Grand Jury Takes On Sheriff, Fire Authority and Toxic Dump

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The Orange County Sheriff’s Department needs to modernize jail video surveillance and fix a telephone calling system that some inmates have used to make possibly dangerous contacts with outsiders, according to the most recent reports by the county grand jury.

The recommendations were contained in three reports released this week that also dealt with curbing the growth of salaries at the 1,176-employee Orange County Fire Authority and cleaning up a decades-old, contaminated former oil dump site in Huntington Beach.

“The Sheriff should place a high priority on upgrading video surveillance systems in the county jail system so that all units are protected by high quality digital monitoring systems providing maximum area coverage to improve the safety of inmates, staff, and visitors,” recommended the report on the county jail system.

It also urged Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to work with the Superior Court presiding judge, the district attorney and the public defender to devise a way to prevent inmates from misusing a telephone system.

“The practice of permitting unmonitored, non-collect calls between selected inmates and attorneys, as authorized by court order, has a high potential to contribute to the risk of inmate- orchestrated incidents within and outside of the jail system,” the report asserted.

In other jail issues, the grand jury recommended the Board of Supervisors expand the role of the Office of Independent Review to include the Probation Department. It also urged county officials to move the Office of Independent Review from Sheriff Department offices to the Hall of Administration to avoid a perception that the independent review office is too connected to the sheriff’s staff.

It also said having the Office of Independent Review report to all five supervisors creates management confusion and recommended putting it under the management of the county’s CEO.

And warning that new state policies on releasing prisoners will mean a large increase in Orange County prisoners over the next three years, the grand jury recommended that Hutchens and the Board of Supervisors “should aggressively pursue” the James Musick jail expansion project.

In its report on the Orange County Fire Authority, the grand jury asserted that current policies try to keep Fire Authority salaries comparable to those paid on average by the top three non-Fire Authority departments in the county.

But, the grand jury asserted, that policy doesn’t “appear to reflect the overall economy and finances of the taxpayers and cities they serve.”

The Fire Authority was formed in 1995 after the Orange County bankruptcy and replaced the county Fire Department. It handles fire duties throughout county territory and in 23 of the 34 cities.

Its $282-million budget comes from property taxes, fees and contracts with the cities it serves.

According to the report, Fire Authority directors, who are members of the participating city councils and the Board of Supervisors, may have been unwilling to make “tough choices and balancing the needs of the citizens that they serve.”

The grand jury recommended extending the terms of the Fire Authority’s board of directors to two years to ensure directors are more knowledgeable.

“The OCFA Board of Directors should provide and make public both a short-term and long-term plan that brings the labor agreements in line with the living cost of the citizens they serve rather than solely upon the revenues derived from secured property tax of the property and city fees in their realm,” the report concluded.

“If the growth of firefighter’s salaries is reduced to reflect the economy of the citizens they serve, the OCFA should consider reducing the fees that they charge their contract cities to reflect the change and to be responsive to the financial realities of the cities.”

In Huntington Beach, a 38 to 40-acre former oil field and industrial dump known as the Nesi-Ascon site, existed at Magnolia and Hamilton Avenues for 60 years, from 1924 to 1984.

Material dumped there, according to the grand jury report, included drilling mud, chromic acid, sulfuric acid, aluminum slag, fuel oils, styrene, asphalt, concrete, metal, soil, and wood “as well as other contaminants, including abandoned vehicles.”

Cleanup is a state responsibility, and in 2003 the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and seven companies — Atlantic Richfield, Chevron Environmental Management, Conoco Phillips, the Dow Chemical Co., Shell Oil, Southern California Edison and Northrop Grumman Space & Mission Systems Corp. — reached a legal agreement on the cleanup.

“The final remedy — now in 2012 — has not yet begun,” the grand jury reported. The State — optimistically — contemplates that the project will be completed in 2015.”

The grand jury noted it has no authority to order the state to do anything but urged “the Huntington Beach leadership to bring pressure on the appropriate entities to hasten the completion of effective and safe reclamation of this site, as well as to work with Orange County public health officials to further inquire into possible connections between the Nesi-Ascon site and physical and neurological complaints reported by neighborhood residents.”

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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