School Trustee: County Agency Stonewalling Public on Trash Dump Probe

The outdoor trash dump across the street from Oak View Elementary School.

Ocean View School District

The outdoor trash dump across the street from Oak View Elementary School.

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A school board member and critic of the county Health Care Agency’s handling of a trash dump next to a Huntington Beach elementary school says the agency has made it difficult to reach top administrators by not listing their email addresses online and refusing to provide contact information for its director, Mark Refowitz.

John Briscoe, who serves on the Ocean View School District’s board, said when he called the HCA’s main number and asked for Refowitz’s email address, the operator replied: “I’m sorry that’s a secret, we can’t give that out.”

Briscoe said he got a similar answer when he asked for the director’s phone number.

“These people work for us. We pay them with our tax dollars…and it’s their job and duty to be available to the public, to be responsive to the public that they are charged with protecting,” he told Voice of OC.

“I’d call it the Health Could-Care-Less Agency.”

Health Care Agency spokeswoman Deanne Thompson said she couldn’t speak to Briscoe’s conversation with the county switchboard, but that he was ultimately transferred to Refowitz’s assistant.

There’s no policy that prohibits providing the director’s contact info, she added.

“HCA provides the public the information they need when they contact us or visit our website.  We do everything possible to provide access to the program or staff who can best meet their needs. If that is the Directors Office, that is where they are directed,” Thompson said.

Briscoe’s dispute with the health agency centers around the Rainbow trash facility, which lies across the street from his district’s Oak View Elementary School.

The children at Oak View have been subjected to bird droppings, nauseating odors, dust and chicken bones dropped by birds due to the open-air dump, according to the school district.  District officials want to see an enclosure built around the waste facility with odor and dust filtering systems.

The county health agency oversees Rainbow’s operating permit, and is tasked with investigating complaints about nuisance impacts on the surrounding area.

But the health agency violated its own procedures when it opted not to investigate a series of complaints from the school district last summer, according to a ruling by an administrative hearing officer appointed by the county.

The hearing officer, Craig Alexander, found that the county didn’t contact “any of the [school district] personnel or its counsel regarding the [school district’s] concerns” outlined in their letter last June.

The county violated its own procedures and “abused its discretion in not conducting a complete investigation regarding Rainbow’s operations, specifically regarding the complaints of the [Ocean View School District’s] witnesses of noise, vector and dust at the Oak View Elementary School site,” Alexander wrote.

The county recently appealed the ruling, saying Alexander went beyond his role by ordering the county to do something the law doesn’t require.

The health agency’s handling of the situation has left Briscoe distrustful of the county’s willingness to hold Rainbow accountable. He characterizes top administrators as hiding from the public by not sharing their basic contact information online.

“It’s the job of, especially senior administrators, to be available to the public they work for, to take their concerns and their calls and their communication – whether it’s email, or phone or written,” Briscoe said.

When Briscoe brought this concern to the agency’s environmental health director, Denise Fennessy, she said she’d provide him with a different website address with the contact info.

“All I received was the ‘heave-ho and out ya go’ blow-off answer of using another website instead of the crummy one the public has to endure,” Briscoe said.

Asked whether contact info for top administrators should be included on the agency’s website, Thompson suggested that it’s not necessary, given that agency staff forward callers to the person they’re trying to reach.

“I get what he’s looking for.  But it’s not reflective of the people we regulate — it doesn’t reflect how they use the website,” Thompson said.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.