Monday, June 18, 2012

Can Orange County sharpen teeth of its citizen watchdog?

One could call it the Rodney Dangerfield of local government institutions.
Every year, 19 well-meaning, civic-minded (and mostly retired) folks with an eclectic collection of life experiences assemble in a cramped corner of the county courthouse for some serious business. They draw inspiration from words attributed to Margaret Mead: ”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

They take the oath of office: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and of the State of California, and … will diligently inquire into, and true presentment make, of all public offenses against the people of this state, committed or triable within this county....”
And then, after promising not to disclose a word of their closed-door deliberations now and forever, these Regular Joes and Janes transform into the official eyes and the ears of We The People, peering under rocks, poking worms with sticks, examining the effectiveness and efficiency of our local democratic institutions.

Over the past few years, grand juries have railed in official reports about everything from Orange County’s lack of a spay/neuter law for dogs and cats (which contributes to a high kill rate at the animal shelter), to the steep (but not abusive) pay granted to senior city officials, to a plethora of “shadow governments” (and the tremendous amounts of money that pile up in their bank accounts), to the silliness of how we run modern fire departments (when only a tiny fraction of calls are for fires).

Needless to say, this sort of criticism is not always welcome in the hallowed halls of government. That’s the single dumbest report I have ever read – and I apologize for the insult to dumb people everywhere, seethed one public servant whose agency was criticized by the grand jury.

While most officials are surely polite to these citizen watchdogs, there’s a powerful but unspoken tension, and grand jurors are often seen as intruders who will soon be gone. Grand juries, after all, are usually empowered for just one year; the folks at the agencies being probed will be ar0und for much, much longer than that.

Thus the Rodney Dangerfield thing. Even grand jurors can have trouble getting public information out of public agencies. We’ve heard about records that are delivered as the grand jury’s term ends, so there’s no time to do much with them; the new jury often doesn’t want leftovers, so the issue just fades away.
The grand jury’s often-biting reports are also released at the end of the term, and the agencies probed are legally required to respond to its recommendations within 90 days. But no one from the grand jury that made the recommendations is around to get the responses, which means no one really follows up on them, and the issues often just fade away.
Kent Moore, who served on the grand jury three decades ago, shook his head as he read about the grand jury’s recent report on special districts. The 1981-82 grand jury addressed this same subject in great detail, he said — and was roundly criticized for concluding that consolidating special districts was in the best interests of the county.

The story was exactly the same a generation later.

We at The Watchdog once worked for an editor who refused to cover grand jury reports precisely because the institution lacked the teeth necessary to enforce its recommendations. But even without the power to consolidate every special district, court officials could take steps to make the grand jury here stronger, if they so wished.

Consider our friends in Fresno. There, it is common practice to “hold over” several grand jurors from one year to the next – something which rarely happens here in O.C.

Holding over has several advantages: It lets the new jury get up to speed much more quickly, as seasoned folks share wisdom with newbies; it allows the jurors who wrote the reports be around to collect responses, so issues don’t die quietly of neglect; and it allows the jurors who asked for documents that weren’t delivered until late in the game to follow up, so those don’t die of neglect, either.
This year, four of Fresno’s 19 jurors will continue their service, said jury service manager Sherry Spears. “That gives them two years on the panel rather than just one,” she said. “I’m surprised that that’s not typical down there. I thought most counties do it.”

Marsha Caranci, a director with the statewide California Grand Jurors Association, says that indeed is the case. “I would say by far the majority of the counties in the state do allow for and encourage holdover jurors,” she said. “The penal code allows for up to 10, but most counties find that they don’t want that many because that’s half the jury, and that’s too much power. It is a decision up to the presiding or supervising judge. I would say most of them encourage three or four or five holdovers every year.”

Michael Verrengia has served on the Orange County grand jury twice — but not consecutively, and not as a holdover.  “The majority of the people we talked to understood the function of the grand jury and were good about it — ‘OK, what can I help you with.’ But not all of them,” he said.
“Not all of them were real appreciative of the grand jury asking questions, and some of them were defensive. It all depends on what report you were working on and how they viewed their position in this report. I can almost understand their position. They don’t know who we are, they don’t know what we’re working on, they don’t know how they’re going to look when it’s done. A lot of it is based on the personality of the grand jury panel — some can be very neutral, some very pro and some very con.”

Back in 2007 and 2008, the issue of holdovers had come up among the jurors. “One of the downsides is that, after you release a report, there’s a considerable amount of time before you get responses. But we were gone. They could send a one word response — ‘Disagree’ — and we’re not there to do anything about it. My feeling is there’s not enough teeth in these things.”

Holding over jurors might help, he said. Another idea: Grand juries might ramp up and try to release reports as early as possible — starting in, say, December, rather than in May and June, as they currently do. That way, they’d still be empaneled when the responses come in, he said, and they’ll have time to follow up.
Some jurors couldn’t wait to get off the panel, saying they’d never do it again – -but not Verrengia. “I found it hugely interesting, and to me it’s a function that really does need to be supported,” he said. “We’re members of the public, not specially chosen by politicians or businesses. We act as the public’s watchdog. We’re there making sure that there’s transparency in government — here’s your tax dollars at work, we’re looking at it to make sure they’re using them wisely.”

It probably wouldn’t hurt to make the watchdog’s teeth as sharp as possible.

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