Friday, July 13, 2012

(San Diego Co) Hall: County grand jury dishes out, takes criticism

by Matthew T. Hall -

Life ain’t so grand for the San Diego County grand jury.

You pocket a pitiful $4.17 an hour, plus mileage. You dig into the dirty laundry of government officials who don’t often take a shine to sunlight. You read and rank up to 120 complaints that roll in over the course of a yearlong tour of duty, then write 16 or so reports that are meant to improve the community but are often overlooked by the community. You’re dismissed as gadflies. And finally, you contend with criticism from unrepentant targets, most of whom have bigger paychecks and profiles to protect.

Don’t misjudge the jury, though. Watchdogs, including county grand juries, are instrumental to good government, especially at this time of ever-shrinking journalism staffs and devalued dollars.

You could argue that eyeballs and money management have never been so important.

Yet consider the criticism that built to a crescendo at a June 13 San Diego City Council committee meeting following the delivery of a harsh grand jury report on city streets, which most drivers deem deplorable.

Councilman Todd Gloria: “I was grateful to hear the grand jury took up the issue. I was just extremely disappointed that they did such a poor job in evaluating it.”

Council President Tony Young: “This grand jury not only misses the point but misses the entire boat when it comes to dealing with some of the issues around the region.”

Councilwoman Marti Emerald: “The grand jury is losing its credibility ... it’s also losing its relevance.”

Sure, San Diego officials are dumping more money into road repairs these days, but in the playful words of a much better writer, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

At a council meeting just this week, Emerald reiterated a call to reform the role and relevance of the grand jury. She criticized the panel for relying on inaccurate information and even playing politics.

Now to quote someone whose viewpoint matters more than Shakespeare’s or mine: “The grand jury has been around since 1850. It’s mandated by the California constitution, so anybody who wants to change the mandate will have to go through the constitution to do it properly.”

That’s Paul Christian talking. He’s the current foreman of the county grand jury. Thursday was his fourth official day on the job. This week, he earned $100 (plus mileage reimbursement from Carlsbad) because our county grand jury’s $25 daily rate hasn’t changed since 1974.

At that time, Christian was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville.

He was dreaming about becoming an FBI agent, but instead spent 31 years in the Marine Corps, including stints as commanding officer at the Miramar and Camp Pendleton air stations. Now 58, he was laid off from his construction company job three years ago — “Class of 2009,” he joked — and had become a “house mouse” until seeing a newspaper ad seeking grand jury applicants in December.

Christian applied to give something back.

“We’re all in it to do good community service,” he said. “Our job is not to go out there and purposely hammer any city or county or agency. Our constitutional duty is to look into things and, quite frankly, that’s what we’re going to do.”

If any criticism should be lobbed at the grand jury, it’s that the 19-member panel, picked at random from a pool of applicants recommended by a judge, is almost exclusively white and retired. Christian said he wants more people, especially minorities, to apply next year, but history shows that’s unlikely. All but three of the current jurors are retirees, and all but two are white. The others are black.

Christian’s predecessor, Jim Lewis, also wants to see more people apply. A former Salt Lake City cop who moved to Vista 25 years ago while working for United Parcel Service, he called his juror work “one of the most interesting, fascinating things” he’s done in 68 years. He said potential criticism from subjects of the jury’s reports shouldn’t faze anyone.

“All a grand jury tries to do is make things better,” he said.

I like the sound of that, and I dare government officials to disagree.

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