For the third time in three weeks, Shasta County Supervisors met Friday in special session to discuss the $50 million Zogg Fire civil settlement reached between District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett and officers of Pacific Gas & Electric, as well as DA Bridgett’s distribution of those funds.
The frequency of board discussions regarding the Zogg Fire settlement drew early criticism from Angela Mellis, program manager of the District Attorney’s Crime Victims Assistance Center, who spoke during public comment time prior to the discussion.
“Zogg Fire victims, especially those families who are struggling with the loss of their loved ones, are re-traumatized each time you do this. They feel the board is being insensitive to their needs for mental health and healing,” she said.
Previous discussions occurred July 25 immediately following an informational presentation by DA Bridgett on why she chose to file a civil case after Superior Court Judge Daniel E. Flynn dismissed the criminal cases against PG&E. During that July 25 meeting, DA Bridgett said there was not enough evidence to support the charge PG&E knew about the risk of a gray pine tree falling onto its 12,000 volt transmission line along Zogg Mine Road at 2:42 p.m. on Sun., Sept. 27, 2020.
“I can assure the community that during the seven-day preliminary hearing, all evidence was presented regarding the defective tree and PG&E’s failure to remove it. After hearing witnesses testify, the Honorable Judge (Bradley L.) Boeckman found sufficient evidence to proceed to trial” with 11 of the 31 charges we originally filed, Bridgett wrote in a response to additional allegations raised by District 1 Supervisor Kevin Crye during the board’s Aug. 1 meeting, even though the topic was not listed on that meeting’s agenda as a discussion item.
During the second board meeting, following questions from District 3 Supervisor Mary Rickert on why this topic was even under discussion when it wasn’t on the board’s agenda — a possible violation of the California open meetings law commonly called the Ralph M. Brown Act — Crye said he had spoken only with board chair and District 4 Supervisor Patrick Jones regarding his concerns.
“You can only speak to one other person on the board due to the Brown Act,” Crye responded.
Yet, during the special meeting Fri., Aug. 4, Crye chastised District 2 Supervisor Tim Garman who represents the area devastated by the Zogg Fire for failing to act on complaints from constituents in regards to the civil settlement.
“I did speak to Supervisor Garman about my concerns, but Supervisor Garman wasn’t interested in this topic. That’s why I did all the research on this even though I am not an attorney, and that’s why I want us to hire an independent attorney to look into this,” Crye said at approximately two hours into Friday’s special meeting that started at 9:03 a.m.
Ignoring or possibly unaware of Crye’s admission of serially discussing the issue with two other board members — potentially another violation of the Brown Act — County Counsel Matthew McOmber interrupted further discussion by Crye to caution all five governing board members against making any motions to hire an outside attorney or taking any action other than to suggest staff bring the item back on a future agenda for action.
“You should refrain even from any discussion of any actions in regards to Mr. Garman,” McOmber said, looking directly at Crye.
When given an opportunity to respond, Garman spoke harshly.
“Supervisor Crye, you are full of shit! You are absolutely 1,000 percent wrong that I didn’t care about this issue” Garman said, drawing gasps from the audience and an admonition from Jones for proper decorum after uttering a barn yard epithet.
In a telephone conversation with A News Cafe following the meeting, Garman said he apologized to Crye afterward and will publicly apologize to everyone at the board’s next meeting for his outburst.
“I was upset and I handled myself poorly,” Garman admitted.
“As supervisor of the district in which the Zogg Fire did so much damage, I have written a letter on behalf of my constituents asking California Attorney General Rob Bonta to look into enquiries from concerned citizens about the prosecution of PG&E by the Shasta County District Attorney’s office,” Garman said, waving a copy of the document so the audience could see it.
Garman forwarded a copy of his letter to A News Cafe immediately following the meeting’s conclusion.
“This board has no say on the DA’s actions. She answers to the State Attorney General. We have no business farming this out to an outside counsel,” he said prior to reading his letter aloud.
“Due to the concerns expressed by some citizens of Shasta County’s District 2, I request that pursuant to your authority as Attorney General of California, you assert your authority and review both the criminal and civil cases handled by the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office,” Garman read.
“I request you review the full prosecution of the cases by Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie A. Bridgett, the dismissal of the criminal case, the evidence presented by her office, and the appropriateness of the civil settlement including all distributions to charities,” Garman concluded his reading of the document.
The mention to charities receiving donations appears to be one of the largest points of contention, based on public comments as well as those issues raised by board members.
It refers in large part to a $7 million bequest to Children’s Legacy Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, by surviving family members as a memorial for 8 year-old Felya McLeod, who died along with her mother Alaina (McLeod) Rowe, 45, while attempting to escape the wildfire flames in a vehicle that drifted off Zogg Mine Road due to heavy smoke blanketing the area.
DA Bridgett was a founding member of the nonprofit organization and serves without pay as secretary on the organization’s board of directors.
Other charities mentioned by several speakers include Bella Vista Farms, which received $500,000; a bequest of $280,000 to the Jeremy Stoke Foundation; two bequests totaling $2.7 million to Haven Humane Society; and a bequest of $1 million to the Whiskeytown Environmental School (WES) Community to rebuild WES Camp in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
Of the $50 million settlement funds paid by PG&E, a court-ordered fine of $5 million went to the Shasta County District Attorney’s office to fund prosecution of additional civil cases similar to the Zogg Fire, DA Bridgett said.
At least 74 percent of the remaining $45 million in penalty payments went to fire or law enforcement agencies to prevent arson and wild land fires, she added.
Since the special meeting’s agenda listed the topic only as an item of discussion, not an item for official action, the board was unable to move forward except to entertain a motion, made by chair Jones and seconded by Crye, to bring the item back for possible action at a future board meeting.
The motion passed unanimously 5 – 0 at 11:20 a.m., at which point Jones adjourned the special meeting.
Early on, a discussion on whether to change the board’s next regular meeting date from Aug. 15 to Aug. 22 due to scheduling conflicts ended with a 5 – 0 vote to retain the original meeting date since Jones and Crye each said they changed personal travel plans to accommodate the Aug. 15 meeting.