The hours are long and the work intense. The pay is minimal and the recognition nonexistent. Duties require interviewing bureaucrats, conducting investigations and writing in-depth reports. If this is the way you'd like to spend your free time, July through June, you may want to volunteer for the Contra Costa Grand Jury. Applications close at 5 p.m. on March 28.

Oh, you'd like to know what it is?

The civil grand jury is a largely overlooked and rarely understood citizen tool that helps ensure local government operates efficiently and ethically. It's a watchdog group of 19 carefully selected Contra Costa residents -- a Superior Court judge interviews the finalists -- who probe the nooks and crannies of government agencies to see that they're functioning properly.

Jerry Lasky, a Rossmoor resident who served in 2007-08, said it was among the most rewarding experiences in his life. Lloyd Bell, of Brentwood, who served as a jury member in 2010-11 and foreperson in 2011-12, said it was deeply gratifying to identify important issues for public consumption.
The grand jury has challenged the diligence of school bond oversight committees, the quality of county health care, the transparency of city financial dealings and a host of other concerns. It has the authority to demand cooperation and expect responses from those it investigates. The breadth of its reach is limited only by its vision.

"Sometimes jurors will have a topic they want to investigate," Bell said. "Sometimes something in the paper triggers their interest. Sometimes we react to a citizen complaint."

If at least 10 [sic: 12] of the 19 jurors agree a topic worth is investigating, a committee is formed. An investigation can take four or more months, after which a report is written. Two-thirds of the jury must find the report has merit before it's forwarded to the county counsel and a judge for approval. Then it's delivered and made public.

"If we investigate something, it's serious," Lasky said. "We interview department heads, accountants, anyone involved. Then we analyze the information we've gathered, and we dig some more. When we issue a report, it has a summary, the grand jury's findings and recommendations. The investigated department has three months to reply."

What few people realize is the time involved. A juror's weekly commitment can mean as many as five or six meetings (compensation is $15 per meeting) requiring 25 to 30 hours. Homework includes reviewing documents, analyzing spreadsheets and composing investigative reports.

Said Lasky, "It's not uncommon, after one or two months, for a juror to say, 'Oh, my goodness, what have I gotten myself into?' You might lose a juror or two."

Eleven alternates are at the ready if replacements are needed. The people who survive typically are bright and committed. Lasky remembers his group including psychiatrists, professors and business executives, bound by an interest in better government. Everything they discuss is confidential.

Bell, who describes himself as a natural skeptic, said he volunteered to satisfy his curiosity as to how efficiently county government works and what might be improved.

"I was pleasantly surprised," he said. "I think we have a fairly well run county. But there are always things that could be done better."

You can be sure members of the next grand jury will be thinking the same way.

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