Ken Carlson

Stanislaus County panel on homelessness to decide on public, private meetings

Homeless resident Dean Keith hangs out with several other homeless people at Kewin Park in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday, April, 21, 2015
Homeless resident Dean Keith hangs out with several other homeless people at Kewin Park in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday, April, 21, 2015

Stanislaus County’s Focus on Prevention initiative is engaging different sectors of the community to work on quality-of-life issues.

The county’s top officials will let the committee that oversees the initiative decide whether it holds public meetings.

The 20-member Stewardship Council, with leaders from business, education, the arts, churches and health care, will take on homelessness as its first order of business. County Counsel John Doering said the committee is exempt from the Brown Act, the state’s public-meeting law, because it is not a legislative body as defined under the code.

But officials decided the first meeting next week will be public, though the seating is limited. County Chief Executive Officer Stan Risen, who appointed the committee, said the panel can choose to hold public or private meetings after that.

“There was concern we were going to be asking people to have an honest discussion of the brutal facts and issues of homelessness in our community and we don’t need someone looking for every quote to make us look bad,” said Risen, who has been frustrated with a few Bee stories on Focus on Prevention.

The prevention initiative will try to address quality-of- life issues that many residents care about: homelessness, family dysfunction, troubled youth and crime.

The state’s government-meeting laws do not allow for closing meetings because of the sensitivity of a public issue or how meetings are reported in the press.

Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said the Brown Act would certainly apply to the Stewardship Council if county supervisors created the panel. Ewert said the committee should follow the Brown Act if the county board delegated authority to the CEO to manage the initiative, and the CEO used that authority to create the committee.

In October, supervisors approved Focus on Prevention “to establish the county and chief executive officer as a facilitator and convener” of community partners to address issues of quality of life. The county budgeted $1 million for prevention efforts this year and hired consultant John Ott under a $148,000 contract to facilitate meetings with community members.

According to reports for the Board of Supervisors meeting on March 31, the Stewardship Council will “provide ownership and direction” for the prevention efforts. The county also appointed a 60-member action council of people from different sectors of the community to identify issues and develop projects to reduce homelessness, assist young people or strengthen families.

“When you are trying to identify core problems in the community, it requires the entire community to be involved with that,” Ewert said. “I can’t think of any body that should be more in compliance with the Brown Act than this one, because of the mission.”

Four years ago, the city of Modesto took a stab at reducing the impact of homelessness with a blue ribbon panel that considered ways to better coordinate homeless services, help people get off the streets, make parks safer for families and deal with aggressive panhandling.

Four years later, the homeless are still with us.

One person involved with the county effort believes local groups can start chipping away at the problem. Former Modesto Councilman Brad Hawn said those working with the homeless can make progress by pulling together instead of staying in their own silos. He said the Stewardship Council might as well hold public meetings.

The council will start by discussing indicators and methods for measuring progress on reducing homelessness. What else the council does will be shrouded in secrecy if its meetings are private.

The council includes Gallo Center for the Arts director Lynn Dickerson; Modesto Nuts general manager Mike Gorrasi; Dave White, CEO of the Economic Development and Workforce Alliance; Stanislaus Surgical Hospital CEO Doug Johnson; county Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon; and Modesto City Schools Superintendent Pam Able.

The panel also has people from the faith community: the Rev. Marvin Jacobo of City Ministry Network; Jeff Pishney of Love Our Cities; Cle Moore-Bell of Christ Unity Baptist Church; and Mark Vasché of Pinnacle Forum of Northern California.

Other members are Hawn; Modesto City Manager Jim Holgersson; Turlock police Chief Robert Jackson; Center for Human Services Director Cindy Duenas; Yamilet Valladolid of El Concilio; Stanislaus Community Foundation director Marian Kaanon; United Way’s Francine DiCiano; Doctors Medical Center CEO Warren Kirk; and Memorial Medical Center CEO Daryn Kumar.

The panel’s media representatives are Modesto Bee president and publisher Ken Riddick and Vasché, the paper’s former editor.

Vasché, an advocate for sunshine in government during his newspaper career, wrote in an email that he believes the council is exempt from the Brown Act. In his opinion, the council falls under the law’s exemptions because it’s an advisory council composed of less than a quorum of county supervisors; it’s not a standing committee; it does not have a continuing jurisdiction over a specific subject matter; and its meeting schedule is not fixed by charter, ordinance or resolution.

“As much as we wanted every meeting and record open to public scrutiny, there are exceptions to both the open meetings and public records acts,” Vasché wrote. “The Stewardship Council has not yet met … and if at any point I feel it no longer qualifies, I will raise the issue myself.”

Vasché is executive director of Pinnacle Forum of Northern California, whose stated mission is to build a network of leaders committed to personal and cultural transformation centered on the values of Jesus.

The Stewardship Council will meet Monday from 8:30 a.m. to noon in a conference room at Greens on Tenth, at 953 10th St. in Modesto. The action council concerned with the homeless holds public meetings, with the next one set for 1 p.m. June 30 in the Sutter Gould Medical Foundation education center, 1700 McHenry Ave., suite 60B.

Risen, who said he’s a former youth pastor, discussed the county’s prevention initiative at a City Ministry Network Catalyst meeting in August. He told the audience that government won’t solve the county’s quality-of- life issues.

Indeed, Focus on Prevention is supposed to take on a life of its own, with various sectors of the community engaged with addressing the root causes of social ills. A report says the Stewardship Council is expected in time to become self-directed and help secure funding from private, philanthropic and other nongovernment sectors.

Risen acknowledged there are Christian leaders on the Stewardship Council but said he did not check the religious background of other people invited to serve on the panel.

“The success of this whole effort will depend on a buy-in from the community,” Risen said. “The real story is we have 20-plus community leaders willing to dedicate their time to engage in discussion on what we want our community to look like and how to bring meaningful change.”

Ken Carlson: (209) 578-2321