2021 they were underestimated by 40%... But surely then expenses must be higher. No. Salary and benefits come in at 10.6% under budget, 3.5% under budget in the last two years. So revenues are regularly higher than projected and expenses are regularly lower than projected. The budget is a fiction designed to make the county prudent and effective. The board needs to understand this and make decisions accordingly. Also there are funds that are due the county that are not being collected as the board has acknowledged. Stop talking about it and act. Hire the staff necessary to do the work. That will require paying a salary that will attract and retain employees. The board has mentioned hiring a service to track down businesses that are not paying transient occupancy taxes. Have they been hired? Finally, we see how the board reacts when they identify a budget shortfall for the general fund. At the last board meeting there was a report of cost increases for the jail expansion boondoggle. In the last few weeks the board has proposed raising funds through a bond offering. County employees wish that the board acted with this alacrity when it comes to their cost of living increases. This is an opportunity to address the shortfall for employees as well. Shift some of the other capital improvement costs that are one-time costs in this year's budget from the general fund to this bond offering and free up funds necessary to fund the cost of living adjustment. These are just a few steps this board can take to do what every other county government is doing across the state to support their employees in this high inflationary environment. The money is there. So will you support your employees?”

Tracy Wright, Board member and Treasurer of the Sherwood Band of Pomo Indians Tribal Council and County Employee: 

“I am glad to see (CEO) Darcie Antle paying attention to all of us as we are talking about budgets and you guys not understanding the budget. And yet the communication between you guys is not there. That saddens me. I sit on a tribal council board. When there is a question about the budget and I don't understand, I ask our CEO to make sure I understand. What do you mean, we don't have that money? And they explain it to me. That's what I expect from my CEO which I pay money to do their job. That's what should be expected from her (pointing at Darcie Antle). I have been an employee with the county for 22 years. There are not many of us left anymore because when we took that hit before lots of people retired and left. I stayed. Last year I was going through cancer, I worked three months under chemo because I didn't want my work to fall on my coworkers. That's the kind of dedication and family we have here. But we can't keep it because you won't pay us what we are worth. We are not asking for you guys' salary. We are asking for a decent salary. ... A lot of the people in this room are starting out here, so they will get their training and then they will be gone. Eventually I will leave because it's just not worth it. When I start losing money to work that's when I will be gone. That's where we are going. Your proposed increase for our health insurance? And that's only for myself? It doesn't even have my husband on it? It's ridiculous! All we ask is for you to give us a fair shake and stop dodging a bullet, stop hiding behind not knowing. If you don't know, shame on you! Because she (pointing at CEO Antle) should be giving you the answers to any questions you have. If we were all sitting here listening to citizens of this county complaining about us not doing our job, you guys would be all over us. And she's not doing her job. You need to get on her. That's the final line.”

* * *

NO RESPONSE from the Supervisors, although later in the day, the Board insisted again that nobody knows the County’s financial condition and set a meeting to discuss the problem two weeks from now. Auditor/Treasurer Chamise Cubbison said that the problem is not as simple as anyone thinks and she’s still kinda new on the job and that people should be “patient” with her and her understaffed department. Everybody congratulated themselves for setting up a meeting to start discussing how to do something that everyone else has been doing for decades. To add public insult to public insult, Supervisor Ted Williams actually claimed during this discussion that this Board “is known for not kicking the can down the road.”

Brown Act Violation Notice Filed Against Board of Supervisors

August 18, 2022

To: Mendocino County Board of Supervisors Chair Ted Williams

Dear Chair Williams:

On Tuesday, August 16, 2022, you reported out of closed session that no reportable action had been taken on Agenda Items 6a, 6b, 6c, and 6d. Then you added:

“We do need to give direction to staff to come back with a future agenda item to … with a plan to close out positions that are general fund, have been vacant for more than 18 months, are not public safety and not revenue generating.”

According to Government code section 54957.6: “Closed sessions with the local agency’s designated representative regarding the salaries, salary schedules, or compensation paid in the form of fringe benefits may include discussion of an agency’s available funds and funding priorities, but only insofar as these discussions relate to providing instructions to the local agency’s designated representative.”

Whatever discussion the Board undertook in closed session to arrive at the particulars in your report out of closed session is not within the scope of that closed session exception.

The Board’s reasoning for directing staff to prepare a list of certain very specific vacant positions (and not others) is a matter of public interest and should be conducted in open session.

Pursuant to that provision (Government Code Section 54960.1), I demand that the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors cure and correct the illegally taken action and that you re-agendize this item for an open public session discussion including the taking of public input before giving direction to staff...

Respectfully yours,

Mark Scaramella

Anderson Valley Advertiser

Mendo’s New Public Records Act Response Policy Worries Local News Outlets

Two local on-line news outlets, and, as well as KZYZ Reporter Sarah Reith are very worried about Mendo’s new Public Records Act policy which will charge requesters for public records which require staff time to dig up. 

Supervisor Ted Williams responded to these complaints to some extent on the Mendocino County Fifth District facebook group: “On Tuesday, in open session, [County] counsel [Christian Curtis] reminded the board and public that document retrieval will remain free. What will cost is requests for engaging county attorneys in research endeavors over a threshold. Historically, we have had out of area corporations impact our general fund for the purpose of generating sales mailing lists. The goal isn’t to impact public or media access and the board has expressed eagerness to tune policy based on success.”

We have had pretty good experience with the County’s records request process. All of our inquiries have been responded to properly and promptly. (Although the content of some of the responses has been grounds for concern such as when we asked for the Orchard Street Crisis Residential Treatment facility property transaction file.) When we ask for public records, we are as specific as possible because broad-scale requests are time consuming for the County and for us, and we don’t want a county lawyer or bureaucrat going through a trove of documents or on-line content deciding which documents to provide or how much or what should be redacted. It’s always better to be specific when making public records act requests. Where possible, we also try to ask the department in question for a document first before even going to the trouble of a formal public records act request. Fishing expeditions or harassment requests are an abuse of public records act requests.

As close as we try to follow County affairs and local reporting, we have yet to see a local media outlet or organization publish a noteworthy document from the County that wasn’t already public, or produce an exposé based on a public records act request other than us. The local on-line media do make pretty good use of court document requests and common posted on-line materials, as do we. 

There are pot growers and others who have applied for permits which are still pending or who have private case problems who legitimately want to see public documents relating to their permit application via a public records act request, but those usually involve the applicant him or herself, not the public at large. 

It takes a good bit of work to make a story out of a public records act request response. They always require some analysis, background, follow-up and context and the ability to understand what the document(s) may or may not say, sometimes in fairly technical language. 

For the time being, we are withholding comment on the new policy until we start seeing some local Public Records Act requests and the County’s responses and or proposed fees. Anything that the County Counsel Christian Curtis proposes is certainly grounds for scrutiny and concern. But time consuming public records requests are a problem that lots of public agencies face. 

If the county starts imposing ridiculous fees for ordinary or reasonable document requests, we’ll be quick to complain.

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