Monday, March 15, 2010

Grand jury offers chance to probe into government

Maybe you can't beat City Hall and other government agencies. But, as a grand jury member, you can embarrass, educate and whip them into shape.

I bring this up because the Fresno County grand jury is looking for members for the 2010-11 term. Seventy-nine people have applied, but Judge Robert Oliver hopes the number will exceed 100 before Friday's deadline.

The 19-member grand jury does serious work -- as was demonstrated again last week with a no-holds-barred examination of the city of Fresno's costly taxpayer investment in the failed Granite Park project.

"Grand juries are an important part of the way we do business in California and around the United States," Oliver says. "They act as the eyes and ears of the public."

But I imagine that grand jury service is fun, too. It's not every day that rank-and-file citizens get subpoena power and can compel elected officials and bureaucrats to answer their questions.

I mean, wouldn't you like to dig deeper into the turkey that was City Hall's $15 million loan guarantee to the now-closed Fresno Metropolitan Museum?

Wouldn't you want to really know who and what are responsible for the financial troubles, conflicts of interests and terrible decisions made by local boards and officials throughout the county?

And, even better, publish what you find out?

Sounds like a slam-dunk -- even though the work, which averages 20-25 hours a week, comes with a meager $15-a-day stipend and mileage reimbursement.

To the credit of the grand jury and judges assigned to work with it, past panels haven't shied from casting a critical eye on their work.

A few years ago, the grand jury began regularly issuing single reports -- as it did on Granite Park -- instead of bundling them together at the end of the term.

It also stepped up recruiting efforts so that the panel better reflects the county's age, ethnic and geographic diversity. In short, the grand jury largely had consisted of older, white residents living in north Fresno. It would love to have jurors of all colors and ages from throughout the county.

"The public and the media now give more attention to one report than when they all come out at the end of the year, and this is benefiting the community," Oliver says.

"By encouraging a cross-section of the community to apply, it is broadening the life experience and perspective brought to the grand juror table."

Now, a few words about what to expect if you sign up. The application will be reviewed and you may be interviewed by a judge. Then the names of the top 30 candidates will go into a hopper. About 19 will be blindly selected, with the actual number determined by how many current jurors decide to return for a second term.

Applications are available by calling Sherry Spears, juror and public services manager for Fresno County Superior Court, at (559) 457-1605, or by visiting

One last thing. You can help the grand jury by sharing knowledge of government shenanigans. All tips are kept confidential. There's a form on the grand jury Web site.

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