Grand jury calls on county to comprehensively list special districts

07/10/2019

Marin taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on special districts every year, but most residents are unaware of the various agencies that serve them, a recent civil grand jury report said. The jury is recommending the Board of Supervisors create a comprehensive online directory of the county’s special districts by the end of the year “to insure transparency and accountability.” Information on these districts’ purpose, budget, website, compensation for board members, geographic area served, contacts and 12 other informational details should be available in one place, the report states. Currently, there are partial lists on four different government websites, containing limited information on the agencies, but nothing comprehensive. Supervisor Dennis Rodoni finds the grand jury’s request reasonable. “It’s very difficult for residents to figure out what they need to know about special districts,” he said. “I think we need to resolve that by having one central location that keeps that information.” The Marin Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, keeps a partial list of Marin’s districts, including sanitation, fire protection and public utility districts. The commission is mandated to list information about certain agencies—including their board members, meeting times, contact information and who they serve—but not all of Marin’s agencies fall under LAFCO’s jurisdiction, such as school districts. But Jason Fried, the executive officer for LAFCO, said establishing and updating a comprehensive database would cost money and time. “We’d have to have a discussion of how much work that would be. The question is how many people are using it compared to the cost of maintaining it,” he said. The county clerk’s office also keeps a roster of local agencies, but it is only updated when Marin’s special districts notify the state and the county of changes; some haven’t given updates in decades. Only the names of the districts are made available online, while contact information for the governing board is available at the clerk’s office. The jury requested a response to its report from the clerk. “The public is unable to find critical information from one source,” the jury wrote. Compensation for board members and how that is calculated should be made available for comparison across districts, the jury said. The California State Controller’s Office publishes a statewide list with special districts’ financial information, and the county finance department publishes yet another list of 132 local governmental agencies alongside contact information, but none of these informational outlets provide the transparency the grand jury hopes a new database will provide. The June 20 report follows up on similar reports by the grand jury from 2014 and 2016 that also urged increased transparency around special districts. “Transparency will provide taxpayers with a gateway to critical information concerning the local services they support and access, while improving their ability to provide oversight,” the 2014 report stated. The 2016 report graded local agencies on how much information their websites provided, and 65 percent of them didn’t satisfy the jury’s transparency criteria. Five years after the initial report, the grand jury maintains its call to give taxpayers easier access to consistent and detailed information about special districts.