The Coastal Post - March 2000

Grand Jury's Probe Put Off Until After Election
Lagunitas School's Septic System Still Not Completed

By Jim Scanlon

The Marin County Grand Jury, continuing its probe of the controversial joint septic system of the Lagunitas School District and French Ranch Development, sent 23 provocative questions to Larry Enos, the District's Superintendent. The questions, in a letter dated January 13 requesting answers "by the end of the month," were presented to Trustees on February 1 and reflect deep interest and concern for the extremely complicated and controversial relationship between the school district, the developer, county and state regulators and, indirectly, reflect on Supervisor Steve Kinsey whose involvement in the joint system is extensive.

Trustees also reviewed a letter dated January 7, from the State Office of Public School Construction requesting documentation of the completion of the septic system which was due in April 1999. The letter states, "Failure to respond to...within 15 calendar days may result in the district having to refund ...a total... of $341,085".The District is already under extreme financial pressure, and is facing extensive budget cuts. Having to refund money to the state would be a financial disaster.

Both letters were unusual. The bluntness and specificity of the Grand Jury 's questions on the history of the District and the French Ranch and their tangled, enmeshed relationship with county and state regulators can only be interpreted as menacing.. For example, the Grand Jury asks if the septic systems are separate or are two systems under one permit?: If either party has the ability or right to amicably sever the relationship?:If a construction permit was obtained, and if so, from whom?: It questions why the school's septic system has continued to operate for 11 months without a permit from Environmental Health Services and questions knowledge of the Cease and Desist Order by Environmental Health of March 1, 1999, and so on.

Since the Grand Jury's deliberations are, by law, secret, it is not known what their investigations have turned up at Civic Center, however the 23 questions are an intriguing peek at what they are interested in. They seem to trying to untangle what is going on with a project that has appeared to the Coastal Post to be one long confused and confusing improvisation, a goal without any regard for a consistent plan which has cost the school an as yet unaccounted sum of money and an incalculable loss of community support. It has embroiled County Government in an unprecedented situation, regulating what it is not equipped to regulate which could cost tax payers dearly in the future. It has also set a president for easier, denser developments in West Marin and elsewhere. The list goes on.

The Office of School Construction's letter setting a 15 day deadline or face a loss of funding, can only be considered threatening, although no one at Lagunitas Schools seemed particularly threatened, with the exception of Trustee Richard Sloan whose warnings are routinely ignored by the rest of the Board. It is difficult to understand why the State would send such a letter now, since the septic system is years behind schedule and no one seems to have any idea when it will receive it's final inspection. It could be that the Grand Jury has contacted the State Office and the letter was sent as a form of self-protection.

The School has lost control of it's finances, which are now overseen by the County Office of Education. It will be dependent on the passage of a parcel tax in 2003 or face a deficit of about 20% of it's operating budget. At present, it is difficult to imagine two thirds of district voters approving a tax for the school considering it's entanglement with the French Ranch Development. While it's financial troubles are not totally a result of it's entanglement with the French Ranch, there is no telling what will happen once a Homeowners Association becomes active and starts operating it's part of the "Siamese Twin" sewage system. In addition to upkeep of the complicated "Rube Goldberg" piping and pumping system, testing of septic effluent could range from $20,000 to $50,000 per year .

The School's original "hardship grant" to replace its neglected, failing septic system dates back to 1992-1993. Additional funds for Fiscal Year 1995-1996, for a total of $474,470, were reimbursed by the State on June 30, 1999, although the system was not completed then within the statutory one year period.

In March 1999, State funding for $303,184 (85% of the overage) for the septic system were approved by the State. (There is now "overage of the overage") The present official estimated total cost of the project, which has yet to receive final approval to operate, is $828,332. This does not include staff time, cost of meetings, legal representation, consultants fees and other expenses. Thus making plausible an estimate of perhaps a million dollars, not counting high annual operational expenses. Quite a lot of money for what should have been a $400,000 system in the school's own back yard. Of course there wouldn't be room for a community gymnasium, but there might be school supplies for the children and maybe the teachers wouldn't be so underpaid and overworked.

The Joint Sewage System was promoted by Steve Kinsey and the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group as a "win-win" alliance between the developer, the school and the community which was to have saved the school money and spared land for future building, including a gym. After his election as Supervisor, Kinsey shepherded the project through the county permit process. This was no easy task as County Counsel Patrick Faulkner originally resisted the County's becoming the "legal entity" to oversee the joint project. Faulkner came around and supported the "legal entity" plan claiming there was nothing unusual about it.

Kinsey was accused by Ed Stewart the the Director of the County's Environmental Health Department of interference in his department and endangering public health. Stewart and Dave Mesagno, the Environmental Health Specialist who issued a cease and desist order to the school after a sewage spill, were both fired, are now appealing their firing and will probably sue for wrongful termination if not reinstated. (The Cease and Desist Order was ignored.) The dismissals are shrouded in mystery and secrecy allegedly to "protect the rights of the accused" and could cost the County plenty if it settles or lose in court. The case has dragged on since September 1999 and will be heard by the Personnel Commission in March.

The Election Connection

School Trustees originally agreed at the February 1 meeting to consider the 23 questions at a special meeting set for February 9, but that meeting was postponed by Superintendent Enos, until March 8, "to allow all five Trustees to attend. "

It is perhaps no accident that the appeal of Stewart and Mesagno to the Personnel Commission and the School's public review of the Grand Jury's 23 questions will both be reviewed after the March 7 election when Kinsey faces opposition from political newcomer and reform candidate Louis Nuyens of Forest Knolls.

It is not known when or even if, the Grand Jury's report will be made public or if there will be any indictments. Recently, it was revealed that Supervisor Annette Rose who is also running for office again, used a credit card issued by the County for work-related expenses. According to the Gannett Independent Journal, she reimbursed the county, but apparently did so using campaign funds which is also illegal, sort of robbing from Peter to pay Paul. The County will release an accounting of expenses by all Supervisors February 22, just before the election and there may be a few surprises and maybe even a "West Marin Connection."

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