El Dorado County supervisors respond to grand jury report | TahoeDailyTribune.com

El Dorado County supervisors respond to grand jury report

Noel Stack / Mountain Democrat

Praising the efforts of El Dorado County Grand Jury members while criticizing some of the latest report’s findings, Tuesday the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors approved a draft response to the 2021-22 document.

The board is required by law to submit a grand jury report response to the presiding judge no later than Sept. 28, this time addressing four topics investigated — county employee time keeping, county staffing challenges, using local motels for emergency housing and vegetation management/defensible space.

Most at issue, the supervisors expressed frustration with the grand jury’s report regarding the El Dorado County Vegetation Management Ordinance, with the report alleging the county “lacked expertise and adequate resources to meet the objectives of the ordinance” and has “no comprehensive county plan to implement Ordinance 5101, which includes defensible space inspections.”

The county’s response “disagrees wholly” with both findings as well as the allegation the county isn’t enforcing its ordinance.

District 4 Supervisor and Board Chair Lori Parlin chalked up the findings as the result of negative public perception. She and other supervisors also questioned the grand jury recommendation that all county properties that violate the ordinance be cleared by June 30, 2023.

“That shows that there is not an understanding of just how large and rural our county is,” said District 5 Supervisor Sue Novasel. “We’ve been working with the Conservancy in Tahoe and we’re just looking at lots — a couple thousand lots. We can’t keep up because, as you know, once you clear vegetation … it grows back.

“It’s a constant battle,” Novasel continued. “It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge.”

District 3 Supervisor Wendy Thomas pointed out that El Dorado County covers roughly 1,800 square miles and said in the two years since the ordinance was adopted the county has made tremendous progress. She also noted that during a recent call with the state’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force the county received praise for its efforts, quoting the state program director who said, “El Dorado County is ahead of the curve.”

“I was just frustrated by the Grand Jury’s conflation of our Vegetation Management Ordinance and our new Office of Wildfire Preparedness and Resilience,” Thomas added. “Everyone involved has done an incredible job getting up and running in a very short time frame.”

Staff wrote in the report response, “It is important to note that the scope of the plan with which the Office of Wildfire Preparedness and Resilience encompasses much more than the Vegetation Management program.”

The supervisors also committed to helping residents at risk of losing their insurance or facing huge cost increases. They agreed with the grand jury recommendation to send a letter to the state insurance commissioner “advocating that insurance companies provide or continue to provide insurance for rural areas.”

On the job

The discussion also heated up in response to the grand jury’s finding related to timekeeping, with the report stating, “Daily time entry … is routinely ignored by employees and management” and “Our interviews revealed that there is a weak working relationship or lack of understanding between Payroll and other departments.”

The response notes the county partially disagrees with both findings but still supervisors worried about staff ignoring timekeeping policy.

“My biggest concern is we have a county policy that, according to the grand jury, we’re not requiring compliance with,” District 1 Supervisor John Hidahl said. “We’re basically accepting the fact that department managers either do or don’t comply but there’s really no action taken if they’re not complying.”

Hidahl asked how the county tracked compliance, if at all, and how the grand jury came to its conclusion.

El Dorado County Chief Administrative Officer Don Ashton said he and his staff had the same questions. “We couldn’t get any data out of the grand jury as to what level of compliance there is or not,” Ashton told the supervisors.

“They had a statement saying, ‘People aren’t complying,” the CAO continued. “Well, I agree some people aren’t complying. We don’t have a system to effectively monitor compliance of all … 1,900 employees on a daily basis.”

Employees are asked to keep daily timesheets, Ashton noted. “That being said, like with any policy, there are some exceptions to it,” he explained, “(issues) that just make it impractical to do daily timekeeping — and I’m thinking of a sheriff’s deputy or a child social worker who’s ending their day at 2 in the morning. I think we need to have some flexibility there.

“That is not meant to undermine the intent of the policy that everyone else should be doing daily timekeeping and that’s where it does fall down on all department heads and managers to ensure their staff are compliant,” Ashton added.

The CAO’s Office has agreed with the grand jury recommendation to “send written direction to all county department heads that board policy … should be followed to the maximum extent practicable.”

Ashton also suggested amending the policy to clearly outline the exceptions, like those he noted. Staff will come back to the board before the end of the year with proposed changes. He also agreed to work with IT on the feasibility of a tech solution — a system reminder sent to staff to remind them to update their timesheets — as suggested by Supervisor Novasel.

District 2 Supervisor George Turnboo expressed another concern about timekeeping related to county employees who don’t come into the office. “How do we know they’re really working from home?” Turnboo asked.

“Work product is the answer,” Hidahl quipped.

“Well, yeah, but to me it’s a concern,” Turnboo replied. “My personal opinion is I’d like to see people come back to work … here. That way they’re under supervision.”

“If they get the work done, why does it matter where they’re at?” Novasel asked.

Ashton told supervisors he and department heads have had many conversations about how to manage teleworkers and relay expectations. “To be clear … there’s no indication from the grand jury that they had any instances of fraud,” he said.

Allowing people to work from home does attract more candidates, the CAO added, another issue discussed by the grand jury.

Resident Ruth Michelson encouraged the county to offer its employees the ability to telecommute.

“This is the world today,” she said during public comment. “You want skilled employees? You give them flexibility. You allow them to work from home.

“Of course you look at their work product,” she continued. “That’s how it’s measured.”

Emergency housing

The board had few comments related to the grand jury’s findings and recommendations related to the use of county hotels by the Probation Department and Health and Human Services Agency.

Regarding the finding that the departments use the Quality Inn in Cameron Park at a disproportionately higher rate than other hotels, staff did note new data from the Auditor-Controller’s Office shows HHSA spent 6% of its total hotel housing expenditures at the Quality Inn while Probation spent 50%.

During public comment Auditor-Controller Joe Harn noted that for several years Cameron Park residents have had concerns regarding the county’s use of that community’s motels.

“In 2020, Mental Health, 70% of (its) hotel housing expenditures were at Cameron Park hotels. Probation … 100% of (its) hotel and motel housing expenses were in Cameron Park. In 2020, 24% of Social Services’ emergency housing expenses were in Cameron Park,” the auditor said.

Cameron Park residents felt this excessive use of local hotels was “changing the nature of the community,” Harn continued. “And I agree with them.”

Now, Harn added, Mental Health and Probation are using the hotels “dramatically less” but communication between departments as to which agency is using which hotel (and whom they are housing) appears to be lacking. He supported a future discussion in which department heads and CAO staff work out a communication system to ensure there are not conflicting hotel/motel uses.

“If you have a lot of … clients of the Probation Department housed at the same hotel as you have a lot of clients of Social Services with kids — all in the same hotel — I think we could do a better job looking at that,” Harn said.

Novasel agreed. “That whole issue — it needs and deserves a better discussion … talking about how we do that, not just with Probation and HHSA but within our general ‘homeless’ discussion on where do you put people, for what reasons,” she said. “I think it’s really needed.”

Staff will bring back the topic before the end of the year.

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