Sidney French during 2023 storms
Sidney French surveys the damage at her cabin in Call of the Wild on Jan. 14. (submitted)

A 69-year-old Los Gatos resident who’s been unable to repair the old cabin she lives in, due to a paperwork dispute with Santa Clara County, has now filed an elder abuse complaint against the Office of the County Counsel.

Sidney French claims documents for her home were used to legitimize an illegally constructed home across the street from her Call of the Wild residence and says the County is refusing to help her clear up the paperwork mess; the County wants French to submit to another inspection—which she’s afraid will lead to additional violations on her file.

She says she just wants to be able to renovate her home to the point where it will protect her from the elements. As it is, the walls are paper thin, and if she did extra work on it, she’d be written up for another infraction.

French has bombarded the County with public records requests but has been unable to turn up key files—including some she previously located through work on a water system in the neighborhood.

French says she was kicked off her insurance because she was prevented from getting a demolition permit to remove a deck deemed a fire safety hazard.

Her home was damaged in the storms that sparked the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

Even though she was insured at that time, she wasn’t able to get permits before the cutoff to access recovery funds.

Last summer, as part of a Los Gatan investigation, Farmers Insurance said it would extend the deadline by one year for French.

However, by December, French had still seen no progress from the County.

And so, on Dec. 30, she says she called the Elder Abuse Hotline at Adult Protective Services to report County Counsel’s Code Enforcement Team for putting her in harm’s way by blocking her efforts to fix her home.

Those legal minds advise County departments about enforcement, coordinate investigations, review administrative complaints, and lead prosecutions. Issues on which the attorneys in the Team work include substandard housing, environmental contamination and clean up, and enforcement of County wage and labor laws.

‘She’s Damned if she does. She’s damned if she doesn’t’

—Barry Mangan, lawyer

The Los Gatan spoke with the Office of County Counsel about the accusation of elder abuse by French, but did not receive a comment by deadline.

French’s complaint follows on the heels of her failed whistleblower complaint against the County.

On Dec. 20, she received an email—from the county counsel’s office—telling her they weren’t going to investigate it.

“Thank you for contacting the Whistleblower Program,” an anonymous writer from the department said. “The Whistleblower Program has completed our investigations into your complaints. Your complaints were not sustained or are being addressed by other departments.”

It wasn’t long after she got this message that a powerful series of storms swung over the Santa Cruz Mountains, whipping up a frenzy that washed out French’s road twice as she raced to a friend’s house in San Jose, seeking shelter.

“Two big trees fell right directly behind my house,” she said, looking on the bright side. “It didn’t fall on my house this time.”

Barry Mangan is the semi-retired lawyer who took her in.

“I’ve got a refugee from the mountains in my house,” he said on Jan. 11. “She’s been here before, but this is the first time she needed to come to take the frost off. She said her hands were turning white.”

Mangan said he tried to help French as much as he could to coax County Planning into coming up with a solution to fix the confusing paperwork on her property, so she could access funds to repair the damage done by prior storms.

“They have just kind of dug in their heels,” he said, adding he thought about launching a legal challenge, but decided it was just too daunting for him. “I didn’t have the bandwidth, the time or the expertise—or the inclination—to get in a major fight with the County over this. And I didn’t have the background to know what the best way to approach the lawsuit would be.”

Mangan commends French for the “interesting angle” of filing an elder abuse claim and says they’re hoping someone will step up to the plate to file a pro bono lawsuit against Santa Clara County.

“Her rights are being affected by their refusal to grant reasonable permits,” he said, noting this prevented her from doing repairs that would’ve protected her better during this winter’s atmospheric rivers. “She’s damned if she does. She’s damned if she doesn’t.”

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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