From an employee embezzlement scandal to receiving commendations for accountability practices, a little-known special district charged with public health has made significant strides over the last five years.
There hasn’t been much media buzz around the San Mateo County Mosquito and Vector Control District in recent times, and that’s a good thing. In the years since two former employees were caught embezzling nearly half a million dollars, officials now overseeing the district have tightened the reins on the agency responsible for protecting against vector-borne diseases.
The mosquito district was recently praised in a San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report that investigated local special districts’ transparency practices. Its accomplishments include being awarded the District Transparency Certificate of Excellence and the District Distinction Designation from the California Special District Leadership Foundation this year.
“The public’s trust in us is a first priority, we’re always looking for ways to be transparent and accountable, because ultimately we work for the citizens of this county,” said mosquito district spokeswoman Megan Sebay.
A variety of internal controls have been put in place over the last few years to promote financial accountability and public engagement, said Dr. Chindi Peavey, who was brought on in 2015 to head the district.
Tightening oversight of district finances has been an important change for the agency that was highly scrutinized following a yearslong embezzlement scandal. The district’s former finance director Jo Ann Dearman, also known as Joanne Seeney, and accounting supervisor Vika Sinipata were convicted of conspiring to steal nearly $450,000 in public funds between 2009 and 2011. Shortly after the fraud was discovered, the district’s longtime manager — who hired Dearman without checking that she already had a criminal record for embezzlement — was ousted by the Board of Trustees.
Following interim management, Peavey was hired to help steer the district back on course and restore the public’s trust. While noting some of the improvements were put in place before her tenure began, Peavey and the board have taken on a larger supervisory role. There are two people working in the finance department with separate roles, and any payments over $7,500 must be reviewed, have attached documentation, and be signed by both Peavey and a board member. Peavey noted she also carefully reviews any payments less than that.
The makeup of the district’s Board of Trustees has also shifted to include more accountants or professionals with business degrees. There are also representatives with government experience, such as current and former mayors. A finance committee comprised of three trustees plays an important role going over monthly and annual financial reports, she said.
“The board really scrutinizes what we’re doing and I really welcome that,” Peavey said. “We’re on a really good track and we have a great board and great staff.”
The district employees 21 people with an annual $5.1 million total budget. Like other special districts, it’s funded through by countywide property tax dollars, but also has its own special parcel tax.
While countywide residents participate in funding the district, much of the agency’s work goes unnoticed, especially when things are going well. The district is responsible for safeguarding public health by monitoring and reducing mosquitoes and other vectors. Managing vector-borne diseases such as West Nile Virus is a paramount task for the agency.
Engaging the public
More than a century old, the local agency is one of the oldest mosquito control programs in the United States. Its work has ramped up in recent years as 2014 was the first time a mosquito testing positive for West Nile was found in San Mateo County. While no human has contracted the disease here, Peavey noted preventing the spread of diseases is a vital responsibility.
Public outreach and education is also key, especially since the district often relies on reports from the public of dead squirrels or birds that may have contracted West Nile, or to notify staff of increased mosquito activity. With that in mind, the district revamped its website and is actively using social media and digital tools as a means to engage the public, Peavey said.
“We always strive to have the public know who we are and what we do. Because when we’re doing a good job, it’s not very noticeable,” Peavey said. “Having social media and digital access gives us a lot more opportunity to actually reach out to individual residents. And we do need assistance from residents themselves on controlling standing water on their property, and knowing to call us if they see a mosquito problem.”
Sebay, who’s boosted the district’s online presence, said transparency improvements include making it easy for people to find pertinent information such as public meeting agendas, and financial documents.
The grand jury also took notice of the improvements in its report “Can We See You Now? San Mateo County’s Independent Special Districts Website Transparency Update.”
Both Sebay and Peavey said this year was the first time the district received the two awards for fiscal management and transparency, which they credited to the continued work of staff and trustees.
“I believe in our mission of protecting public health. I like the special district model because it’s a small group and when you have a really good team, you can really accomplish a lot,” Peavey said. “I believe government really can work and it’s really just all of us working together and being accountable to the public and putting the taxpayers first.”
Visit smcmvcd.org for more information or call (650) 344-8592.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106