Balancing the County’s Budget Deficits
on the Backs of Children
By Ray A. March
June 13, 2001
Michelson Now Fighting Two Fronts
From her lone camp, Donna Michelson was now dealing with commission members on two fronts: one was her effort to get the commission to remove Prop. 10 Trust Funds from the control of Auditor Judi Stevens and Treasurer Cheryl Knoch; the second front was to establish a “concept paper” that would act as a guideline for setting goals for the Children and Families Commission program.
The two fronts -- although unrelated -- paralleled each other when it came to the commission’s resistance to abide by state law and its irritation with Michelson’s forthright managing style and her progressive “concept paper.”
The dual aspect of Michelson’s delicate position is apparent in documents obtained either privately or through the California Public Records Act by the Modoc Independent News -- documents that record a traceable chain of events during Michelson’s tenure.
Although the commission was working with a year-old “concept paper,” or set of guidelines for preparing children from birth to five years of age for entering public school, Michelson told the commission the plan was “sorely lacking or non-existent” in readying the children’s parents or the children for a school environment.
In part, the program’s short-term goal was to see that “children be healthy and well” when they enter school. Healthy and well went far beyond the physical well-being of a young student entering the Modoc County school system. To quote from the “concept paper” it meant that:
“Children prior to entering school will be respectful towards all aspects of diversity (ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, linguistic difference, groups historically and currently under-represented, children with special disabilities and needs.)”
The concept paper was a blistering indictment of county agencies responsible for carrying out specific segments of the program, and it was not surprising that the agencies took offense during a public forum on June 13, 2001 that lasted three hours.
“The first hour consisted of members of TEACH and from health services interpreting the concept/discussion as a personal attack on their specific programs although no names were mentioned in the paper,” Michelson noted in the minutes of the meeting.
She also noted without specifics that “personal attacks were made upon the executive director, Donna Michelson.”But, the last two hours were productive, according to Michelson’s minutes, with the group working through the concept paper page by page and “correcting syntax.”
Michelson may have thought at the time that all went well at the public forum’s discussion of her concept paper, but that atmosphere was to quickly change. A closed session was immediately called by the commission for the next week, June 21, 2001, to discuss “the performance of the executive director in regards to the ‘discussion/concept’paper.”
With each meeting, instance-by-recorded instance, item-by-documented item, Michelson was following her instincts and principles as the commission’s executive director, but in doing so she was quickly alienating the very people she was attempting to inform.
Item: She stood up to Carol Harbaugh who was trying to obstruct the transfer of Prop. 10 monies from county control to the local branch of the Bank of America.
Item: She challenged Harbaugh’s authority to unilaterally make her an employee under Harbaugh’s county office of education.
Item: She continually, and at times in frustration, told the commission the Prop. 10 funds were being kept illegally in the county treasury, yet the commission failed to act each time -- or disprove her.
Item: At every turn as she tried to convince the commission the Prop. 10 Trust Funds were being wrongly managed, she alienated not only members of the commission but elected officials.
Considering the “Modocian” cultural makeup of a commission that included rigid-minded elected officials and insiders who were reluctant to accept new ideas coming from outsiders, Michelson was rapidly adding up negative points.
What was being ignored was that Michelson’s principles and ethics were driving her to convince the commission -- against its collective will -- that it was illegal to keep the Prop. 10 Trust Funds in the county treasury.
The handling of the “concept paper” was an opportunity for the commission to put her on notice and it did so beginning June 21, 2001.
Next: Part 9
Charges of Brown Act violation