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County officials mixed on mosquito district
July 17, 2012, 05:00 AM By Michelle Durand Daily Journal Staff

The recommendation that an oversight committee dissolve the mosquito control district and transfer responsibility to San Mateo County leaves one big question unanswered — does the county even want it?

"I can’t speak for the staff but it would be OK with me,” said Supervisor Carole Groom of the dissolution recommendation by Martha Poyatos, executive director of the Local Agency Formation Commission.

LAFCo, which is state mandated and independent, oversees special districts like the San Mateo County Mosquito and Vector Control District that was reviewed and recommended for dissolution following an alleged half-million dollar embezzlement by its former finance director and accounting supervisor. The recommendation calls for the county’s Health System to absorb the district’s duties under its Environmental Health division.

But to do so, San Mateo County would have to agree to be the successor agency and Environmental Health Director Dean Peterson doesn’t favor the idea.

In a July 6 letter to Poyatos, Peterson said the Health System is committed to following through with the county’s decision but did not recommend dissolution  "as the district has fulfilled its mission of effectively and efficiently controlling mosquitoes and other vector born diseases.” Peterson also said it was  "unfortunate” that "the strong reputation and identity in the community that the district developed” had been lost.

County supervisors, who would make the ultimate decision about being the successor agency, are mixed over the district’s reputation and its fate.

"I’m not sure that we want it,” said Supervisor Don Horsley, who also sits on the LAFCo board and will weigh in on both the dissolution recommendation at Wednesday’s meeting and any subsequent Board of Supervisors’ action.

Horsley said there appears to be no complaints about the rank and file, just the management and the district’s 21-member board. He wants to know if the county can manage the district better and for no greater cost than is spent now.

"I’m not really convinced one way or the other. What I am convinced is that nobody has been held accountable for the lapses in management and I’m concerned about how it is governed,” Horsley said.

The district was expanded in 2003 during the West Nile threat and given a 21-member board to allow a funding source through an assessment. The county once handled rodent responsibilities but transferred them to the district in 2008 and shifted all vector control three years later.

The mosquito district is governed by a board of appointees from each city and the county while daily management falls to General Manager Robert Gay. Under his watch between 2009 and 2011, former finance director Joanne Seeney worked for the district under the name Jo Ann Dearman. Prosecutors who eventually filed charges say she and accounting assistant Vika Sinipata embezzled at least $650,000 by giving themselves extra pay at a higher rate and fraudulent time off, excessively contributed to their deferred compensation funds, used credit cards for personal purchases and electronically transferred money into their own accounts. The alleged embezzlement came to light last year when a district board member from San Carlos questioned expenses in the district’s pesticide account. At the time of Seeney’s employment, she had been prosecuted in two different embezzlement cases and served time for one while on medical leave from the district.

Gay had not conducted either a criminal or reference check on Seeney before her hiring. After the alleged embezzlement came to light, the board put Gay on an employee improvement plan. The board also extended his contract. The district has since hired Orange County internal auditor Dr. Peter Hughes to comb through its financial controls and he is expected to attend the upcoming LAFCo meeting to detail the implemented changes. The district has also created an assistant manager position to oversee two financial staff members and requires criminal checks of prospective employees.

Based on these changes, district officials argue that elimination is a dire and unnecessary step that would leave public safety at risk in the larger Health System structure. The district is also getting support from some of its cities. The San Bruno City Council previously sent a letter of support and San Mateo Mayor Brandt Grotte issued a similar missive July 13.

Grotte said the city and county have been "well served” by a district specifically devoted to mosquito and vector control and believe the district has put in place the right procedures to prevent a repeat theft.

On the other hand, the San Carlos City Council sent LAFCo a letter endorsing dissolution. Mayor Matt Grocott has also renewed its previously scuttled request for investigation by the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury.

The LAFCo report up for discussion at the July 18 meeting concludes that the district effectively controls mosquitoes and other vermin but its board’s size and methods of appointment "constrain accountability, visibility and responsiveness to the public.” The county could provide the district’s services much as it does other environmental health programs because it is already structured to deliver segregated services like restaurant inspection and water quality monitoring, according to the report.

In his letter, Peterson said Environmental Health could perform the district’s responsibilities along with its other duties but that it is "imperative” the current revenue source also be transferred and protected.

Cost is a large concern for Supervisor Adrienne Tissier, president of the Board of Supervisors, who worries the figures may go up if employees receive salaries and benefits from the county. Tissier, who sits on LAFCo, also admits having mixed feelings while evaluating the district’s work against the previous lack of checks and balances.

"I want to make sure the ducks are in line. I aIso want to make sure we’re not just tackling this as a knee-jerk reaction,” Tissier said.

Supervisor Dave Pine’s main motivation in hoping the county looks at absorbing the district is saving taxpayer money through consolidation and eliminating duplicate services.

Pine said he hasn’t yet had the chance to speak with Peterson but regardless hopes the Board of Supervisors weighs in.

"If LAFCo votes to facilitate possible consolidation, I’d hope we take a hard look with a particular focus on how much money could be saved,” he said.

Tissier said she puts weight in Peterson’s position as well as those of the cities who sent letters. Horsley also feels the cities’ letters offer insight.

"All that verifies is that the workers are doing a good job. It does not verify that it is properly managed,” he said.

LAFCo meets 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 18 in Board Chambers, 400 County Government Center, Redwood City.

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