Plenty of us like to blame the government for all sorts of
things, from potholes to bureaucratic waste, or for expensive
permits or a lack of public safety.
But, not very many us ever find the time to actually watch our
government officials at work. How do we know if it’s the
government’s fault unless we catch them in the act?
There are 110 different government agencies in Sonoma County,
including school boards, fire, sewer and park districts and city
and county boards and councils. No wonder we  can’t find enough
time to keep a close eye on how our tax money is being spent. How
would we know if there is any waste, fraud or abuse taking
Is the recent Grad Jury suggestion to form a county-wide
Whistleblower program a good idea? Or, does it represent just
another unwieldy and expensive layer of government?
The Whistleblower idea is intriguing and is being utilized in
several other counties in California, apparently with mixed
Who is watchdogging all these 110 government agencies for us
now? In some cases, the answer is no one. Elsewhere citizen
activists faithfully attend city council meetings. A regular crowd
shows up every Tuesday for the county Board of Supervisors
meetings. And, members of the press monitor as many public meetings
as possible.
Also, the Civil Grand Jury meets throughout the year,
investigating numerous complaints submitted by individuals or
groups of citizens. This year alone, the county Grand Jury is
investigating 69 complaints about local governments. Their final
report is due at the end of this month.
The proposed Whistleblower Program would provide a 24/7 on-line
“hotline” for any individual to file a complaint about alleged
government abuse, waste or illegality. Local elected officials such
as supervisors Efren Carrillo and Mike McGuire listened to this
proposal with caution.
“I believe that in concept, this sounds very positive, when
you’re talking conceptually,” said Fifth District Supervisor Efren
Carrillo, while questioning it’s cost and administrative
Supervisor McGuire said, “the county currently has numerous
anonymous reporting systems in place, but we are always open to
explore options which could be more effective.” He also said
implementation of such a program is not likely to take place during
this year due to the county’s budget woes and deficits.
All of the county’s 110 government agencies must obey the
state’s Brown Act and Open Meeting laws. This means all the
“public’s business” must be conducted in open, pre-announced
meetings, and not in secret behind closed doors. But that doesn’t
mean the public will show up.
Most of the 110 county governments are small and meet once a
month. Added together these public entities are responsible for
providing essential public services at a cost of several millions
in taxpayer dollars.
Watching a fire board decide on which safety equipment to
purchase or not purchase is not very exciting. Listening to school
boards debate class sizes, bus routes or staffing levels is tedious
and confusing at times.
Many of these monthly public meetings are held with zero
attendance by the public. Hundreds of thousands of tax dollars are
spent  with no public scrutiny or input.
Of course, all of these government agencies are required to
record public minutes of their formal actions, posting annual
budgets, fee schedules and new ordinances. But these are all after
the fact.
A Whistleblower Program would likely do little to improve public
oversight of local government activities. The Grand Jury already
possesses full subpoena authority. Any public official or agency
that is the subject of a Grand Jury investigation is required by
law to make a written response to the jury’s findings and
Meanwhile, us watchdogs will stay on the beat and keep the doors
open on as many public meetings as possible. If you show up, don’t
forget your whistle.
— Rollie Atkinson

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