At its August 18 monthly meeting the Mendocino Coast Recreation and Parks District (MCRPD) Board of Directors responded to the Mendocino Grand Jury's report of June 28, 2021. By law the district had 90 days to formally reply.
The Grand Jury (GJ) titled that report, “MCRPD LOST ALMOST THREE MILLION DOLLARS IN GRANT FUNDS FROM THE STATE. The capitalization emphasis derived from the GJ.
The GJ's first Finding boiled down to MCRPD losing more than $2.5 million because it violated state codes and guidelines while administering grants, specifically in the award of a large fencing contract.
For specific reference points readers can find several articles in the AVA archives from the summer and fall of 2020 as well the July 7, 2021 issue. One of the crucial matters discussed in the articles and the GJ report is the fact that representatives within State Parks departments deemed three MCRPD board members as “tainted.” These State Parks officials indicated that they could not work with MCRPD nor would any further grants be flowing to MCRPD as long as these “tainted” members remained on the board. Two of the three, John Huff and Bob Bushansky, indeed, still sit on the MCRPD board.
MCRPD had mixed responses to that first Finding. Bushansky expressed concern that the Grand Jury did not interview the board members, feeling that a more in-depth investigation would have altered the GJ's finding. John Huff disagreed with this finding, essentially because he feels the bidding process and awarding of the contract in question were carried out as best they could be. The remaining three MCRPD Board members were in agreement that all future bids need to be handled differently. One of the contentious points surrounding the bidding process was the role played by Huff's wife, Sarah Bradley Huff, as MCRPD grant writer. She and her husband served with Bushansky as the members of MCRPD's key Regional Parks Committee during much of the time in question. Mrs. Huff's supposed connection to a group involved in the bidding process also proved problematic.
The GJ's Finding #2 centered around the purchase of property by the district along Highway 20. This purchase sunk MCRPD into debt so heavily that it had to declare bankruptcy. The GJ report alludes to mismanagement of public funds. MCRPD responded with the obvious, that the current board doesn't know enough about what went on years and years ago. MCRPD's board did acknowledge the debt and bankruptcy.
Finding #3: MCRPD does not have an effective mechanism to ensure training and compliance with conflict-of-interest rules. The MCRPD board acknowledged this and agreed to develop relevant policies and training.
Finding #4 stated that MCRPD risks civil litigation if the board and executive staff do not receive initial and annual training in the Brown Act, Ethics and Harassment in compliance with AB 1234. MCRPD disagreed with this Finding, declaring that such training is provided to each board member at the start of each year. MCRPD added that henceforth all board members sign an acknowledgment of completion in the training.
Finding #5: MCRPD risks conflicts of interest and litigation because its Bylaws do not require the presence of legal counsel at board meetings. MCRPD agreed with the Finding, stating that the district “is evaluating the financial feasibility of retaining legal counsel” at all board meetings.
Finding #6: MCRPD failed to provide transparency to the public as the monthly financial statements were not published routinely. MCRPD disagreed with this Finding, citing regular financial reports within the board packets supplied to meeting attendees. MCRPD did add this caveat: Board and staff will continue to explore easier and clearer ways to make district financial reports accessible.
The Grand Jury cited six “Recommendations” that parallel the GJ Findings. MCRPD responded by stating that they are already in the process of implementing all recommendations, except the recommendation that legal counsel be present at all board meetings. This is ostensibly designed to foil the sort of actions or misdeeds that led the Grand Jury to investigate in the first place, at the behest of a citizen complaint. MCRPD's response echoed their response to Finding #5. “MCRPD staff and the Board are also evaluating the feasibility of implementing” the presence of counsel at all board meetings.
The Board proceeded to adopt a new governing board code of conduct policy, a new conflict of interest policy, and a new conflict of interest code. All passed by 5-0 votes.
The last item on the MCRPD agenda for August 18 was broached by board chair Barbara Burkey, that being “MCRPD's future with OGALS (the state Office of Grants and Local Services).” This relates to the opinion expressed by State Parks Department officials in 2020. The opinion boiled down to, We, the State parks officials, will not be awarding any more grants to MCRPD until the “tainted” members of the Rec & Park Board are gone.
Huff responded to this with what seems to be his defensive go-to, finding some minor detail and attacking. In this case he tried to pick apart which of the specific State Parks divisions was at issue. At the conclusion of this tactic, one of the “untainted” board members who was allowed to meet with the State Parks officials last year recalled that officials from all parks divisions involved were unanimous in their request of removing the “tainted” MCRPD board members.
The other remaining “tainted” MCRPD Board member, Bob Bushansky, relied on a I-wasn't-there defense in regard to his role in the questionable bidding process. He wasn't present for an early vote in the process. He did acknowledge voting for the final approval of the contract. He left out that he spent multiple years on the crucial Regional Parks Committee with the Huffs, with no on-the-record questioning about conflicts of interest or apparently any questions about the now-sanctioned bid and contract award. Burkey and fellow “untainted” board member Leslie Bates appeared to nudge Huff and Bushansky into opening a dialogue with State Parks. Bushansky essentially said he would only speak to them after they apologized to him.
Once again, one is left with the inescapable feeling that Mr. Bushansky thinks rather highly of himself.