County jury gives special district websites poor marks

(Rigo Moran)

An investigation from the Tulare County Civil Grand Jury finds 80% of special district’s websites are out of compliance with state laws; only 20 sites are in full compliance

TULARE COUNTY – In its final report for 2022-23, the Tulare County Civil Grand Jury (TCCGJ) found that of the 132 special districts operating in the county, 80% failed to maintain their websites in accordance with the requirements of Senate Bill 929. Only 20 districts had websites that were in full compliance with state laws.

Senate Bill (SB) 929 became effective Jan. 1, 2020. According to the bill’s text, the purpose of SB 929 is to “…require every independent special district to maintain an internet web site that clearly lists contact information for the special district…”

According to the bill’s text, SB 929 was created to ensure that independent special districts provide the public, via websites, information that is both accurate and easily accessible.

SPECIAL DISTRICTS IN QUESTION

Special districts are government agencies that provide services to residents of districts, including sewage treatment, water, fire protection, cemetery operations, sanitation and utilities. The 132 special districts in Tulare County have an annual combined operating income of more than $1.3 billion.

The Mid Valley Times reviewed 90 county special districts listed on the Tulare County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) website. Cash-strapped districts that cannot afford to develop or maintain a website can apply for a hardship exemption to SB 929. TCCGJ found only one district qualified for the hardship exemption.

Twenty-six special districts did not have a website, including Dinuba Memorial District, Earlimart Public Utility District, Porterville Memorial District, Strathmore Fire Protection District, Tract 92 Community Services District and Woodville Public Utility District.

According to an Earlimart Public Utility District employee, the utility does not have the money to create and maintain a website.

“We’re still looking into it,” she said. “It’s a work in progress.”

Morgan Whinery is the general manager of Springville Public Utility District, another one of the 26 special districts that does not have a website. Whinery said Springville’s lack of a web presence is not due to lack of money; rather, the population the utility serves is too small to warrant a website.

“Our customer base falls below the threshold required by SB 929,” Whinery said.

To comply with SB 929, a special district website – at minimum – must be transparent. This means the site must provide links to board or agenda meetings, the names of its board members, staff information and also provide contact information. On its site, the Alta Cemetery District lists most of this information under a “Transparency” tab.

The Times asked TCCGJ for a list of the 105 websites the jury determined were not in compliance with state laws. Joel Harris, TCCGJ foresperson, told the Times he was unable to provide this information.

WHY IT MATTERS

According to a paper published by the Institute for Local Government, special districts “only serve in specifically defined areas…Special districts are also focused because most of them provide only a single service, allowing them to concentrate on one activity.”

The paper also notes, “…districts deliver only the public programs and public facilities that their constituents want.”

In its report, TCCGJ makes the following recommendations:

  • All special districts must have a website that complies with SB 929;
  • Special districts should consider using their websites to fulfill California Public Records Act requests;
  • All special districts must adopt a Conflict-of-Interest policy; and
  • All special districts must be ADA-compliant and easily accessible by the visually and hearing impaired.

In a curious turn – and despite its negative assessment of the county’s 132 special districts – TCCGJ stopped short of following up on its recommendations. Under the “Request for Responses” section, TCCGJ wrote that no responses are required for these recommendations.

INDEPENDENT/DEPENDENT

The provisions of SB 929 only apply to independent special districts. In its review of the 132 special districts operating in Tulare County, TCCGJ did not specify which of the districts are considered independent or dependent.

Kyle Packham is the advocacy and public affairs director for the California Special Districts Association. Packham said independent districts have elected board members. Independent districts also have boards appointed to fixed terms, as opposed to dependent boards that have boards with unfixed terms and that serve as the pleasure of the appointing authority.

Packham added that the main types of independent special districts that have appointed boards are typically mosquito abatement and cemetery districts.

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