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Final budget remarks, Board approves fees for public records act requests

A building with glass doors in the middle, a brick facade on the left, and stucco on the right. The sign says "County of Mendocino Administration Center."
Mendocino County Administration building.

June 23, 2022 — The Board of Supervisors approved the final $355.8 million budget on Tuesday, though some key information is still unavailable. Supervisor John Haschak took up the union’s question before the final approval, when he said, “So, we’re passing the budget without really knowing what those numbers are, about how many are funded but not filled.”

The county appears to be budgeting for 400 unfilled positions. According to SEIU Field Representative Patrick Hickey, 172 of those would be paid for by the general fund. He said 92 of them have been vacant for over a year and a half, and 231 are paid for by state and federal funds. He urged the board to freeze some of the general fund positions, which he calculated would free up millions of dollars, and work vigorously to fill the state and federally funded positions, asserting that “Failure to fill these positions has deprived Mendocino County of vital services that seriously impact our residents. It has also kept tens of millions of state and federal dollars from flowing into our community. This is free money. Let’s pay market rate wages to attract the talent we need to serve our community.”

The board agreed to direct staff to bring back an agenda item offering increased, market rate wages for state-funded positions. Supervisor Ted Williams also echoed a frequent union refrain, when he specified, “By market rate, we mean enough that people can apply, find housing in our community, et cetera. We don’t want vacant positions that are state-funded.

One thing about the budget became clear, after Maria Avalos, of UVA, an inland-based Latino advocacy group, asked for more community involvement in the county’s decision-making process of awarding the $16.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, which were distributed to help with covid recovery. “I would also suggest that in the future, when community organizations are invited to ask, that the Board of Supervisors would look at our population and see that Latinos make up 25.8% of our population, and that the Spanish-speaking community and Latinos are invited and have a seat at the table as well,” she said during public comment. “I would also ask for transparency on whether the Board of Supervisors has engaged with the public before these funds have been allocated, which was advised.”

Supervisors briefly considered bringing the item back, to consider awarding some of the funds to community organizations.But after being told that requests for internal county government uses for the funds were greater than the availability, Supervisors Ted WIlliams and Glenn McGourty decided not to revisit their decision to use it for county services. “I think it would be disingenuous to invite community groups to present, if we know we don’t have any funds to award,” Williams said. McGourty added that “I would concur. If there’s no money, why have people apply for something that doesn’t exist?”

The county may use some of the covid money to bolster the new consolidated office of treasurer tax collector and auditor controller. Chamise Cubbison was the only candidate on the ballot and

county counsel is preparing an ordinance to appoint her to the new position without paying her both salaries. Former treasurer tax collector Shari Schapmire quit after the board voted 4-1, with Supervisor John Haschak dissenting, to combine the offices. Second in command Julie Forrester’s last day is tomorrow. And the outside audit is six months later than usual. Cubbison provided a list of reasons for the tardiness, from staffing shortages to covid to a significant increase in work generated by the receipt of federal funds.

The fiscal team with the county executive office prepared the budget this year without the auditor-controller’s report . Interim CEO Darcie Antle told the board it was because her office did not receive the report until two months after the budgeting process had already started.

In an item only related tangentially to the budget, the board voted unanimously to approve an ordinance establishing fees for public records act requests. The fees range from simple duplication costs to $150 an hour for an attorney’s time to sort out disclosable information from material that is exempt from disclosure.

If the amount is expected to be more than $50, the person making the request will get an estimate and be asked to pay a $50 deposit. If the deposit runs out before the request is fulfilled, the requester will be asked for another installment. The fees are weighted, which means they are not designed for full cost recovery.

County Counsel Christian Curtis estimated that the county receives 4.7 document requests per day, and that fulfilling them takes 20-30% of his attorneys’ time. “We’ve also been seeing an uptick in increasingly complex requests,” he reported, including from companies doing market research. One request stands out for him in particular, where he was included in correspondence with an attorney who made a request from the state. “He indicated that the intent of the request was merely to require the government agency to shuffle around paper.” He added that 5% of the local requests at the county are by one person “upset about a code enforcement issue.”

Zack Cinek of Willits, who operates an email newsletter on Substack, objected to the fees, calling the California Public Records Act “a powerful tool for journalists and public alike…this ordinance is in direct conflict with Item E of the Mendocino County strategic plan, that states the county shall increase transparency in government operations to build trust with employees, communities, and partners. It’s the same for anybody, media, private citizens, plain and simple: fees deter access to government records.”

The Board approved the ordinance, which is based on one in LA County, and asked county counsel to bring back a report in six months and another in a year, to see if it saves staff time.