Monday, August 6, 2012

(Sutter/Yuba) Grand jury experience can change members' outlook

By Nancy Pasternack -

The rules are convoluted, mix of people a crapshoot, and the time commitment is nearly always greater than expected.

But the experience of serving on a civil grand jury, according to many who stick it out through a year or more of meetings, tours, research, interviews and reporting, is a rich one.

For Rebecca Jennings of Sutter and Mike Boom of Wheatland, grand jury work has become something of a calling.

The two recently formed their own respective chapters of the California Grand Jurors' Association for Sutter and Yuba counties.

When Jennings, 57, was first called upon to serve as a replacement grand jury member in early 2010, "I was an ostrich," she said of her tendency to ignore local government and politics. "I never even read a grand jury report before. I mean, who reads those things?"

But after her juror stint, she was appointed as forewoman for a mostly new 19-member jury.

It was during a routine meet-and-greet visit to one of many county-run agencies that she and other jurors found the central purpose of their following year's work.

Jennings said she had never been especially interested in the plight of stray or homeless animals. But when her group took a tour of the Sutter County Animal Shelter on Second Street in Yuba City, that changed.

Secrecy rules prevent her from discussing the jury's work in detail. But one year after the group's gruesome report about animal treatment at the shelter was published, big changes are under way.

Plans to build a new facility — deadlocked after more than six years of stalemate between Sutter County and Yuba City officials — are moving along by way of a joint powers authority established just weeks after the report's publication.

The person whose job it was to act as a liaison between the facility and county officials has resigned, and an interim shelter director has been appointed.

"Did I ever think I could become passionate about an animal shelter? No," Jennings said of the shelter visit that sparked the group's investigation. "But it changes you when you see things like that. You wonder, 'How did this happen? How did it go on so long?'"

The experience, she said, has made her a better citizen.

"I could never go back now to blindly ignoring what's going on in our county," she said. "That (experience) made me more interested in our local government and how they're spending our tax dollars."

The watchdogs

Vera Crabtree, 69, served on the Sutter County grand jury during the same time.

The retired sixth-grade teacher and Sutter resident said she was extremely naive when she joined the group.

"You're gonna laugh," she said, "but I got a letter in the mail saying I had been selected to the jury and telling me to show up, and I thought it was going to be a court case."

Her confusion turned to curiosity and, before long, she — like Jennings — had been bitten by the learning bug.

"It was quite an eye-opener," she said of the watchdog responsibility. "Before, I didn't know a thing about politics, or about the county and city (governments). But it really does help you understand how things work."

She did two full years as a jurist, and said she hopes to be called back again to serve.

Boom, 57, said he learned so much while serving on a Yuba County grand jury, he decided to continue his involvement with the process.

The airline pilot had moved 31⁄2 years ago from Florida to his family's ranch north of Wheatland, and when he got involved with the grand jury, he had been hungry for a way to dig into his new community.

Like Jennings, he served as the grand jury's foreman.

"We've all had civics (lessons), and I'm not an uneducated person," he said. "But when I hit the ground, I had to do a lot of studying."

He found he wasn't alone.

"Most don't grasp what they're getting themselves into. When they show up, it's a deer-in-the-headlights situation," he said.

In responding to citizens' inquiries about what measures to take in a disaster, he and other jury members began to ask questions about the county's Office of Emergency Preparedness and its relationship to law enforcement in Marysville.

The inquiry led the jury to report on what the group perceives as holes in the emergency preparedness network.

A response is anticipated in the coming weeks.

The group also reported on inconsistencies in the way fees are charged by the county's building department.

County officials have hired an outside investigator to look into the charges.

"We're a pretty good team," Boom said of his group and its work.

Boom plans to return for another year on the jury. He will be expected, because of his experience, to acclimate the new group to basic expectations and realities of civil grand jury duty.

Friends for life

Formation of the Yuba County Grand Jury Association, approved by its statewide parent organization in May, is Boom's way of raising the visibility of the institution and awareness about what it does.

Steeped in English tradition and dating back to the earliest roots of American history, civil grand jury service is meant to raise awareness about government and to help a community keep a close eye on officials.

Boom hopes his group, which is open to current and former members of Yuba County grand juries, "will help keep a continuous thread going from grand jury to grand jury."

He would like its members — who pay $25 a year in dues — to be available for public speaking engagements and to provide institutional knowledge to those currently serving on grand juries.

Jennings won approval in July for a new Sutter County chapter of the organization.

Butte County's new chapter too is less than a year old.

Educating people about the grand jury's function is the local chapters' primary mission, Jennings said.

"We do not investigate," she said. "We're here to support the grand jury system, get across how very important it is, and encourage people to sign up and serve."

Jennings said that new relationships have been among the unexpected payoffs of grand jury service.

"I have friends for life that I made during my jury service," she said. "Secrecy is a big part of this, so you can't go home and talk about it."

"You're looking at things that can be very disturbing, and if you need to vent, that's who you're going to call."

Boom said the social aspect of his grand jury service was a meaningful part of the experience.

"Everything we did was as one," he said. "It's been a great process."

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