For the MCCGJA Newsletter from Pat Randolph, foreperson 2018-2019
Achieving change through Civil Grand Jury reports often seems to be a painfully iterative process. Like beach rocks becoming sand, waves and waves of reports are sometimes needed to create substantial results. It is amazing, however, when everything comes together so that a report plays a role in bringing about much needed change.
A search through the very useful “Index of Reports” on the Civil Grand Jury page of the county’s website reveals that from 1990 to 2020, more than twenty-five reports have been published having to do with emergency services, disaster preparedness, or fire-related topics. Each undoubtedly had some immediate impact.
In April of 2019, in the long shadow of the Wine Country Wildfires, the grand jury issued the first of that year’s reports: Wildfire Preparedness: A New Approach. The report made recommendations concerning vegetation management, alerts, evacuations and education of the public in Marin. The new idea or approach was the formation of a joint powers authority (JPA) bringing together multiple entities so that the county might become more coordinated and fire-resilient. A tax to support this new JPA was, of course, essential and recommended. The fire districts and departments were already working well together to render mutual aid to put out fires but didn’t have a formal way or funding to work together to prevent wildfires and lessen their impact.
The recommendations in this report fell on fertile ground. The wildfires in Sonoma and Napa Counties alerted Marin residents to the danger and prompted the Board of Supervisors and fire officials to look for “lessons learned.” The Marin County Fire Department produced the Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The grand jury report seemed to be welcomed by all.
Within about six months of issuance of the report, through an effort expertly led by Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber, the leadership of 17 of a possible 19 entities voted to join the newly forming JPA, the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority (MWPA). The grand jury report was always cited in presentations to boards and councils. In March of 2020, more than 70% of the voters in the county approved the tax to support the agency.
The MWPA is already transforming wildfire preparedness in the county and is carrying out all the previously mentioned recommendations. The tax brings in about $19,000,000 each year. Twenty percent of this is used for defensible space inspection of residences; 20% is used for projects designated by each of the 17 entities; and 60% is used for “core” projects which may be countywide or may be proposed across one of five geographic areas.
The grand jury envisioned a lean organization. The founding documents of the MWPA specify that no more than 10% of the funds can be spent on administration. Currently there are two paid staff: the executive officer and a program director. Governance includes: the Board of Directors made up of one elected official from each of the 17 entities; the Operations Committee made up of fire chiefs and city managers from each entity; the Advisory Technical Committee with technical expertise from each entity; and the Citizens Oversight Committee (COC) with nine members representing geographic areas and tax payer, environmental, fire, and civic groups. Four of the nine current members of the COC were on the grand jury that issued the wildfire report.
Significant work has already been accomplished. Because the tax funding wasn’t available until December, only local projects were proposed in the first year. Now, with full funding, major projects are underway throughout the county. For more information go to https://www.marinwildfire.org/.
The report Wildfire Preparedness: A New Approach won the California Grand Jurors Association award for Excellence in Reporting largely because of its role in the creation of the MWPA. The 2018-19 Marin Civil Grand Jury is proud of this award but praise also goes to all those reports that preceded it. They were the waves preparing the way.