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The section of Sonoma County government responsible for everything from monitoring the Russian River for toxic algae blooms to inspecting the safety of local restaurants is overworked and insufficiently staffed, challenges that hamper its effectiveness, according to a recently released civil grand jury report.

In its latest annual analysis published late last month, the 19-member civilian panel determined the county’s Department of Health Services’ Environmental Health and Safety section faced a staffing squeeze, particularly for middle management jobs, and relied too much on trainees to play key roles, among other findings. The little known but critically important government section has found it difficult to recruit and retain qualified employees, placing too great a burden on current staff members who suffer from “reduced job satisfaction” as well as “low morale,” the report said.

Matthew Stone, the grand jury foreman, said the report’s findings continue to show that the county has yet to fully recover from its recession-era belt tightening. “They’ve got a whole bunch of sort of big-picture priorities, but they’ve been starving their foot soldiers a little bit,” Stone said. “And that’s a concern.”

The section faces budget restrictions and hiring difficulties that, in the grand jury’s estimation, result in some positions being underfilled, meaning the job is held by a trainee rather than a more senior staff member.

The report says underfilling was partially responsible for the controversy surrounding last year’s National Heirloom Exposition, when vendors and exhibitors from the popular natural foods event said they were unfairly hit with fines and fees from health inspectors. The county’s health director at the time said officials were just following the law.

County department leaders, who have 60 days to file a formal response to the grand jury, are still “analyzing and reviewing” the report, said Christine Sosko, the county’s Environmental Health and Safety director. Sosko said it would be “a little premature” to comment directly on the grand jury’s findings or recommendations.

Sosko said the section has several senior-staff level employees reaching retirement age — a fact acknowledged by the grand jury report.

“In the interim, we’re finding that it’s difficult statewide to hire those management or senior-level staff,” Sosko said. “What we are finding is a lot of very qualified people that are just entering the career.”

Sonoma County also suffers from a lack of common awareness about the Environmental Health and Safety jobs, said Ellen Bauer, the county’s Public Health director. Its programs and services include public swimming pools and spas, tattoo facilities and practitioners, cannabis permits and inspections, childhood lead poisoning prevention, medical waste and nearly two dozen others.

“A lot of people don’t even really know that it is a career,” Bauer said. “People sort of stumble across it.”

Sonoma County currently has about nine Environmental Health vacancies for about 40 jobs, according to Sosko. Staffing levels have been “fairly consistent for many years,” Sosko said, but the Environmental Health workload has increased as the county has begun to regulate the marijuana industry, and the number of community events and festivals requiring food permits has grown. So the section has added several new positions to handle the heavier workload. One of the key hiring obstacles called out in the report is the county’s notoriously high housing costs, which, when considered in relation to salaries, make it difficult to attract employees, the report suggests.

“We are going to continue to have these challenges until we can provide more housing for people, because that really is our No. 1 deterrent,” said Board of Supervisors chairwoman Shirlee Zane.

The report also highlighted what it characterized as a training challenge for prospective employees. Full-fledged Environmental Health and Safety staff are required to be certified as a Registered Environmental Health Specialist, which requires at least a bachelor’s degree, 30 undergraduate units in the hard sciences and a set of specific courses, as well as 200 to 600 hours in a state-recognized program plus an exam.

Sonoma State University does not have a curriculum that leads directly to the required certification, the report says. So the grand jury recommended the county work with the university’s Environmental Studies chair to develop one.

Creating that curriculum may be easier said than done, according to SSU professor Laura Watt, the Environmental Studies department chair.

“The reality of curriculum development at SSU is that it’s tied pretty closely with the expertise of the tenure-track faculty in that department — and we have no one on staff with (Environmental) Health and Safety expertise,” Watt said in an email. “And tenure-track hires are still very few and far between on our campus. So I do not see it being possible to develop the kind of certificate that seems to be called for in the near future.”

Additionally, the state requirements for environmental health specialists are geared more toward people who studied natural sciences rather than environmental studies, according to SSU professor Jeff Baldwin, chair of the Geography and Global Studies department, which is merging with Environmental Studies.

And several universities in the state already offer programs that prepare students for environmental health specialist certifications, Baldwin said.

“In my opinion, SSU has scant resources available to develop a certification program which would duplicate these already (extant) efforts elsewhere,” he wrote in an email.

California does have schools with approved programs that get students ready to take the environmental health specialist exam, Sosko said. But those colleges are located either in Southern California or the Central Valley, she said.

That’s why Sosko is among a group of environmental health officials working with California State University, East Bay to set up a similar program there. An internship requirement would be included in the program, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.