About the Award: County Counsel Recognition Awards are made by the County Counsels’ Association of California to deputies who have made a significant contribution to the Association or have performed other extraordinary service benefiting counties statewide. Recipients are nominated by a County Counsel and selected by the Association’s Board of Directors.
In 2008, Lead Deputy County Counsel Theresa J. Fuentes was recognized by the Association for her work on the Coleman and Plata cases, discussed in more detail below.
In 2009, Lead Deputy County Counsel Theresa Fuentes, along with counsel from Sonoma and San Mateo County Counsel Offices, were recognized for their representation of the “County Intervenors” in the Coleman and Plata cases, long-standing federal prison overcrowding litigation. The proceedings were noteworthy and highly innovative as they were held before a three-judge panel which, even before the counties were permitted to intervene, had indicated intent to remedy state prison overcrowding by issuing a “prisoner release order” or a “population cap.” The team of attorneys worked tirelessly to present evidence that the issuance of a prisoner release order could have substantial and wide-ranging adverse impacts on counties. They argued forcefully that a prisoner release order would shift costs and responsibility for housing and providing prisoner services from the State to the counties that would be required to absorb this population. In addition, they informed the court any relief that the three-judge court orders will be ineffective relief unless the court also orders the state to fund any remedial actions that would negatively impact counties. The three-judge panel credited the counties’ concerns that public safety may be negatively impacted if any of the state’s measures burden county programs and services. To address those concerns, the three-judge panel’s order provides that to the extent population reduction measures implemented by the State increase the need for community services or other measures to be undertaken by the counties, the State must confer with the counties and calculate the level of funding needed by the counties to maintain public safety at or near existing levels.
The fact that the court understood and cared about the counties was the result of the extraordinary presentation made by the “County Team.” Ms. Fuentes and the other counsel were commended for their success at helping the court and the plaintiffs understand that counties are woefully underfunded to take on this additional responsibility, and that any meaningful relief from state prison overcrowding must also address the fact that the order would exacerbate the challenges that the counties are already facing.
In 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Order of the three-judge panel. The State is achieving the ordered population reduction primarily through legislative changes, including its realignment efforts through AB 109. Due in part to the efforts of the “County Team” in the Coleman and Plata cases, AB 109 is accompanied by funding to the counties to house and provide programs for prisoners released or diverted under AB 109 and other programs.
In 2011, Chief Assistant County Counsel Greta Hansen was recognized by the County Counsels’ Association of California for her work in front of the Commission on State Mandates related to the AB 3632 program. Ms. Hansen and the Office secured a major victory before the Commission, successfully challenging an $8.6 million disallowance in state reimbursements for mental health services the County provides to special education students. This arose from a 2009 audit by the State Controller’s Office, which determined that the State mandate for the County Mental Health Department to serve special education students did not include the provision of mental health rehabilitation services to seriously emotionally disturbed children. Ms. Hansen challenged the State’s disallowance for these services by filing an Incorrect Reduction Claim (IRC) arguing that these critical services were covered by the mandate and thus the County was entitled to reimbursement. When faced with a long waiting period to have its claim heard, Ms. Hansen sought expedited relief in court and was ultimately successful in persuading the Commission to expedite the IRC. Ms. Hansen’s success before the Commission not only saved the County general fund the $8.6 million at issue, but also shielded the County from comparable disallowances for other fiscal years, protected other counties throughout the state from similar disallowances, and validated this important category of services which provides effective interventions to the County’s seriously emotionally disturbed children.
In 2012, Assistant County Counsel Robert M. Coelho, and Deputy County Counsel Cheryl Stevens received the County Counsels’ Association Recognition Award for their work in drafting the Employment Law: Discrimination/Disabilities section of the Association’s County Counsel Law Guide.
In 2013, Assistant Deputy County Counsel Steve Mitra was recognized by the Association for his amicus work in the matter of Elk Hills Power v. Board of Equalization. The Fourth Appellate District issued an opinion on a matter of first impression: whether an electric power plant’s emission reduction credits (ERCs) (Health and Safety Code section 40709) should be included in its unitary tax determination. The State Board of Equalization (BOE) included the ERCs in the tax determination. On appeal, the court held that the BOE properly took into account the value of the ERCs. Because they were necessary to the ongoing productive use of the property, they were properly considered under Rev and Tax Code section 110, subdivision (e). The court found that the assessor is allowed “to assume the presence of the ERCs that are necessary to operate the taxable property productively, and to value the fair market value of the property accordingly.” The Supreme Court granted review to appellant Elk Hills to consider how limitations on the taxation of intangible property apply to the assessment of a power plant subject to annual assessment by the State Board of Equalization when the owner of the plant used emission reduction credits to offset its emissions and obtain authorization to construct the plant. Mr. Mitra drafted an amicus brief on behalf of the California State Association of Counties and California Assessors’ Association in support of the BOE in the California Supreme Court.
In 2014, Assistant County Counsel Danny Chou, Chief Assistant County Counsel Greta Hansen, Deputy County Counsel Marcy Berkman, Deputy County Counsel Jenny Lam, and Deputy County Counsel Meghan F. Loisel, along with counsel from Alameda, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Ventura County Counsel Offices, were recognized by the Association for their work in County of Santa Clara v. Atlantic Richfield, a lawsuit seeking to hold the former manufacturers of lead paint responsible for cleaning up lead that continues to poison thousands of California children each year. Santa Clara County was the lead public entity in the case, and attorneys from the Santa Clara County Counsel’s Office have led the team of public attorneys throughout the litigation.
The case was originally filed by the County of Santa Clara in 2000. The complaint in the case alleged a single cause of action on behalf of the People of the State of California (People) for public nuisance, based on the fact that the five defendant paint manufacturers promoted lead paint for decades despite knowing it was seriously hazardous to children. Nine other California counties (City and County of San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo, Los Angeles, Monterey, Ventura and Solano) and cities (Oakland and San Diego) eventually joined the County of Santa Clara in this litigation.
After a 6-week bench trial in July and August 2013, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg handed down a decision on December 16, 2013, finding that three manufacturers (ConAgra, National Lead, and Sherwin Williams) had contributed significantly to the creation of a public nuisance placing children at risk of lead poisoning. Judge Kleinberg found that children are significantly harmed by the lead in paint in older housing in California, that lead paint was actively sold by these manufacturers even well after they were aware of the harms of lead to children, and ordered the three defendants to pay $1.1 billion into a fund to be administered by the State of California’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, for the benefit of the people within the cities and counties that prosecuted the case.
In 2017, Deputy County Counsel Danielle Goldstein was recognized by the Association for her leadership in formulating and implementing the response by the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) to the Fair Political Practices Commission’s (FPPC) proposed Political Reform Act (PRA) revisions. Last year, the FPPC launched a project to modernize the PRA, the first comprehensive effort of its kind since its adoption by voters in 1974. Upon release of the draft revision in August 2016, Danielle analyzed the complex and extensive proposed PRA revisions. She identified many major issues with the proposal, and drafted the formal response submitted to the FPPC on behalf of CSAC. When the second draft was released, many of the issues Danielle had identified had been resolved, but she prepared a second response letter to the FPPC, and continues to work with the FPPC to address the concerns of counties regarding the PRA. Her extensive work on this project has already had a profound impact, and will greatly benefit County Counsels and other public officials statewide.