The Public Eye

Grand jury criticizes leadership, delays at Yolo Habitat Conservancy

A Swainson's hawk.
A Swainson's hawk.

A Yolo County environmental agency that was nearly disbanded in 2012 because of financial mismanagement and a lack of direction once again is facing questions about its leadership.

In a recent report, “Yolo Habitat Conservancy: A Never Ending Story,” the county’s grand jury takes aim at an agency created 14 years ago to make a local plan for protecting habitat for threatened and endangered species – a responsibility that otherwise falls to state and federal agencies. Conservancy leaders expect to have the plan approved late next year at a cost of about $10 million.

The grand jury report comes after a 2013 audit found the conservancy had improperly spent $1.8 million in funds intended for the Swainson’s hawk on the overall habitat plan, and generally was spending more money than it had. The agency’s executive director already had resigned in 2012 when she was confronted with questions about the agency’s dire financial situation. Most of its money has come from state and federal grants.

The conservancy’s performance “does not justify the time and the money spent,” according to the grand jury report.

The conservancy’s board of directors, which includes elected officials from Yolo County, Davis and West Sacramento, disputed that conclusion, and criticized the grand jury for failing to recognize the agency’s improvements since new leadership took over. Board chair and Yolo County Supervisor Jim Provenza predicted the conservancy would have a “model plan” approved next year.

Some of the grand jury’s most critical complaints about the conservancy concerned its new leadership. The report calls for the conservancy to take steps to address any appearance of impropriety regarding the approval of bills from two consultants who work as the conservancy’s executive director and project manager.

The grand jury found that payments to one of the consultants has the potential for conflict because she is a “decision maker” at the conservancy. The report does not specify which of the agency’s consultants is a decision maker, and jury foreman Carl Kailikole declined to comment.

Provenza said the complaint is off the mark because neither consultant is a decision maker. All key decisions are made by the board, he said.

The conservancy’s executive director is Petrea Marchand. She was working for Yolo County as manager of intergovernmental affairs in 2012 when she took a second job as interim executive director of the conservancy at the request of Provenza and other conservancy board members, according to Marchand and Provenza.

Marchand became the agency’s permanent executive director later that year, when she had left the county and started a consulting firm, Consero Solutions. She was hired as a part-time consultant at $125 an hour and has since received a $5 an hour raise.

According to Marchand’s invoices, she was paid $134,000 last year for an average of 20 hours of work a week. She was paid another $30,000 for work performed by other employees at her firm.

Marchand’s compensation was $7,000 more than the cost of salary and benefits for the agency’s previous executive director, who worked full time.

The agency paid another $117,000 last year to consultant Heidi Tschudin, who is the conservancy’s project manager. She is paid $215 an hour and worked an average of 12 hours a week last year.

Provenza, who as board chair approves the bills of Tschudin and Marchand, defended the use of consultants. Even if the agency could hire full-time employees at the same cost of part-time work by consultants, the conservancy would not get the plan approved any sooner, he said.

“I really don’t think anyone could do this job but Petrea and Heidi,” he said.

Provenza said Marchand deserves a higher rate of compensation, while Tschudin’s rate is based on years of experience providing planning services to the county and other local agencies. Tschudin did not return a message seeking comment.

The grand jury report notes that Marchand’s firm was hired without a competitive bidding process. Provenza said she initially was hired in a crisis situation that precluded a formal selection process and has proved herself most qualified for the job.

Marchand cited several accomplishments since taking the reins at the conservancy, including releasing two drafts of a habitat plan in four years when the previous executive director did not complete one in 10 years. She said she has increased grant revenues.

Marchand acknowledged that she missed her original deadline of October 2015 to have the habitat plan approved, saying it should be done late next year. She said she was new when she proposed the original deadline and did not completely understand the process, including the difficulty of getting federal and state wildlife officials to review proposals.

Marchand and Provenza said that delays by state and federal agencies are the biggest reason for missing last year’s deadline, and officials at the agencies don’t dispute the claims.

The plan will forecast development in Yolo County over a 50-year period, and propose mitigation for certain species that lose habitat as a result of the construction. The emphasis is on preserving Yolo County’s farms and other open space, Provenza and Marchand said.

Once the plan is approved, they said, the agency intends to hire a full-time director.

Habitat conservation plans allow developers within a designated geographic area to pay a fee or donate land to a local conservancy when they build on land that affects covered species, rather than having to obtain individual permits from state and federal wildlife agencies. The Natomas Basin Conservancy, for instance, has used developer fees to acquire almost 5,000 acres to compensate for development in the Natomas area of Sacramento.