Sunday, July 8, 2012

(Orange County) Grand jurors reveal life behind closed doors

It's called the grand jury, right?

So when I walk into the normally closed-door chambers of the Orange County Grand Jury, I expect grand everything.
Roy Baker III served as foreman of the 2011-2012 Orange County grand jury. "When you leave here you want to know that what you have done has made a difference," he said.
But nothing looks grand.
The room is so small that the 19 jurors knock elbows. They have one full-time staff person. The pay is $250 a week. And the jurors themselves are just regular citizens – teachers, sales people, business people.

But when I sit down to talk with the members of what is practically a secret society, I come to understand what makes this type of jury truly grand.

The members are watchdogs – and proud of it.

Talking to the Grand Jury is, um, interesting. There are moments of candor and insight. And there are moments of dead silence.

Ask about a particular report and there isn't even a "no comment." Just pursed lips.

But the silence isn't rudeness. Jurors swear to never – and that means never, ever – discuss the particulars of their work. But they can reveal what it's like behind the scenes.

It's June 28 and the date is significant. Jurors serve from July 1 to June 30 and this Grand Jury is about to hand over the reins to a new panel.

There's much pride in the room about the work they've done. But there's also some melancholy.
The strongest relationships are forged in struggle. And there are strong friendships in this room – just as there have been some strong arguments.

While doing research to prepare for this meeting, Charles Mitchell, who served a decade ago, told me: "When you get 19 people together who are all very qualified and with strong personalities, you're going to get conflict."

But out of conflict, Mitchell said, comes great work.

Juror Bill Underwood echoes Mitchell and explains that jurors come from a variety of backgrounds and this ensures different approaches to problems. A businessman and consultant, Underwood explains the process is slow but that it allows for stronger reports.

He likens it to "steel going through the tempering process."

Other jurors agree, explaining that by mandate they must have a majority of 12 to approve anything of significance.

What's insignificant?

One juror jokes: Deciding what time they break for lunch.

But with work weeks that often exceed 60 hours, even lunch sounds significant.

To be sure, the work of the Grand Jury is important, perhaps critical.

State-mandated responsibilities include monitoring jails as well as examining all aspects of local government, including special districts. And there's an emphasis on ensuring fiscal responsibility.

Consider some of the 2011-2012 Grand Jury reports:
"Let There Be Light: Dragging Special Districts from the Shadows."
"Transparency: Breaking Up Compensation Fog – But Why Hide Pension Costs?"
"Can the Consumer Price Index-Urban Keep Up With OCFA Wages?"

Each is a no-nonsense, tough-minded report. Of Orange County Fire Authority wages, the jury states that over the past 17 years, labor costs "grew approximately 8.6 times faster than the growth of the staff, and 3.0 times faster than the Consumer Price Index."

The jury's conclusion? "OCFA salaries should be renegotiated annually to reflect the actual economic trends of those citizens they serve."

Still, some wags dismiss the work and argue that grand juries have no teeth since they can't arrest or prosecute.

But the same could be said of the Fourth Estate. And even those who criticize the media agree it has impact. And journalists don't have subpoena power.

Grand juries do.

Working with district attorneys, grand juries also can weigh charges and render criminal indictments.
In civil matters such as the OCFA report, state law requires that agencies respond to the jury reports within 90 days.

Officially, the jury's bite stops there. But there are unofficial teeth.

Foreman Roy Baker estimates that a tiny fraction of people read the jury's reports online at But he points out that mainstream media has something that grand juries don't: Tens//// of thousands of readers.

The jurors tell me that when the media – and they cite The Register – covers Grand Jury reports it attracts attention and pressure.

Mitchell says that grand juries rarely receive credit, but that agencies often quietly follow up critical reports and make the recommended changes.

Juror Fred Gebhardt says, "We make a positive difference."

Another criticism of grand juries is that one-year terms render their work ineffective, that there isn't follow-up. But the foreman says that's a myth.

Myra Spicker, a juror who happens to be an attorney, adds that new jurors review previous reports for leads.

If the relatively short terms for grand juries are their biggest weakness, 12-month terms also may be their biggest strength. Every year, there are new kids on the block – and new approaches. Of course, that also means a learning curve.

Jean Watson recalls her first day serving, "It's like the first day of school. There are strangers and strange new things."

But by the end of three months, she says, investigations are in full swing.

Along with suggestions from previous grand juries, panels can choose what to investigate from speaker suggestions (a variety of officials brief jurors), jurors themselves or written complaints from citizens.

But there are areas outside of a county grand jury's jurisdiction. These include superior courts as well as federal and state agencies.

Once an investigation is launched, jurors can seek help from the courts, county counsel or outside consultants. And the jurors tell me something that is opposite from the way most journalists work:

Rather that starting with grass roots sources, jurors start with top dogs.

If you're thinking about applying, a selection committee winnows the applicant pool down to 30 based on residency in county supervisorial districts. After background checks, there's a lottery to ensure random selection.

But remember that $250 a week stipend? Of the nearly 170 prospective grand jurors last year, 148 were white, 106 were male, 151 were over 54 and 134 were retired.

Perhaps the new grand jury should continue to examine compensation.

For grand jurors.

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