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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Sideshow Continues in Murder Trial; Chief Justice Called in To Help

California's Chief Justice Ronald George has been asked to intervene in the Yolo Superior Court's handling of the case against a man who has been accused of killing a Yolo County Sheriff's Deputy. Justice George will appoint an outside judge who will then rule on the motion to disqualify every Yolo County Judge from hearing the case.

Three Judges have already disqualified themselves two because they had worked with the Sheriff's Deputy in past employment and the third because as Judge, they had ruled on a family law issue involving the defendant.

The other seven refused to disqualify themselves and Judge Rosenberg ruled that he had no power to remove those judges and he refused to disqualify himself.

He is quoted in the Sacramento Bee saying:
"It would be easy to disqualify myself with the stroke of a pen... There being no good reasons to disqualify, I decline to disqualify myself from hearing this case."
Judge Rosenberg then apparently read aloud his entire nine page ruling into court where he criticized bailiffs and sheriff's deputies for their decision to prevent access to the June 18 arraignment.

The Sacramento Bee continues:
The judge said he had not known the outer doors of the court building were locked until after the hearing was over.

Deputies had made a "unilateral decision to prevent access" to the public and the suspect's family, while allowing fellow officers and the victim's family to enter through side doors, he said.

He said a judge would have to be "downright stupid" to "sanction, condone, or collude with other judges to actually bar the press and the public from an arraignment courtroom."

A former Yolo County supervisor and state political figure, Rosenberg said he had been accused of many things during his public career. But, "I don't think I've ever been accused of being stupid," he said.
Sacramento News 10 quotes Judge Rosenberg:
"The public and the press should never be barred from a criminal hearing or trial because of a locked door," said Rosenberg.

Responding to defense allegations that Rosenberg and other judges delayed their June 18 caseloads to allow their bailiff to attend Topete's arraignment, Rosenberg said, "... there is not a scintilla of evidence presented that I knew other departments were doing so, nor that I and any other judge 'colluded' to close our departments..."
Dean Johansson the public defender then apparently objected to the entire filing being read into the record.
"That was a political speech."
To which the Judge responded:
"One could say it's a political (defense) motion. The motion has attacked the integrity of the entire bench."

Basically what has happened to this point is that three Judges have disqualified themselves who have direct past dealings with either victim or the defendant. The grounds for getting the other seven disqualified seem rather steep at this point, although having Justice George intervene to name a judge to rule on the remainder of the motion is rather unusual.

I remain at a loss here as to the defense strategy. I do not understand why they want to remove the judges but keep the case in Yolo County where they would still have to deal with the sheriff's department.

That said, I think bringing in outside help is a good idea at this point. At the very least, fresh and hopefully unbiased eyes can take a look at the motion and make the key determination--can this guy get a fair trial. Personally I do not think he can get a fair trial at this point in Yolo County.

One can probably find a jury that has not heard about this case--although I always have to wonder about such juries that do not follow the news at all. But I have to question whether the Sheriff's Department can do their job in a professional way after what we have seen to date.

One can probably criticize Judge Rosenberg for reading his nine page ruling. But I also commend him for asking for outside help here.

At this point it appears that the charges have not been read to the accused. This is an integral part of the criminal justice system where the accused has the right to get the charges read against him in a public hearing that ensures that the state is not merely charging him in an ad hoc or secretive fashion. It is what separates our legal system from those in tyrannical countries.

This episode has become a tremendous sideshow. And it does a disservice to the memory of the fallen Sheriff's deputy and his family. As such, we would like to see a quick resolution of these side issues so that the main trial can move forward and the defendant can hear the charges read against him.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Friday, July 04, 2008

Councilmember Heystek Joins Call for Independent Investigator

Last night, the Sacramento news stations picked up the story on the Grand Jury's report about the Davis Fire Department. While their story focused largely on the incidence of drinking by firefighters and then sleeping it off at the fire station. There was also important new information provided including statements by Councilmember Lamar Heystek and City Manager Bill Emlen.

Davis City Councilmember Lamar Heystek called for an independent investigation into these allegations.
"I think we need to bring in outside help to look into the Grand Jury allegations."
CBS News 13's broadcast focused mostly on the incidence of drinking, however, they also interviewed the City Manager by phone. At one point they asked Bill Emlen what Fire Chief Rose Conroy's reaction to the Grand Jury report was.
"Her reaction is that she feels that there are a lot of things in the report that don't paint an accurate picture of how the department is run."
Bill Emlen went on to say that some of what is alleged in the report could be inaccurate.

But what is interesting about his statement is that it would appear that his initial denial to the press on Tuesday was based on what Chief Rose Conroy said.

Bill Emlen's statement released on Tuesday said:
"We believe the Grand Jury Report includes several statements that are factually incorrect. Taken together, they contribute to a less-than-accurate picture of the Davis Fire Department."
However, notably as important, was toward the end of the CBS News 13 broadcast, the reporter said that Bill Emlen said that an independent investigation will be underway immediately.

The question now is what form such an independent investigation might take. In order to really have the confidence of the public at this point, that investigation needs to be conducted by someone outside of the city's chain of command. Basically it needs to be performed by someone like Bob Aaronson, who is the police ombudsman, or Bob Aaronson itself.

At this point, it appears that there is now momentum in that direction.

While there is general disappointment that the news coverage focused on the incidence of drinking rather than what appears to be more serious charges of undue union influence and hostile work environment, the public response to this appears to be putting pressure on the city to do something. It is becoming a point of embarrassment. The City Manager's public response remains troubling, but behind the scenes there may be more acknowledgment that action must be taken.

We will have to wait and see until Monday to find out exactly what the plan is from the city's perspective.

From my perspective I don't understand the reluctance to independently investigate this issue. If the Chief is exonerated by such an investigation, the public will have much more confidence in such a report if it doesn't come from the city itself. A witch hunt is not what we need, just someone who is not predisposed to back the city at all costs.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Vanguard Radio Show Tonight

Tune into tonight on KDRT 101.5 FM for the Davis Vanguard Radio Show

Tonight's guests will be Rachel Anderson from SANE (Safer Alternatives Through Networking and Education)--they are one of the groups that run the needle exchange programs in the area, including the one in this county. We'll be talking about the needle exchange program. She will be on from 6:10 pm to 6:30 pm.

Then at 6:35 pm will be Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad, an opponent of the needle exchange program and we'll likely delve into other topics as well.

As with last week, because both will be call in guest, any questions should be sent via text message: 530.400-2512

UPDATE: Listen to the Podcast by clicking here

Commentary: City's Response to Grand Jury Report Disappointing

Vanguard Calls For Independent Investigation of Grand Jury Report on the Davis Fire Department

While the report released on Monday from the Yolo County Grand Jury regarding the Davis Fire Department was disturbing, many wanted to wait to see what the response from the city would be.

Unfortunately, the statement released by Davis City Manager Bill Emlen undermines any value that response might have.

The City Manager's statement basically said that they respect the work of the grand jury, will take its findings serious, however:
"We believe the grand jury report includes several statements that are factually incorrect. Taken together, they contribute to a less than accurate picture of the Davis Fire Department."
Frankly that is the kind of statement that we would expect from the Fire Chief or the Police Captain, people actually accused of wrongdoing. That is not the kind of statement that we would expect from the City Manager.

Some people are taking this as evidence that there is no wrongdoing, but really how would the City Manager know if the crux of the report is correct or factually incorrect at this point? Has he interviewed the people that the Grand Jury has interviewed? Seems doubtful, especially after the Grand Jury explained how many precautions they took.

Simply put the City Manager has not had time to do his own investigation, so his response seems premature at best. What the City Manager should have said was the cursory, We respect of the work of the grand jury, we will take the findings seriously. We are looking into the allegations made in their report and will respond accordingly.

Unfortunately, that is not what happened so far. The City Manager is in full denial mode once again. This is reminiscent of the handling of the Buzayan Case by the City. Instead of investigating the complaints, they are in full damage protection mode, trying to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The City's response to the Buzayan Case has actually put the city in jeopardy of a multimillion dollar judgment with the case pending in federal court.

Based on the statement by the city manager, we have no confidence anymore in anything the city has to say on this matter. The response is simply not credible and the credibility of any future response is now in severe question.

What I find particularly disturbing is that buried at the end of the story, the City Manager acknowledges that he does not have all of the information at hand.
"Many of the allegations in the report do not include sufficient detail or background information for the city to investigate fully."
This is a particularly curious statement in light of the fact that the Grand Jury managed to do their own investigation over the course of two years to uncover these findings. If the city is serious about getting to the bottom of this, they would have access to the exact same people as the grand jury. Then again, the city would have to have the level of trust that the grand jury gained by taking precautions to insure that those coming forward would be protected. Given the fear of retribution, it is difficult to believe that the city would be able to get to the bottom of it without an independent investigator to handle the matter in a thorough and professional manner.

For the sake of all involved there needs to be an independent investigation of these allegations.

Some will suggest we have already had that--i.e. the grand jury report. But the grand jury report is not actionable as such. The city now needs to conduct its own investigation to determine whether or not wrongdoing occurred and if it did occur what the consequences should be.

And if the investigation vindicated the fire chief and captain, then they should be vindicated by a process that people will regard as fair and transparent. This is not such a process.

We have concerns that one of the accused, Davis Fire Captain Bobby Weist who is the president of the Union was not interviewed by the grand jury. Most of these situations come down to different points of view, and if his view was not included in the report, that tends to caste some doubt.

The story run in the Davis Enterprise interviews the principles who were accused, particularly Captain Bobby Weist, in addition to the City Manager Bill Emlen and Police Chief Landy Black. What the Enterprise does not do is interview anyone who agrees with the grand jury report. On the other hand, Rose Conroy, the fire chief, was advised against commenting before the response was issued.

Moreover, they quote Police Chief Landy Black who tells us there is no problem between the two agencies:
"Davis Police Chief Landy Black said the relationship between the two safety agencies is strong.

'The police officers and the firefighters in the city of Davis consider themselves allies, if you will, in public safety here for Davis,' he said."
What they do not do is quote the head of the Davis Police Officer's Association. One might suspect there would be a somewhat different answer once you get below the level of Police Chief.

The bottom line here is that at this point, there is no confidence that the city can handle this matter internally in a fair and judicious manner. Furthermore, if the Grand Jury did not interview Bobby Weist we believe that they should have. However, we are not going to believe the city manager's office stating this.

We need an independent investigator. The police ombudsman, Robert Aaronson would be a good place to start--someone who can be independent and fair to all involved.

We ask the city council to demand an independent investigation and allow the process to go forward from there.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Commentary: This is a Lesson of Accountability

Throughout the City Council election the lesson was one of "the cost to live in Davis" for the taxpayers. Throughout California public safety salaries and pensions are putting increasing strains on city budgets. However, the chief lesson that we can take away from the grand jury report is not primarily a fiscal lesson. That lesson we already have learned and understand that lesson to some extent.

The lesson to be learned from the Yolo County Grand Jury report is what happens when there is no accountability. What happens when there are no checks and balances in place. I have always been a strong union supporter. The reason for this is that unions advocate for their employees. The reason we have things like 40 hour work weeks, vacation time, medical leave, health insurance and other benefits, minimum wage, and many other protections in place for workers is because these things were fought for--sometimes with real blood and real lives. Management would send in police and mercenaries to physically attempt to break strikes and break the back of labor. Even today, I watch what government employers attempt to do to government employees, and without strong union representation, many of these employees would have little recourse.

At the same time, there is a separation between the employees and the employers. The idea of collective bargaining is that two sides with disparate interests sit down at the bargaining table and hammer out an agreement mutually beneficial to both sides. In the case of government unions, management represents in part the taxpayers interests.

What we see in Davis is the problem when the management side breaks down. That wall of separation does not exist. The Grand Jury report underscores this in two ways. First, they site the relationship between the Fire Chief, i.e. management, and the union. Second, you have a political body that is again, supposed to provide some kind of overseer role here, but that has been torn away by the strong political organization developed by the union, which has spent a tremendous amount of money to elect people friendly to their interests. In fact, they are the only union in the city that goes to such lengths and as a result, the City Council effectively has provided no oversight or accountability to the fire fighters over a period of years.

With little in the way of oversight or accountability, the outcome is fairly predictable.

We are not surprised to see inconsistent promotion practices nor are we surprised that people who are in leadership positions in the union receive preferential promotions over people not in the unions. No one is providing leadership here and no one is stepping up to stop it.

The Grand Jury report then cites a hostile work environment. We see complaints normally by unions of hostile work environments often with union members receiving discriminatory treatment by management. We see this by supervisors in all walks of life. But in this case, the situation is reversed. People not in the union, people who are critical of the union, those who speak out against the union, are in fact singled out here. And the report goes on to tell of numerous stories. Not just if they speak out against the union, but also if they speak out against the Fire Chief.

Because of this arrangement, we see the appearance of undue union influence in city elections. Nearly every firefighter donated to the city council campaigns. The DFP were the only city employees to donate to city council campaigns. The report suggests in part this was due to pressure from the union on their employees.

All of these very serious problems can be traced back to a lack of oversight. Neither the Fire Chief nor the Council Majority has stepped forward to take a leadership role here and therefore the power of this particular union has been largely unchecked in Davis for many years. There are no consequences to their actions. And from what I understand, the Grand Jury report itself is simply the tip of the ice berg.

The history of such Grand Jury reports suggests that not much will change as the result of this report. It will be interesting to see the response of the Fire Chief, City Manager, and City Councils. It is unclear whether those will be considered public responses or if this is considered a personnel matter protected by confidentiality laws.

What is clear is that the general public is probably not going to even be aware of this. While the Woodland Daily Democrat had a full story on the Grand Jury report as it pertained to Woodland, particularly the Woodland Schools, and posted the report on their website, the Davis Enterprise did not mention it at all. Without local newspaper coverage of this report, the city is free to go about with business as usual, and this pattern will continue.

The single biggest problem I have seen in my nearly two years of covering issues in Davis and Yolo County is that there is little accountability for most actions. Those in power simply continue to try not to rock the boat. And the result is that these things continue to happen until and unless there is enough public uproar to force a change. And it is not limited to the city. How long did people like Tahir Ahad continue to get away with abuse of public trust? Far too long. It cost DJUSD a lot of money. And, very rarely are there ever consequences to be paid. Unfortunately, that was not an isolated incident.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Grand Jury Report Cites Major Improprieties by Davis Fire Department

The 2007-2008 Yolo County Grand Jury has released its final report. One of its investigations looks into multiple allegations against the Davis Fire Department.

The Grand Jury investigated five key complaints.
First, "inconsistent promotion practices."

Second, "a hostile work environment caused by a close relationship between DFD management and the Union and its Board of Directors and unequal support of educational endeavors."

Third, "drug and alcohol use and the misuse of DFD sleeping facilities by off-duty firefighters."

Fourth, "the strained relationship between DFD and the Davis Police Department (DPD)"

And fifth, "the appearance of improper political activity."
The Grand Jury found the following after an extensive two year investigation:
"misuse of a DFD facility; inappropriate relationships between the Union's Board of Directors and DFD management; and inconsistencies in promotional opportunities."
As a result of the investigation, the Grand Jury recommends the following:
(a) the next Fire Chief be someone from outside DFD with no ties to the Union; (b) revise the current promotion testing process to include weighting of scores for each test section and posting of this information in public areas of the firehouses and in promotion announcements; (c) require all personnel read and sign-off on policies relating to discipline and alcohol and drug use and (d) enforcement of all alcohol and drug use policies."
In what follows are the key findings under the five complaints.

Promotion Practices

One of the biggest findings are unclear promotional policies that DFD firefighters generally perceive that being active in Union leadership leads to "promotion, better jobs, and better project or training assignments."

Most significantly, "Weights are assigned to various promotion test segments. The Grand Jury discovered these weights are ignored by the fire Chief when making the final selection."

One key example they cite is the recent promotion of the Union President [Bobbie Weist] to the rank of Captain. "The Union President ranked ninth out of ten on the promotion list." They also note that the Union has had the same president since its founding 22 years ago.

These preferential practices seemed to have a strong impact on morale. Those firefighters who scored well on promotion testing but were never advanced, eventually stopped testing for promotion.

Hostile Work Environment

The report notes that the Fire Chief Rose Conroy [they have omitted names in this report, but obviously we know who some of these people are] plans to retire in the next one to two years. There have been three lawsuits concerning harassment and a hostile work environment under her watch. One was dropped "due to procedural deficiency." The other two were settled out of court for upwards of a combined $600,000.
"A number of DFD firefighters are fearful of retaliation if they speak out against the Fire Chief or the Union. DFD firelighters, both past and present, indicated that those who questioned or challenged the Union in any way would bc openly shunned by union members. Retaliation could occur even for inquiring about access to Union bylaws and financial reports."
The reports also cites the close relationship between the Fire Chief and the Union and argues that the various relationships and strands "present an appearance of cronyism and undue Union influence in the administration of the DFD." They also cite cases of favoritism toward those in the Union and discrimination against those who did not join the union. There are at least five examples on page 22 of the report that present evidence towards this conclusion.

Misuse of DFP Facility

The report cites DFD for publicly drinking and then using the public facility as a location to sleep off their intoxication.
"It was discovered that some DFD firefighters come to the Station 31 firehouse (located downtown) to sleep while off-duty. It appears that the off-duty DFD firefighters, after drinking in downtown Davis, sometimes" sleep it off' at the firehouse rather than drive home, a practice actively supported by the Fire Chief. While it may be preferable for them to be sleeping in the firehouse rather than driving on the road, the city prohibits "being under the influence during work hours, at the work site, or in uniform." (Section 3.4B of the City of Davis Administrative Policy and Section 7.4 J of the City of Davis Personnel Rules and Regulations). Off-duty DFD firefighters seen intoxicated downtown and known to be sleeping at the firehouse afterward reflect poorly on the DFD and the City."
Relationship between the DPD and the DFD

The reports cites "numerous" alterations involving DFD firefighters which require police response. The report suggests that the police are hesitant to deal with incidents involving off-duty DFD firefighters due to police officers relying on the fire department for assistance in emergency situation. They cite as a concern "the expectation by the DFD of special treatment by the DPD."

They also cite the lack of cooperation between the departments relating to setting up "the new joint 911 Call Center."

The Appearance of Undue Union Influence

This strongly relates to the articles written by Davis Enterprise Columnist Rich Rifkin. The Grand Jury report fights that according to city records nearly all active firefighters (40 persons) contributed the maximum $100 donation to several City Council candidates prior to 2004's City Council Election.
"Soon after that electron, DFD's new 2005 Union contract was negotiated and approved by the City. DFD firefighters wearing elements of their on-duty DFD firefighter uniform, includimg the DFD logo, distributed political materials and walked Davis voting precincts in support of individual City Council candidates."
The report emphasizes that while political activity by the Union members itself is not improper, nevertheless:
"it appears that at least some of this local political activism stems from undue influence upon DFD firefighters by DFD management resulting in pressured political contributions to local candidates on the part of some DFD firefighters. No other city employees filed under the City ordinance requiring disclosure of City Council campaign contributions.

A similar unusual pattern of DFD firefighter political contributions to local candidates has occurred with respect to the 2008 City Council election. City Council campaign contribution filings do not reveal any other City of Davis employees contributed to any political candidate running for local office. The Union contract with DFD is again soon due for renegotiation."
Please see page 23 of the report for the summary of findings and recommendations. It will be interesting to see what comes of this report. The Grand Jury has requested a response from the Fire Chief, City Manager, and City Council. The Vanguard will be closely watching this story as it develops.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Monday, June 30, 2008

Commentary: November is Not the Right Time for Parcel Tax

Last Monday at the school board meeting it was a unique experience to read the results of the district's focus group study. The surprising results of the focus group study is that the Davis School Board could have saved themselves a lot of time and money by simply reading the comment section of the People's Vanguard of Davis for the last six months every time the prospect of the parcel tax came up.

That is not an attempt to be arrogant or cocky, but simply to suggest that the findings of the focus group study closely mirror the comments made in the comment section of the Vanguard. Based on these findings, I am skeptical that a parcel tax can pass in November.

The major findings of the focus group study suggests that there is a deep distrust of local government among focus group participants. Notably they do not distinguish between the performance of the City Council and that of the school district (something that we noted in fact on the campaign trail as well). They believe that the District has the incentive to continually increase the budget year to year and that any funding from a parcel tax will become part of the larger pot of funding expectations and expenditures that cannot be tracked. Accountability is a huge concern for the focus group.

These participants were aware of the state budget crisis and the local impact on schools, but were very reluctant to increase taxes locally. They want assurances that money raised in Davis stays local and is not taken by the state. They are also concerned that money raised locally would simply result in the district getting lower amounts of funding from state (they do not understand in other words how funding for schools works and that is an important component of any campaign to educate the public). What I found interesting, is that Jay Ziegler mentioned that they were more likely to pass a short-term sales tax rather than a parcel tax.

Accountability again is a key issue. They want a set of specific funding priorities that can be measured and tracked. The longer the duration of the parcel tax, the more accountability is required, since they were concerned that as time goes on voters would forget about what was promised. They want a community-led, independent assessment of the district's funding priorities and benchmarks. They would trust independent financial experts to audit the status of the parcel tax and make recommendations to the district and the public.

There is a segment of the public that simply does not want to raise taxes. That shows up on the Vanguard every time I post on this topic and it represents about 31% of the voting population according to polling. Given that you have to get 66.7% support to win a parcel tax, that does not leave much margin for error.

The polling shows that this is a winnable election--that people if convinced that the school district could be held accountable, if the tax proposal is for a limited time period, if sold this issue, two-thirds of the public would vote for it.

But here is the problem: November is not the time for convincing.

Here's why.

The polling that you see is the result of around six months of concentrated news coverage in which the schools' budget crisis was the top news story and the top concern for many in the public. From January until at least April, the issue dominated the news. And even now it remains high on people's minds.

Even after this long period of sustained coverage, the polling results show that if the election were held today, the parcel tax would fail. And we need to remember that is with essentially a margin of error of plus or minor 8. That means actual support at the $80 could be anywhere from 54% to 70% and the actual support of the $140 could be anywhere from 49% to 66%.

There is worse news. Schools are not going to be the top concern on people's minds this fall. That is because almost everyone is very concerned about the Presidential election. The national media which will drip onto the Davis Enterprise's front page will compete with local news. Even on the Vanguard, the Presidential Election will likely from time to time penetrate onto our blog.

In addition, we expect a bitterly contested contest for State Senate between Lois Wolk and Greg Aghazarian. There are eleven initiatives on the ballot including things such as gay marriage and parental consent for abortion. There are several environmental initiatives as well. All of these will diffuse attention from various constituencies.

The first four months of the year saw the direct threat of teacher firings, school closures, and student marches. However, between September and November, the budget will be a more distant threat. The threat will not be looming around the corner, it will not be the focus of the school board, the papers, the community like it was last winter and early spring, and as a result there will not be the concerted coverage and the urgency that we saw.

The community did rally behind the schools, but to sustain that effort is more difficult. To get beyond the 30% of the public to the 85% that may turnout will be difficult. It will take organization, money, and people. That may happen, but many of the people who would ordinarily walk for the schools, will instead focus on Barack Obama, Lois Wolk, and some even people like Charlie Brown.

If we could not get to two-thirds after the type of sustained attention this received this winter and spring, how are we going to do it now during perhaps the most important Presidential election of some people's lives? It is a prospect to be sure.

I think Janice Bridge last Monday raised an excellent point--it would be a great advantage come January to know that the money will be there for the teachers and the programs when they start working on the next budget. The more I think about it, the more I think it will be a great advantage to passing the parcel tax when the public sees that if they do not pass the parcel tax in March, the district will be laying off 100 teachers in May. That level of urgency is unfair to the teachers and the employees of the district, but necessary for the students, the parents, and the public to once again rally around the schools, this time not to raise money through a campaign for schools but rather to go out into the community and convince them why they should vote to give the school district an additional $80 to $140 per year.

In March, again we'd be looking at the 30% core school supporting turnout that has passed parcel tax after parcel tax. The parcel tax would be the only issue for consideration. The newspapers can focus on the issue too, lowering the cost.

The more I think about it, the more I believe the school district is making a big mistake pushing through for November. The more I think March is the best window to pass this thing.

The thought by the school district is that if they don't pass the parcel tax in November, they can do it again for March. That sounds good in theory, but they are relying on the efforts and energy of volunteers. The more you wear out volunteer efforts, the less return you get. If you push people in November trying to pass a parcel tax, you will not get the same energy coming back in March.

For all of these reasons, at the end of the day, I think the school board needs to re-think their decision to go for it in November. The public needs to be sold on this, and trying to teach 85% of the public in November is an overwhelmingly daunting task that does not have to be attempted.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Sunday, June 29, 2008

County Needle Exchange Program Makes Mess of Parks

Something a little different for everyone on a Sunday morning. Earlier this week there was a story in the Woodland Daily Democrat that a flood of hypodermic needles was showing up in Woodland City Parks.

A year ago, the County Board of Supervisors approved a needle-exchange program in an effort to cut down on diseases spread through the use of intravenous drug users.

However, now the Woodland City council is shocked and frustrated to find out that a county health contractor has been distributing these needles in one of the parks, without consulting the city.

This prompted strongly worded complaints from city officials to the county.

The Board of Supervisors voted by a 4-1 margin to support this program a year ago. The one dissenting voice was Matt Rexroad.

Mr. Rexroad is quoted in the Daily Democrat article:
One county official who does not support the program, however, is Matt Rexroad, the only supervisor to vote against the program when it came up before the board last August.

"I wish I could kill this program so badly, but I can't," Rexroad said.

Rexroad said beyond the health risk of having used needles in public places lies the greater question of the program's effectiveness.

"I keep hearing, if we do this it prevents disease and it will save us money," Rexroad said. "I don't know if I believe that in this case."

The program cost the county around $100,000 to implement - money, Rexroad said, that would be more effectively spent providing the county's impoverished children with health insurance.

"We're talking about $100,000 for a program, when the county is in an economic free-fall right now," Rexroad said. "In terms of bang for your buck, I would rather put $100,000 in the hands of children than the hands of IV drug users."
I find myself in an interesting position on this issue. I support the program in concept. I think these diseases are a severe public health threat in some areas and such exchange programs have been shown to be effective.

However, at the same time, I am appalled at the response of Cheryl Boney, who is the deputy director of public health programs for Yolo County.

When she was made aware of the problem, she pulled the plug on the park exchange:
Boney noted that when the city notified her of the problem, she immediately pulled the plug on the park exchange.

"We were made aware of the concern of doing it in the park," Boney said. "Once we were aware of it, we took care of it.
This is where I start having a problem, who told her to do a needle exchange in a Woodland City Park without informing the Woodland City Council? Could you imagine what would happen in Davis if they did that here without consulting the Davis City Council?

She continues:
The new program is a work-in-progress, Boney said, and Freeman Park was a learning example for the county.

"It's a new program and we're working out the details," Boney said.
Working out a few details? Details like informing the city and the police as to what you are doing? Like handing out needles in a park to begin with, which concentrates drug usage in an area where children and families are likely to frequent?

The article continues:
"[Woodland City Manager Mark] Deven reported in a City Council weekly newsletter Friday that the county agreed to cease distribution in the park and considered labeling their needles to better track where they end up."
That is a good start. Here is the thing, this may be a new program to Yolo County, but this is not a new concept. So when the Ms. Boney is saying we're still working out the details it does not really make sense. Details can be gleaned from other programs. Very basic things should apply, namely interjurisdictional cooperation.

It is commonsense that if you are going to hand out needles in a City's park you inform the city and their police department about it. It also seems commonsense that maybe a city park is not the place to hand out needles.

Ms. Boney continues:
"We're kind of going through that initial education period... We hope there will be support for the program."
It is hard to support such a program when you do not have confidence in those who are administrating it. It could be a good program, but there were such basic failings at the onset, that even those of us who are strongly in support of such efforts have no choice but to question it.

Where is the accountability here? I respect that Matt Rexroad opposes this, but what I really want to see is someone step up and make it work. Where do the rest of the county board of supervisors stand on this?

Ms. Boney believes that if the program prevents one case of HIV in the county, it will be a net savings to the county. I hope that is correct and it is one of the reasons I continue to support the program. However, I continue to have to question the competence of those administering this and the oversight. Who oversees administration of these type of programs? What is the board of supervisors going to do about it? We have so far only heard from Supervisor Rexroad--where do the four Supervisors who supported the program stand on this issue now that it has shown to be a problem in its current form?

---Doug Paul Davis reporting