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Grand jury blasts Nevada City

Nevada City leaders missed significant revenue by failing to bill or incorrectly billing for fees and taxes, according to a Nevada County grand jury report released Wednesday.

They also are poor record keepers and have offered little internal organizational oversight, the report said.

The scathing report, titled “Asleep at the Wheel,” appeared to spare no one in the city’s government, criticizing the city manager and City Council members.



While most city leaders generally agreed with the report’s claims, they disagreed with the “asleep” assessment, saying the city already has made key changes recommended in the report and is starting to make other changes.

“I think we’re on the right track,” said Councilwoman Sheila Stein, echoing the statements of most council members.




But Mayor Steve Cottrell said he doesn’t think enough is being done.

“I would’ve suggested ‘Nevada City in Denial'” as the report’s title, Cottrell said.

City leaders knew about the vast financial and organizational concerns for a long time but didn’t act appropriately, Cottrell said.

On the council for 15 years, Cottrell included himself among those responsible for the problems detailed in the report but added that he had been stymied in his attempts to do more when he had tried to address the concerns.

In the past, many of the concerns about personnel came up in closed session. “I hope the issues raised by the grand jury can be dealt with openly,” Cottrell said.

Pointed criticisms

Collections of business license fees and water and sewer bills, which were highlighted in the report as a source of significant revenue loss, have increased, City Manager Mark Miller said.

Nearly $61,000 in business license fees not previously billed have been collected, Miller said. Also, 30 water and sewer bills erroneously billed at lower rates were corrected, he said.

“Some of these things take time,” said Councilwoman Sally Harris.

Most of the grand jury’s concerns – including better financial oversight, updating the city code, which hasn’t been done since 1990, and improving the city’s filing – are being addressed, Harris, Miller and Councilman David McKay said.

But there was no way around the pointed criticisms the grand jury found.

The findings include:

• Significant uncollected debt which had been on the books for years.

• The city has made no effort to correct, let alone improve, the manner in which its municipal records are kept, indexed or safeguarded.

• Effective oversight of the city’s affairs by the City Council is impaired by the lack of any ordered record keeping and protection policy.

• The continued operation of the city’s financial practices and procedures would be a breach of the public’s trust.

• Historically, there appears to have been little, if any, supervision of the office operations supervisor by the city manager.

• “The city manager is not availing the city of the benefit of collaboration between the financial consultant and the new finance manager in correcting the city’s financial problems,” the grand jury report states.

• “The City Council historically appears to have abdicated its oversight responsibilities in favor of a comfortable relationship with the city’s senior administrators. They have, sadly, been ‘asleep at the wheel,'” the grand jury report states.

Wilcox-Barnes

Much of what the report details are situations that developed during the tenure of Cathy Wilcox-Barnes as the city’s office operations supervisor; council members put her on paid administrative leave in April 2006. The council eliminated her position in June 2006. In addition, Wilcox-Barnes is the elected city clerk.

Afterward, the city hired consultants to review internal operations at City Hall.

In February, Cottrell asked Miller about the costs of the four consultants; Miller has yet to answer his request, Cottrell said.

“This gives the city clerk an opportunity to explain what happened,” Cottrell said. The grand jury’s report spreads out the blame to everyone at City Hall, Cottrell said.

M. Catherine Jones, attorney for Wilcox-Barnes, declined to comment on the report because of an ongoing civil lawsuit against the city.

The grand jury recommends the city ask voters if the clerk position should be appointed.

The issue will come up at a council meeting in June or July as part of the city’s overall response to the report, Miller said.

Councilwoman Barbara Coffman declined comment on the report Wednesday because she hadn’t read it yet.

ooo

To contact Staff Writer Greg Moberly, e-mail gregm@theunion.com or call 477-4234.


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