The county’s mosquito control district needs monthly auditing and a sharp look at its operations but should not be dissolved and have its duties transferred to the county, a special district oversight commission near-unanimously agreed yesterday. The decision was made due to concern that dissolution would jeopardize public safety and punish the agency despite its improvements after two former finance workers allegedly stole roughly a half-million dollars.
Linda Craig, chair of the Local Agency Formation Commission, was the lone voice calling for dissolution although other members did share lingering worry about whether the San Mateo County Mosquito and Vector Control District had adequately implemented new procedures and policies. A few even questioned if the district’s 21-member governing board and general manager shouldn’t also be replaced. Some members, including Sepi Richardson, suggested putting off a dissolution decision for four to six more months as a de facto probationary period while further review was conducted. Others, including Iris Gallagher and Joe Sheridan, said it is time to let the district move on.
Sheridan called the idea of probation "unfair.”
Since LAFCo Executive Director Martha Poyatos issued a report earlier this month recommending the dissolution and transfer to Environmental Health, the district fought back by arguing elimination was a dire and unnecessary step that would leave public safety at risk in the larger Health System structure. At Wednesday’s LAFCo meeting, district General Manager Bob Gay emphasized the need to keep West Nile at bay and called the talk of dissolution a "distraction” from the district’s true priorities. He and district board President Sam Lerner also emphasized the solid work of the rank and file workers.
"There is no valid rationale to disrupt or dissolve such a successful organization,” Lerner said. He asked the commission to use sound judgment and consider "the future health and welfare of residents.”
Craig said she was frustrated to watch city council meetings at which mosquito district representatives asked for letters of support — and several cities did comply — because they appeared under the misperception that transfer to the county meant cutting services or funding.
But Craig’s apprehension at maintaining the district’s status quo was overshadowed by those who prefer to seek legislation to trim the 21-member board, recommend it improve its human resources functions and ask for monthly ongoing audits.
Richardson, who said she was pro-dissolution coming into the meeting, said the district’s list of improvements — like criminal background checks — is just "scratching the surface.” Changing the culture of a troubled department or agency usually requires cleaning out the board, management and top-level staff, Richardson said. She also repeatedly said the district needs to add a purchasing technician to review orders rather than an assistant manager as it is using.
"You don’t need more managers. Where it is lacking is in the business office,” she said.
That office is where the alleged embezzlement — the reason dissolution chatter even began — happened.
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 insisted he had no knowledge of the crimes yesterday but Craig asked why district credit card bills for Seeney’s legal bills didn’t raise attention.
"It was sure obvious to me,” she said of reviewing the documents.
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 hired Orange County internal auditor Dr. Peter Hughes to comb through its financial controls and he told LAFCo members he hardly encounters agencies that can recover from such incidents.
"This is one of the rare exceptions where they have thoughtfully and competently ... not only identified problems and remedied them but got back on their feet,” he said.
Even had LAFCo opted for dissolution, San Mateo County supervisors would have still needed to approve absorbing it under its Environmental Health umbrella. Poyatos’ report concluded that 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. Both supervisors Don Horsley and Adrienne Tissier, who are LAFCo members, did not favor dissolution yesterday and others also pointed to a letter from Environmental Health Director Dean Peterson in which he did not favor the recommendation.
The county previously handled rodent responsibilities but transferred them to the district in 2008 and shifted all vector control three years later.
Michelle Durand can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.