“The Mendocino Coast Recreation & Parks District (MCRPD) lost almost $3 million in grant funds from the State of California.”
That is the header of the Mendocino County Grand Jury report released this Monday, June 28. The Grand Jury (GJ) summarized issues written about in the online and print editions of the AVA, notably August 9, 12, and 19, 2020; September 30, 2020; November 4, 2020; and December 9, 2020. The focus of the GJ inquiry stemmed from the State of California Off Highway Vehicle Parks Department (OHVPD) suspending almost $3 million ($2,995,249) in grant funding to MCRPD. The OHVPD subsequently suggested the resignation of three members of the Mendocino Coast Recreation and Park District Board of Directors involved with the grants due to inconsistencies identified in an audit conducted by OHVPD. Those three MCRPD Board of Directors (BOD) members proved to be John Huff, Kirk Marshall, and Bob Bushansky.
The OHVPD awarded MCRPD Planning and Restoration Grants in the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018 to upgrade its property along Highway 20. The grant funds would have been used to help construct an Off Highway Vehicle Park. In a letter dated July 11, 2018 OHVPD notified MCRPD that both grants were being placed on hold because of issues raised during a routine preliminary internal grant audit.
In June of 2020 the two grants were completely suspended by OHVPD. In November of last year MCRPD paid back more than $76,000 to OHVPD.
At a June 17, 2020 MCRPD meeting, the district's board received a report about a June 15, 2020 conference call involving two members of the BOD who were deemed untainted by prior activities, the MCRPD bankruptcy attorney, and OHVPD representatives. Part of that report stated that OHVPD believed MCRPD “had inappropriate conduct with the relationship between MCRPD and CRA [California Recreation Alliance]. They [OHVPD] will not accept grant matches from CRA.”
The Grand Jury summary makes clear that in June 2020 the OHVPD representative communicated to MCRPD, that because of this alleged misconduct, the Parks Department would not proceed with grants as long as any MCRPD BOD member who had approved the arrangement with CRA remained on the BOD. The OHVPD representative was careful to state that since the BOD is an elected body, the OHVPD could not mandate such changes. The OHVPD representative also stated, in view of the history of alleged self-dealing, the (California State) Parks Department could not authorize any additional funds under the grants.
As for the three cited members of MCRPD's BOD, Kirk Marshall served out the rest of his term and retired from the board at the end of 2020; John Huff initially resigned his board seat then later ran for an open seat and was elected in November, 2020.
Bob Bushansky's term in office does not expire until after the November, 2022 election. Thus, the MCRPD still has two board members, Huff and Bushansky, associated with the grant debacle, the two board members, Barbara Burkey and Leslie Bates deemed untainted by OHVPD, and one newly elected (November, 2020) member.
Readers may be interested in the detail that the grants in question were written for MCRPD by Sarah Bradley Huff, spouse of John Huff. She has subsequently left that position. For a two year period, Ms. Huff and her husband, John, made up two-thirds of MCRPD's critical Regional Park committee. The third member was Bob Bushansky. The questioned grants and the contracts awarded to bidders for work on the Highway 20 Off Highway project flowed through the Regional Park Committee.
The Grand Jury report notes that the Regional Park Committee awarded a nearly $2.6 million dollar contract to a company not on the original list of potential bidders and in opposition to state code that the company's bid was not the lowest one submitted. In addition, the GJ report states that a member of that firm helped prepare the contract specifications and cost estimate for the grant application. The GJ report goes on to state, “Only one assigned Committee Board member was in attendance at the Regional Park Committee meeting [for the recommendation of the grant contract]. Another member of the BOD not assigned to the committee attended the meeting, participated in the rating process and voted for approval of the [$2.59 million] fence contract.”
There are more intricate details to the GJ report that go back to many years prior to the current BOD, but let's skip to the “Findings” and “Recommendations” of the Grand Jury:
Finding 1. MCRPD lost the opportunity to receive more than $2.5 million in grant funds because it operated in violation of State Codes and guidelines pertaining to the administration of the CAOHVPD Grants and award of the fence contract per PCC section 20682.5 (b).
Finding 2. MCRPD incurred debt which it has been unable to repay and led to bankruptcy because of purchasing the Highway 20 property prior to the completion of the feasibility study for the intended purpose of a golf course and the possible mismanagement of public funds.
Finding 3. MCRPD BOD does not have an effective mechanism to ensure training and compliance with conflict-of-interest rules.
Finding 4. MCRPD risks civil litigation or statutory violations as MCRPD BOD and Executive staff do not receive initial and annual training in Brown Act, Ethics and Harassment in compliance with AB1234.
Finding 5. MCRPD risks potential conflicts of interest and potential litigation as Bylaws do not require attendance of Counsel at its BOD meetings.
Finding 6. MCRPD fails to provide financial transparency to the public as monthly financial statements are not routinely published for public viewing. Monthly financial statements would identify revenue sources such as rental fees, expenditures and capital commitments.
Recommendation 1. MCRPD’s BOD should amend its Bylaws within 60 days following release of this GJ report to require independent professional legal guidance for any project to assure that all Grant(s) and the award of contracts comply with State codes and guidelines to guard against the loss of grant funding due to conflicts of interest and outdated bylaws. [In reference to Finding 1]
Recommendation 2. MCRPD’s BOD should engage a professional consultant to develop a feasibility study and strategic plan prior to the initiation of any capital improvement project (CIP). MCRPD should document and publish the report for public review and comment at least 60 days prior to the award of contract for any CIP. Complete disclosure and public notice in the letting of all Special District contract may avoid the loss of grant funding due to conflicts of interest and outdated bylaws. [In reference to Finding 2]
Recommendation 3. MCRPD’s BOD should engage an independent Outside Counsel to review its Bylaws within 90 days of this report; MCRPD’s Bylaws should be updated annually with outside Counsel at the beginning of each new term and post them on MCRPD’s website to make them available to the public. [In reference to Finding 3]
Recommendation 4. MCRPD’s BOD within 60 days of the start of their term and annually should receive training for Brown Act, Ethics and Harassment laws and regulations as required. All staff at the start of employment and annually thereafter should receive training for Brown Act, Ethics and Harassment laws and regulations as required. Records should be maintained to track participation. [In reference to Finding 4]
Recommendation 5. MCRPD’s BOD shall retain legal counsel with required attendance at every BOD meeting to avoid actions that may violate Federal, State, County, Local, Penal Code, Ethics or Brown Act violations. [In reference to Finding 5]
Recommendation 6. MCRPD shall prepare and publish on its website a monthly financial report as approved by the BOD to provide transparency to the public. This report should include a review of the monthly accounting of checks issued and revenue received. [In reference to Finding 6]
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GRAND JURY ON COAST PARKS AND REC (BUSHANKY-ISM IN ACTION)
The 2020/21 Mendocino County Grand Jury has released a report on the Mendocino Coast Recreation and Park District.
The report is linked on the Grand Jury’s website: https://www.mendocinocounty.org/government/grand-jury/2020-2021-reports
Kathy Wylie, Secretary
2020/21 Mendocino County Grand Jury