HANFORD — State law requires that cities have an obligation to be transparent about how they spend taxpayer dollars, and the city of Hanford is being sued for allegedly not fulfilling that obligation.
The Nevada Policy Research Institute recently filed a lawsuit in Kings County Superior Court against the city of Hanford for refusing to comply with the California Public Records Act (CPRA).
The lawsuit stems from the institute’s work on its TransparentCalifornia.com website — which publishes the pay and pension data of nearly 2.5 million California public employees from over 2,000 government agencies.
According to Transparent California research director Robert Fellner, Hanford is the only city in Kings County and the only city with a population of at least 20,000 people statewide that has “refused” to provide the basic name and salary information requested.
“The California Public Records Act is emphatic in its purpose to make public all records concerning governmental affairs,” Fellner said. “Hanford’s refusal to provide an accounting of city employees and their taxpayer-funded salaries is a clear violation of the law.”
Despite having provided the information for the 2014 year, Fellner said the city has not produced records documenting the names and wages of its employees when Transparent California requested the same information for the 2015 and 2016 years.
“It is inconceivable to claim that a city government with hundreds of employees and millions of dollars in payroll does not possess records that identify the names and wages of its employees,” Fellner said.
The lawsuit asks the court to compel Hanford to comply with the CPRA and provide a copy of records documenting city employees’ names and salary information so that it may be published online at TransparentCalifornia.com.
The lawsuit includes copies of a series of emails sent back and forth between Fellner and City Clerk Jennifer Gomez.
The emails start in June 2016, with Fellner formally requesting the names and salaries of city employees for the 2015 year. In the email, Fellner tells Gomez that the city could provide any report, record, or combination of the two that contains employee names and salaries.
Gomez emailed Fellner back, saying there was not “a single report with all the information that you have requested.”
She did, however, provide a State Controller’s Office Report that lists job titles and salaries and another report that lists all employees and their job titles.
Fellner told Gomez in an email that the information she provided was not sufficient, and she replied that the city simply had no records of the kind he was asking for and had supplied the only information she had available.
In June of this year, Fellner sent another email request to Gomez asking for the names and wages of employees for the 2016 year.
Again, Gomez provided Fellner with the State Controller’s Office Report, but told him she was not able to obtain the type of reports he requested.
“They did give us the information in 2014, which really undercuts their argument they have no way of doing so now,” Fellner said.
Fellner said he sent an email on Aug. 30 to Mayor David Ayers, City Manager Darrel Pyle, City Attorney Bob Dowd and Finance Director Paula Lofgren, relaying what he asked Gomez for and asking them to comply with law.
“We avoided litigation and spent months, if not years, trying to get them to comply because a lawsuit just penalizes Hanford taxpayers — as they are the ones responsible for paying the city’s legal fees,” Fellner said.
When contacted, both Gomez and Pyle said they could not comment on pending litigation.
City Attorney Mario Zamora said Fellner is asking for a document that doesn’t exist, and said if no such document exists, then the city is not violating the California Public Records Act.
The city does not create a document that contains what every single employee specifically earns, Zamora said, and is not legally required to compile any information together in a new document.
Zamora said the documents and information Gomez provided are sufficient for Transparent California to get the information needed; one document provides city employee names and their titles, while the other document provides how much a person with a particular title earns.
Zamora said he does not know what documents the city provided to Transparent California in 2014 that allowed the website to publish employee name and salary information.
Fellner said he hopes the matter can be resolved quickly and that “the city will embrace transparency instead of resisting it.”
HANFORD — The Hanford Fox Theatre will be hosting a country music concert on Friday at 7 p.m. in honor of military veterans.
Organized by local organization Six Strings for Freedom, the concert will feature country singer Brian Davis, who has written for many country artists, including one of Brantley Gilbert’s most popular songs, “One Hell of an Amen.”
Also headlining the event are Gregor Ross from Caruthers and JJ Brown from Hanford.
All proceeds from the event will go to Our Heroes Dreams, a nonprofit organization that assists veterans. Organizers say the money will help pay for retreats and other programs.
“I’m always seeking out opportunities to work with vets,” Brown said. “It’s always important for the community to constantly recognize our veterans and simply let them know the community hasn’t forgotten about them."
Brown served in the Navy for five years and said he was excited to be part of the concert.
Clay Groefsema, co-founder of Six Strings for Freedom, said he wanted to do something for veterans because he has many friends who are former military and his twin brother is a pilot in the Marines. He hopes this event will help bring the community together.
“[These veterans], they're young guys that are often going through tough times and they’re fresh out of the military,” Groefsema said. “They lose their identity and it’s a sad thing to see.”
Groefsema said many veterans have a hard time adjusting back to normal life after their military service. Because of this, he teamed with Our Heroes Dreams, a local organization founded by Hanford resident and former veteran Justin Bond. Groefsema was impressed by the work the organization does to help veterans when they return home.
“The biggest battlefield that our guys face is here in the homefront,” Bond said. “They have to learn how to turn that soldier light switch off. They teach us how to be warriors, but not how to be civilians.”
Bond lost one of his legs during the Battle of Fallujah on April 4, 2004. He and his troop became completely surrounded by insurgents and bond ended up shot in both knees by AK-47 fire.
Bond was 26 when he left the military and became depressed.
“Eleven people that I knew committed suicide," Bond said. "I knew that we had to do something."
According to the Veteran’s Suicide Prevention Program, 20 veterans die from suicide every day.
Bond formed Our Heroes Dreams and focuses his time on making sure that veterans find a place to heal and get back to regular life.
“Guys like [Bond] are very admirable,” said Groefsema.
Bond’s next goal for the organization is to have a camp for veterans. The group is looking to buy property of up to 350 acres near Bass Lake that would be called Camp Freedom. He said it would be open all year for veterans and first responders.
The organization now takes veterans to Camp Harmon in the Santa Cruz mountains for five-day healing retreats.
“Our mission is to take them fishing, get them the help that they need and provide an outlet so that they can go and be able to relax and be able to live again," Bond said.
HANFORD — The 17th Annual Blues and Roots Festival promises to be bigger and better than ever with Grammy award-winning musicians and local favorites.
The bands will be presented on the Hanford Chrysler Stage — the steps of the Civic Auditorium — and will consist of three bands to entertain spectators.
The Juke House Dogs consist of two well-known brothers from Hanford: Leonard and Johnny Rodriguez. In fact, this is a welcome home for the Rodriguez brothers, who played at the very first Blues and Roots festival 17 years ago.
The next band up, Fresno’s Deja Blues, has entertained crowds at small and large venues over the last 20 years; including Thursday Night Market Place and the Blues and Roots Festival in 2013.
"We've had the pleasure of playing with or sharing the stage with many amazing blues artists," Gumbo Furnas, the group’s lead guitar player, said.
The festival’s headliner, Paula Harris and the Beasts of Blues, stand out among the San Francisco Bay Area’s best as one of the most unique and funky blues bands to emerge from Northern California, festival organizer Jim Castleman said.
The band burst onto the scene in 2012 with recognition at the International Blues Challenge as one of the top three bands in the world. Harris’s debut album’s horn sound was heavily influenced by her love of funk, jazz and soul blues.
Harris received multiple blues and music awards, while her band has no shortage of Grammy award-winning artists, including horn players and the drummer.
Harris, who has been singing her whole life, said she is looking forward to the beautiful weather and playing great music for the Hanford crowd at the “unique venue” on the steps of the Civic Auditorium.
Harris said she’s played in the Central Valley before, but never in Hanford. She said bringing herself and her eight-member band to town has been years in the making.
“It’s going to be a high-energy show,” Harris said. “We’re bringing our A-game.”
Castleman said Hanford’s Blues and Roots Festival is one of only two free blues festivals in the country, with the other being the Chicago Blues Festival, so he is very proud of that fact.
“It takes a community of support to put on a show like this, so we would really like to say thanks to our sponsors,” Castleman said. “It’s a great community event and it’s going to be a fun night."
LOWER MATECUMBE KEY, Fla. — With 25 percent of the homes in the Florida Keys feared destroyed, emergency workers Tuesday rushed to find Hurricane Irma's victims — dead or alive — and deliver food and water to the stricken island chain.
As crews labored to repair the lone highway connecting the Keys, residents of some of the islands closest to Florida's mainland were allowed to return and get their first look at the devastation.
"It's going to be pretty hard for those coming home," said Petrona Hernandez, whose concrete home on Plantation Key with 35-foot walls was unscathed, unlike others a few blocks away. "It's going to be devastating to them."
But because of disrupted phone service and other damage, the full extent of the destruction was still a question mark, more than two days after Irma roared into the Keys with 130 mph winds.
Elsewhere in Florida, life inched closer to normal, with some flights again taking off, many curfews lifted and major theme parks reopening. Cruise ships that extended their voyages and rode out the storm at sea began returning to port with thousands of passengers.
The number of people without electricity in the steamy late-summer heat dropped to 9.5 million — just under half of Florida's population. Utility officials warned it could take 10 days or more for power to be fully restored. About 110,000 people remained in shelters across Florida.
The number of deaths blamed on Irma in Florida climbed to 12, in addition to four in South Carolina and two in Georgia. At least 37 people were killed in the Caribbean.
"We've got a lot of work to do, but everybody's going to come together," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said. "We're going to get this state rebuilt."
In hard-hit Naples, on Florida's southwest coast, more than 300 people stood outside a Publix grocery store in the morning, waiting for it to open.
A manager came to the store's sliding door with occasional progress reports. Once he said that workers were throwing out produce that had gone bad; another time, that they were trying to get the cash registers working.
One man complained loudly that the line had too many gaps. Others shook their heads in frustration at word of another delay.
At the front of the line after a more than two-hour wait, Phill Chirchirillo, 57, said days without electricity and other basics were beginning to wear on people.
"At first it's like, 'We're safe, thank God.' Now they're testy," he said. "The order of the day is to keep people calm."
Irma's rainy remnants, meanwhile, pushed through Alabama and Mississippi after drenching Georgia. Flash-flood watches and warnings were issued across the Southeast.
While nearly all of Florida was engulfed by the 400-mile-wide storm, the Keys — home to about 70,000 people — appeared to be the hardest hit. Drinking water and power were cut off, all three of the islands' hospitals were closed, and the supply of gasoline was extremely limited.
Search-and-rescue teams made their way into the more distant reaches of the Keys, and an aircraft carrier was positioned off Key West to help. Officials said it was not known how many people ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind in the Keys.
Monroe County began setting up shelters and food-and-water distribution points for Irma's victims in the Keys.
Crews also worked to repair two washed-out, 300-foot sections of U.S. 1, the highway that runs through the Keys, and check the safety of the 42 bridges linking the islands.
Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said preliminary estimates suggested that 25 percent of the homes in the Keys were destroyed and 65 percent sustained major damage.
"Basically, every house in the Keys was impacted," he said.
In Islamorada, a trailer park was devastated, the homes ripped apart as if by a giant claw. A sewage-like stench hung over the place.
Debris was scattered everywhere, including refrigerators, washers and dryers, a 25-foot fishing boat and a Jacuzzi. Homes were torn open to give a glimpse of their contents, including a bedroom with a small Christmas tree decorated with starfish.
One man and his family came to check on a weekend home and found it destroyed. The sight was too much to bear. The man told his family to get back in the car, and they drove off toward Miami.
In Key Largo, Lisa Storey and her husband said they had yet to be contacted by the power company or by city, county or state officials. As she spoke to a reporter, a helicopter passed overhead.
"That's a beautiful sound, a rescue sound," she said.
Authorities stopped people and checked for documentation such as proof of residency or business ownership before allowing them back into the Upper Keys, including Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada.
The Lower Keys — including the chain's most distant and most populous island, Key West, with 27,000 people — were still off-limits, with a roadblock in place where the highway was washed out.
In Lower Matecumbe Key, just south of Islamorada, 57-year-old Donald Garner checked on his houseboat, which had only minor damage. Nearby, three other houseboats were partially sunk. Garner had tied his to mangroves.
"That's the only way to make it," said Garner, who works for a shrimp company.
Although the Keys are studded with mansions and beachfront resorts, about 13 percent of the people live in poverty and could face big obstacles as the cleanup begins.
"People who bag your groceries when you're on vacation — the bus drivers, hotel cleaners, cooks and dishwashers — they're already living beyond paycheck to paycheck," said Stephanie Kaple, who runs an organization that helps the homeless in the Keys.