Unknown Unknowns

Marin Civil Grand Jury blasts county efforts to provide transparency on special districts

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The Bolinas Community Public Utility District is one of 131 special districts in Marin County referenced in a new grand jury report.

It’s usually hard to argue with the Dalai Lama on matters of the spirit, but Marin County finance director Roy Given is up for an argument over transparency and the county’s special districts.

Quoting the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Marin County Civil Grand Jury reported in late June on the transparency of the county’s numerous special districts and found it wanting. “A lack of transparency,” says the Dalai Lama in a header to the seven-page report, “results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.”

From his lips to the Marin grand jury: That spirit was in play throughout the June 20 report, which blasted the county for a lack of information posted online about the county’s 131 special districts.

It’s a complaint that the county’s heard before and tried to address by adding details and links about the county’s special districts to the county website. And it’s one that the state has taken up in recent years with legislation pegged at so-called “independent” special districts that lie outside of county governance.

It’s a tricky issue to resolve, says Given, who argues that the transparency onus ought to be on the special districts themselves and not the county—which is, he says, already doing what it can to keep track of the districts, their budgets and their leadership.

A special district is defined as a local entity that delivers a public service to a specific geographic area. Examples in Marin County include the Muir Beach Community Service District and the Sleepy Hollow Fire Protection District. The grand jury report also includes-in Joint Powers Agreements between localities and agencies.

All told, Given says there are at least 131 special districts in the county, including Joint Power Agreements. Those are split between “dependent” and “independent” districts that are either tied to the county’s budget (dependent) or operate outside of it and are basically their own governing agency (independent). In simple terms, dependent entities answer to the county or city they’re a part of; independent entities answer to their own governing boards. Both are subject to the California Public Records Act and the Brown Act when it comes to public access to meetings and information about the districts. Most special districts in Marin County are dependent entities; examples of the 25 or so independent special districts include the Las Gallinas Sanitation District in San Rafael and the Marin Municipal Water District.

Given is not the only person to raise an eyebrow at the grand jury report. There’s a little-known advocacy organization called the California Special Districts Association that speaks for the interests of the districts in Sacramento. After reviewing the Marin Civil Grand Jury report, the CSDA’s advocacy and public affairs specialist Kyle Packham wondered to what extent the grand jury had reviewed the state controller’s office website that does everything the grand jury is asking of Marin County.

The state controller’s sub-website, “By The Numbers” (bythenumbers.sco.ca.gov), lists the more than 5,000 special districts around the state and provides breakout and information on the agencies.

“It’s not like the information isn’t available,” notes Packham as he wonders if the simplest solution to appease the Marin Grand Jury might be for the county to simply link to the controllers’ website (it currently does not, and the grand jury report doesn’t make the recommendation).

Two years ago the state passed a law that required the comptroller to post and update that list annually, reports Packahm. Last year, the state passed another law that requires independent special districts to create a website by 2020 if they hadn’t already done so; the law allows for an annually reviewed “fiscal hardship exemption” for districts that can’t afford to create and maintain an online presence, and the CSDA’s on the case to assist those that can’t afford it: “We are taking very practical steps for every agency in the state to have a website,” says Packham.

Going back to 2014, the Marin Civil Grand Jury started to issue reports that said the county needed to do a better job of tracking its special districts. But the independent districts, says Given, are under no obligation to report to the county, and he’s not sure why the grand jury is so insistent about the county’s failure on this front.

Forget the Dalai Lama and consider the famous Donald Rumsfeld–ism about “unknown unknowns.”

Given says he’s being directed to provide expanded information about entities he might not even have an awareness of—hence, the “unknown unknown” cited by former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Given says his office strives to compile a complete list of special districts and that he spends considerable time tracking them down. “I have to go out there and get them to provide me with the information. They’re under no obligation to report to the county, and I’m under no obligation to put the independent ones on the website,” he says.

He’s happy to do so, he adds. “It’s important to have the independent ones listed so people can contact them. But am I going to be able to keep up on all this information?”

Given says no, and his message to the grand jury is “you need to give me something that will force or direct those special districts to provide information on an annual basis—they have to provide it to me.”

The grand jury’s holding fast to its demands that the county ride herd over special district accountability and transparency. Despite Marin taxpayers pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the districts, operational details about many of them, reports that grand jury, “are uncertain and obscure.”

Their issues with the county’s online transparency date back to 2014 when the grand jury first recommended that the county set up a webpage to list all the special districts. A year later, the grand jury issued a “transparency report card” that handed out poor grades when it came to those special districts, and reiterated its call for greater online information.

This year they ratcheted up again with an additional 18 elements it would like to see detailed for all special districts: name, address, but also the names of board members, how board member compensation is calculated, whether board meetings are televised or recorded, total budget and source of funds and other requests.

Packham says he’s not sure why the grand jury would request that the county gather information that’s available on the state controller’s website.

The grand jury also asked that the county supervisors and finance department provide a digital directory to the special districts and that it post the compensation paid to directors and employees of the districts.

Even if the independent districts are subject to California public-records law, Given notes that “the real issue for most of these entities is, were people even able to find someone to get ahold of, to even put in the records request?”

Given, on the job in Marin for more than two decades, says he spoke to the grand jury for about an hour in advance of their latest findings, and asked them how he was supposed to gather information from independent special districts that he may not even know are in existence.

“The county and myself—we have no authority to make sure people have websites or keep them up to date,” says Given. “It’s easy to say that the county has to do it, but with no authority to do so, it makes it almost impossible. I want to provide information as best as I can,” he adds. “But it has to be attainable.”

Given says that he’s participated with the grand jury’s requests in years past. The key driver for greater transparency is to make sure taxpayer money isn’t misused by special districts.

But even after 29 years on the job, Given says he still doesn’t have a good answer to what agency is responsible for actually doing anything about an independent districts’ expenditures if they turn out to indicate a misuse of funds. (It hasn’t happened, he says, to his knowledge.)

His role as the county auditor is to get the special districts to provide him with financial statements, but that’s it. “I have no authority to do anything if they come back bad,” he says. That authority lies with the state controller’s office.

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