Following an investigation that began in February — based upon a citizen’s complaint and reports from the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office — Lassen County District Attorney Susan Rios issued a blistering 23-page Investigation Report regarding the conduct of the Standish-Litchfield Fire Protection District Board of Directors.
Rios’ areas of concern included conflicts of interest among members of the board, confidentiality breaches and violations of California’s open meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act (improper agendizing and use of closed session, the expenditure of public funds, the purchase of a vehicle and employment practices.)
Rios wrote despite an investigation by the 2015/2016 Lassen County Grand Jury that found “Brown Act violations, deficiencies in agendizing and a problematic appoint process for new board members (with a different board of directors), she has determined not to purse misdemeanor criminal prosecutions, citing the chilling effect that might have on finding citizens willing to serve on community boards and the cost of such prosecutions.
“The district attorney will, however, continue to investigate to determine where public funds were misappropriated … and also whether a fraud has occurred with respect to the assessments and insurance ratings.
“Most agencies respond by taking appropriate action to cure or remedy violations upon receipt of a simple letter by the district attorney encouraging them to do so. This district attorney will serve a ‘demand to cure’ letter upon the SLFPD accordingly, however, it is unlikely that course of action would provoke change by the SLFPD.
“In fact, it is clear that this current board, left to its own devices, is completely devoid of the ability to accept responsibility, learn from past mistakes or heed the advice of watchdog entities such as the grand jury and has no interest in doing so.
“It would at this time be the recommendation of the Lassen County District Attorney that the Local Area Formation Committee, pursuant to the authority bestowed upon it under Government Code section 53600 et seq, re-evaluate the services provided by the Standish-Litchfield Fire Protection District and determine if a merger of consolidation with a nearby district would be appropriate.”
What are the concerns?
In larger counties, the district attorney’s office has dedicated public integrity units to investigate “allegations of corruption involving public officials and employees in their official capacities or in the performance of their duties and initiate criminal charges where appropriate.”
We do not have such a unit in Lassen County, and Rios launched her investigation utilizing the California Public Records Act “based upon the information and documentation contained in both the law enforcement reports and the citizen complaint.”
Rios wrote her requests were for records only, but the district did provide a written response.
“Upon review of the information received … an alarming number of Brown Act and other code section violations were discovered. Most of the violations are curable, even to date, and do not appear to have been committed intentionally or with malfeasance. Other violations were arguably intentional or willful, as supported by admissions made by the SLFPD in its written response, potentially exposing the individual members of the board to criminal prosecution and the SLFPD, as an entity, to civil liability … Furthermore, this report does not serve to provide legal advice to any reader. This report contains the findings and conclusions of the district attorney and is not published to serve as a right to sue for any party. It is hoped that it may serve as a guide for other special districts that may be engaging in similar patterns to recognize the problems and correct them before it gets to the level experienced by the SLFPD.”
According to Rios, the SLFPD’s budget approval process violated the Brown Act. Part of that budget process was the approval of the purchase of a used 2017 Dodge Ram pickup for $31,249.07 during what the board statement called “a confidential closed meeting with no subsequent open session to report actions taken.”
Rios noted “there is no such thing as a ‘confidential closed meeting.’”
Conflict of interest concerns included having a board member who was an employee of another fire district; repairs made at a pump house by a friend of a board member rather than going out to bid. When that “board member resigned from the board, the repairs were never completed,” and “This board has taken no steps to attempt to have the repairs completed by the individual paid or to recover the money … The mishandling of this task and subsequent inaction by this board resulted in a loss of approximately $7,000 of public funds toward repairs that, to date, have not been made”;
Rios also noted omissions on 700 forms (financial disclosure forms); many issues with agendas and actions allegedly taken by the board in violation of the Brown Act; employment practices involving two volunteer firefighters allegedly “denied due process and the terminations were conducted in closed session in violation of the Brown Act; restraining orders issued against those who “presumably be witness or advocates at the appeal” of the termination of the fire chief; and the disclosure of the contents of closed session deliberations.