Response to Citizen Complaints

INTRODUCTION

The California Penal Code, Section 933a, allows the County Grand Jury to investigate agencies of local government and a variety of other matters within its jurisdiction.

OBJECTIVE

The objective is to ascertain if local governments have any established procedures for the filing of and response to citizen complaints regarding governmental services or actions.

APPROACH

Grand Jury members reviewed various complaints received by the Grand Jury and determined that while few merited Grand Jury action, they nonetheless were important to the citizen involved. Therefore, the Grand Jury queried various government officials regarding procedures for processing citizen complaints.

OBSERVATIONS

On November 9, 1994, a meeting was held with the County Administrator to ascertain if his office had an organized method of dealing with citizen complaints. The Grand Jury was advised that no such system existed. The County Administrator stated that if a County employee received a complaint as to a governmental action, the citizen would be referred to the agency involved. There is no record kept nor is there a follow up as to a resolution of the complaint.

The Administrator stated that if he were the official originally contacted, he would also refer the citizen to the appropriate department and if the complainant was not satisfied by the response, it was possible that the Administrator could be contacted again, but no further action was assured. The Administrator estimated personally receiving about five calls a month and assumed that the complaints were dealt with either by the departments or the complainants contacted their respective District Supervisor. The County Administrator acknowledged that there was no centralized system for the filing or follow up of complaints. He did not believe such a system was necessary.

On November 30, 1994, a meeting was held with the Chairperson of the County Board of Supervisors, who acknowledged that the County has no standard procedure to deal with citizen complaints. It was assumed a complainant would call his Supervisor's office which would then refer the citizen to the appropriate department. If there was no resolution to the problem the Chairperson assumed that the complainant would call again. Whether or not there was to be a follow-up, it would depend upon the nature of the problem. There is no specific method for filing complaints nor is there an organized tracking system to determine the efficacy of the complaint or the manner in which it is resolved. It is left to each Supervisor to deal with the matter in his or her own way.

On October 19, 1994, a meeting was held with the Administrator of the City of Santa Barbara. It was stated that the City has a semi-structured system whereby a citizen appears at the Administrative office and fills out forms delineating the complaint. This information is also logged into a computer. The complaint is routed to the concerned agency which makes an appointment with the citizen. If the complaint is not resolved, the citizen may complain to the City Council with no assurance that the complaint will be followed up nor resolved in a definitive manner.

On March 14, 1995, the Grand Jury queried the City Attorney for the City of Santa Maria regarding the manner in which the City attempts to resolve citizen complaints. The Grand Jury was advised that there is a system limited to health concerns and child and spousal abuse. However, as to any other form of complaint, there is no formalized method. The Grand Jury was informed that at the moment there were over 500 complaints pending from citizens as to various governmental activities and that there is no specific manner of bringing such complaints to City government nor of attempting their resolution.

Inquiry was made as to the possibility of the creation of an Office of Ombudsman to deal generally with citizen complaints in a neutral manner. There is precedent for the establishment of an Ombudsman to deal with specific problems. The Health and Safety Code Section 1596.872a provides for a child care Ombudsman and Section 18150-15-3 provides for an Ombudsman to deal with mobile home problems. In addition, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors has approved as part of the County Development Program the establishment of a contractor to serve as a liaison between the business community and County regulatory departments who is referred to as the "Business Ombudsman."

Inquiry was made of the Santa Barbara County Counsel regarding creation of an Ombudsman, and the limitations are few and basic. The Board of Supervisors has the right to create positions for the performance of services that are deemed to be a benefit to the public or to assist the Board of Supervisors in the exercise of its general powers. (California Constitution Article XI Section 1(b) and Government Code Section 23005.)

The legal limits applicable to Ombudsmen are that they cannot exercise powers and duties specifically reposed by statute in a county or state official. They may not exercise judicial or prosecutorial powers nor render legal opinions binding upon county officers. An Ombudsman cannot be given authority to overrule a decision made by a county officer or agency that are within that officer's or agency's statutory functions.

The County Counsel's Office advised the Grand Jury that an Ombudsman can be appointed whose function is to disseminate information, facilitate the resolution of disputes, serve as a liaison between members of the public and county officials and bring grievances to the attention of the officials. The Board of Supervisors could agree by ordinance to the mediation of disputes involving county agencies and to designate the Ombudsman to perform an advocacy or mediation role in such a situation. It is believed that, among other benefits, a mediation between government and citizens will help to avoid possible costly and prolonged litigation.

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

FINDING #1: There exists no definite procedure whereby citizen complaints can be filed and acted on within Santa Barbara County or any city contacted within the County. Each administrator, Supervisor, or Councilperson acts upon each complaint in his or her own way. A citizen does not know with certainty the manner of initiating a complaint nor is assured that the complaint will be heard and decided within a reasonable period of time.

RECOMMENDATION #1a: One employee in the County and in each city should be designated to receive, record, route, and track complaints and follow up the resolution of such complaints.

RECOMMENDATION #1b: In the alternative or should it be determined that Recommendation #1a does not achieve the desired results of complaint resolution, then the position of Ombudsman should be established by Santa Barbara County and the Cities of Santa Barbara and Santa Maria to receive complaints, route them to the appropriate agency and/or official, ensure that a meeting is conducted within a reasonable time, notify the citizen of the manner in which the complaint is resolved and should, if necessary, be authorized to conduct a mediation hearing. The selection of the Ombudsman should be made in such fashion as to ensure the impartiality of the Ombudsman so that he/she is a true buffer between government and the citizen. For all cities other than those indicated above, Recommendation #1a should be implemented.

AFFECTED AGENCIES (California Penal Code 933c requires that comments to Findings and Recommendations be made in writing within 60 days by all affected agencies except governing bodies, which are allowed 90 days.)

1. Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors- response
2. Buellton City Council- response
3. Carpinteria City Council- response
4. Guadalupe City Council- response
5. Lompoc City Council- response
6. Santa Barbara City Council- response
7. Santa Maria City Council- response
8. Solvang City Council- response