Most people have never heard of San Mateo County’s Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCo. That can be said of most of our special districts. But lately LAFCo has made the headlines because of the embezzlement charges at the San Mateo County Mosquito and Vector Control District.
LAFCos exist in every county under state legislation. One of its tasks is to monitor and evaluate the performance of special districts in its area. In addition to mosquitoes and rats, that would also include our two health care districts, Peninsula and Sequoia. Each of these agencies collect taxes.
On Wednesday, LAFCo will vote on the future of the Mosquito and Vector Control District. Staff is recommending that the district be dissolved and its work become a special department of the county. Instead of 21 board members who share authority with a general manager, the district would continue its work under the guidance of the five-member Board of Supervisors and the county manager. The district’s cumbersome structure — a weak board and manager — combined with lack of good business practices led to a failure of financial oversight.
A newly hired finance director — the one charged with embezzlement — was perhaps not properly vetted. And the district’s alleged use of credit cards for legal costs and major purchases was not standard practice. The district now maintains it has learned its lesson, has tightened its controls and opposes the finding that it be dissolved and its functions moved to the county. As for the 21 public board members, each representing a city in San Mateo County and the county itself, they probably don’t want to give up their monthly stipend, free health care and trips to conferences. But it would sure save a lot of money.
LAFCo can issue but not mandate a finding. If the LAFCo board endorses dissolution, what happens next is more complicated especially if the finding is opposed. Some agency — for example, the county or a city — must start the action. LAFCo holds a noticed protest hearing. If less than 50 percent of registered voters protest, the dissolution occurs. If the Mosquito and Vector Control District opposes dissolution and no agency takes action, the status quo remains. If the district agrees to the findings then the work of mosquito abatement and vector control will move to the county. No one is complaining about the excellent work the staff does in the field.
This is difficult territory for LAFCo. It is fortunate the new chair is Linda Craig, an expert in good government and finance. Craig is a longtime member of the League of Women Voters and one-time chair of the Bay Area League. After Craig, a Menlo Park resident, raised her children, she worked for Portola Valley as its city clerk and did financial reports since at the time there was no city administrator. She then she worked in the city manager’s office and in the finance department doing accounting and budgeting for several cities — Sunnyvale, Santa Barbara, Palo Alto and Santa Clara. After retiring, she was appointed a LAFCo alternate in 2006 and in 2010 a full member. She has attended every meeting for the past six years. That resume and track record make her a perfect fit in fulfilling LAFCo’s mission. Craig modestly admits, the work "is right up my alley.”
LAFCo has seven members: two members of the Board of Supervisors, two city councilmembers, two members of special districts and one public member — Linda Craig. The executive officer is Martha Poyatos.
We know our city councilmembers and supervisors. They are vetted by periodic elections and our appraisals based on what we read, hear and observe when we attend a meeting. But members of special districts like the Mosquito and Vector Control District and other agencies not under LAFCo such as the South Bayside Waste Management Authority, which is also in the news because of questionable contracts cited by a whistle blower who has since lost her job, are usually unknown. Even members of the two health care districts who are elected by voters in their sphere of influence don’t get much attention. At the same time, a certain amount of expertise is necessary if these bodies are to oversee their respective agencies. Whether it’s an elected official, city/county staff or a public member, you need someone like Linda Craig on these agencies. Someone who knows good government practices and can ask the right questions. If we can’t clone Linda, we need to provide appropriate training for these members and some criteria for their election/appointment. Otherwise, we are going to end up with decisions which don’t serve the taxpayers.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at email@example.com.