Here we reproduce news articles in the print and electronic media since 2008 about each of our 58 county grand juries. The vast majority of the articles are about grand jury reports. We hope that this feature is a resource to grand juries, grand jury advisors, CGJA chapters, the media, and the public. Sponsored by the California Grand Jurors' Association, http://www.cgja.org
By Gere Sibbach February 24, 2014 San Luis Obispo Tribune
Like most important questions, the answer is, it depends.
Over a period of government service spanning more than 30 years, I have
observed and interacted with many grand juries. Some have achieved much good,
some not so much, and some have done mischief. But the overarching fact is that
they serve a critical function as an independent watchdog. They support the
public’s interest in honest, efficient and effective local government.
A new grand jury is seated each fiscal year. During
February, the San Luis Obispo Superior Court seeks applicants to serve from the
following July through June. Each jury has its own character and could face
very different challenges.
In my early career, the jurors received almost no training
and their primary function seemed to be as a minor irritant to government
officials. (That of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) But beneficial
changes gradually occurred. New members began meeting and sharing experiences
with jurors from other counties, various officials such as the county auditor,
county administrator and district attorney were invited to address the newly
seated panels and state law required the subjects of grand jury inquiries to
respond in writing when a grand jury issued a final report. Thus grand juries
became more knowledgeable and their findings more difficult to ignore.
Grand juries may initiate investigations based on complaints
from citizens, or they can explore whatever their members decide to look into.
Their investigative powers are nearly unlimited. However,
they have no real enforcement power. When their reports are of high quality,
are well documented, are even-handed and nonpartisan and contain practical recommendations,
they cannot easily be ignored by the subject officials and agencies. They
provide important impetus for important change.
On the other hand, poorly written or poorly documented
reports can be dismissed out of hand.
Sometimes failed reports result from preconceived or
politically based notions on the part of the grand jurors. Since a final report
requires a consensus of at least 12 of the 19 members, this rarely happens.
More often, in my view, failed reports result from a lack of
cooperation on the part of the agency being investigated. In this situation,
the jury may have relied on misleading or nonrepresentative data, misunderstood
complex regulations or run out of time to fully understand a problem before its
fiscal year term ends.
I believe a responsible government agency should be open to
scrutiny at all times. When problems are identified, acknowledge them and take
This advice seems difficult to follow. Demands for
perfection by the media and the public are not reasonable and probably
contribute to this situation. However, accountability must be accepted, and
without watchdogs like the grand jury (or auditors!) it is too easy for an
agency to stagnate and poorly serve its constituents.
Grand jurors receive a small stipend plus reimbursement for
mileage. They need to have at least 20 hours per week available.
If you want to learn more about this unique opportunity to
serve your community, go to: http://www.slocourts.net/grand_jury.
Gere Sibbach is a certified public accountant and retired
San Luis Obispo County auditor-controller.
Posted: 02/23/2014 01:40:24 PM PST |Updated: about 19 hours ago
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.
Local police agencies that aren't already using body-worn
cameras should seek funding to acquire the technology, the Marin County Civil
Grand Jury said in a new report.
"A modern law enforcement agency must take advantage of
innovation that can reduce its liabilities and increase citizens' trust,"
the panel said. "The Grand Jury believes that on-officer cameras will
become an integral part of policing, now and in the future."
The panel, an independent watchdog group that investigates
local government, examined the use of cameras at 10 local law enforcement
agencies. Its report — titled "Get the Picture? Audiovisual Technology and
Marin Law Enforcement" — was released Tuesday.
The grand jury finished the report before the San Rafael
Police Department's recent announcement it had started a 90-day test program of
body-worn recorders. Tiburon and Belvedere police had been using them already.
The grand jury also researched whether local departments
used two other forms of camera technology: license plate scanners and video
cameras in patrol vehicles. It found that all but one agency, the Fairfax
Police Department, used at least one of the three types of devices.
The grand jury said the body-worn recorders are the best
choice because they are relatively inexpensive — $500 to $1,200 each — and can
provide the most accurate record of an incident.
Conversely, vehicle cameras only record what is in front of
them, while license plate scanners are effective but cost up to $19,000 and
raise concerns about privacy.
The panel did acknowledge one drawback of the body-worn
devices: the fact that an officer can forget to turn the device on during an
interaction — or intentionally turn it off to avoid a recording.
"Although equipment can occasionally malfunction and
batteries lose their charge, clear departmental policies mandating when and how
these devices are to be used must be established," the jury said.
"Officers should be trained to understand the use and the utility of the
body cameras they wear, and they must be called to account if they fail to
follow departmental policy."
The grand jury recommended all Marin law enforcement
agencies use the body-worn cameras and urged the Board of Supervisors and city
councils to find the funding. It has requested responses from the relevant
Several law enforcement officials expressed favorable
opinions Thursday regarding the officer-worn cameras.
"We have been evaluating the use of cameras for two
years and feel the technology is now available to use the body camera as a tool
for our officers," said Central Marin police Chief Todd Cusimano, whose
department covers Larkspur, Corte Madera, Greenbrae and San Anselmo. "We
are looking at purchasing a number of body cameras for a testing period."
Fairfax police Chief Christopher Morin said the department
does not use license plate scanners for financial reasons, but that he is
interested in body-worn and vehicle cameras. "I am closely following San Rafael's testing,"
Sheriff Robert Doyle said his department has not used
vehicle cameras because they are expensive, have fixed views and are primarily
used in traffic-type calls. But he is interested in body cameras. "At some time in the near future we'll probably move
forward with a test," Doyle said. "I think that they're an excellent
The Marin County Civil Grand Jury consists of 19 residents
who serve one-year terms. It is empowered by the local judiciary to conduct
The Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury needs some changes. Having served three times, I have a basis of comparison on how that group operates.
When I was first sworn in as a grand juror in July 1996, there were 17 new members and two people who had served on the previous grand jury. Those two helped new members become familiar with the system and offered suggestions on procedures. With only two holdovers, they did not overwhelm new members.
We agreed on procedure. Upon receipt of a complaint or when made aware of a governmental issue, any two members could make a preliminary investigation. If they found the complaint or issue valid, they proposed a new study delineating the scope of the issue. The proposal was presented to the grand jury at the general meeting. If a majority of members agreed on the issue and scope, the investigation could proceed. Any member could volunteer to be on the study committee.
Having been invited by the foreman, the next year I was one of the two holdovers. We helped the 17 new members become familiar with maintaining confidentiality, interview techniques, and staying within the scope of the investigation.
I was again a member in 2009, with five holdovers. The system had changed. There were specific, structured committees. Members had to choose which committee they wanted to serve on, without knowing what issues might come up. State law requires all jails and holding cells in the county to be inspected, so that was one committee.
Another requirement of the grand jury is review of county audit and finances, thus another committee.
Another vague committee was government operations, but all grand jury work involves government operations.
Instead of two members taking a preliminary look at an issue, it required a vote of 12 members to begin a study, thus, many valid complaints were eliminated before even a preliminary investigation could begin.
I didn't agree with that limited process, since there were some of us who thought an issue deserved a preliminary look. With such structured committees, a topic had to be assigned to one of them, regardless if that topic fit that description. The members of a committee were to investigate the issue, whether they were interested or not.
The structure of the grand jury has further changed now, since there are so many holdovers. At the end of my term in 2010, there were eight who wanted to hold over, regardless of whether they were effective members in the previous term. I think there should be a limit of two, by invitation of the foreperson.
Another problem is that many people serve for years on a grand jury. Some of the same people are holdovers or apply year after year. Yes, there are interviews and then a drawing to become a member. But with a group of repeat members, the grand jury takes on its own perspective on what issues to investigate. That limits the scope of grand jury investigations, based on the priorities and inclinations of those members who have worked together for years.
It is time to get rid of the tight committee structure and good-old-members attitude for those career grand jurors. Grand jury service should be limited to a total of two years.
With teleconferencing available instead of a drive to Santa Barbara, Santa Maria citizens should apply. We need a more balanced group, not just geographically, but with a more diverse representation of our entire county.
Joan Leon is a local resident. She can be reached at email@example.com. Looking Forward runs every Friday, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.
BY MARINA GAYTAN
firstname.lastname@example.orgFebruary 4, 2014
Members of the Chowchilla Cemetery District board of trustees responded to the 2013-14 Madera County grand jury report after a number of findings by the jury revealed trustees purchased items without board approval, violated the Brown Act and committed other violations.
In a statement made by trustees responding to the report, which was finalized by the district’s attorney Robert W. Hunt, members first stated their appreciation for the recommendations of improvement: “The board notes that many of the conditions reported by the grand jury were recognized prior to the issuance of the grand jury’s report and many remedial actions are already underway.”
Trustee members are Duff Bryant, Ron Lawson, John Kirwin and Betty Askew. Former trustee member Andrea Giordanella resigned on Jan. 7. In a letter addressed to the Madera County Board of Supervisors, Giordanella stated her reason for the resignation:
“In my letter it states there’s a lot of corruption and things the board does, against the Brown Act, and I will not be a part of that,” she said. Giordanella also said she hired an attorney but would not release any further information.
Lawson said the response was created by all board members except Giordanella, who has not been in attendance at the last few board meetings.
“I think (the response) came out fine,” Lawson said. “Most of the citations by the grand jury were distorted.”
The findings by the grand jury were released late last year and the Chowchilla Cemetery District trustees held a special meeting back in December to start addressing those concerns.
Trustees met at the Madera County Board of Supervisor’s District 2 office to receive training on agenda preparation, supporting of backup materials and a presentation on the Brown Act.
The report listed eight items determined to be out of compliance after several interviews by grand jury members, along with visits and attendance of board meetings. The items included purchases by certain trustees on behalf of the cemetery without first obtaining approval from the entire board. Those purchases were subsequently reimbursed by the cemetery.
The grand jury also learned about the purchase of a golf cart by a trustee member in July 2011, with approval from the board coming 10 days later.
“Indeed trustees have made emergency purchases for tools, parts and equipment necessary to conduct repairs, maintenance and operations of the district,” the response stated. “Nonetheless, the district has taken action to formalize its purchasing practices, as well as reimbursements.”
The board failed to follow the trustee-approved procedures and policies in the employee handbook and failed to follow the Brown Act, according to the grand jury report. Alleged Brown Act violations include trustees holding special board meetings with improper or no notice to the public and holding discussions and taking action on items in closed session when it should have been done in an open session.
Included in the trustees’ response to the grand jury report, the board stated it has purchased uniforms for its employees, similar to those used in other cemeteries. In addition, the district is also recruiting for a new district manager, “one of whose duties will be to improve the appearance, professionalism and service-orientation of all employees.”
Lawson said back in Sept. of 2013 the cemetery manager was dismissed and the board secretary, Erin Coast, was running the cemetery’s administration.
“There’s two members of the board that will pick out the most probable candidates,” he said.
Lawson also said the new manager will run the cemetery and “do what a manager should be doing.”
Cal-OSHA in December opened an investigation at the cemetery district. No further information about the investigation was available at press time as the investigation is ongoing. Trustee members confirmed, in their statement however, the Cal-OSHA inspector identified unsafe conditions that must be corrected. The report only listed one example – the lack of shoring in the grave to prevent side walls from collapsing on workers.
Lawson said he checked into how the Madera Cemetery District uses its shoring techniques. He also said it could have cost the district a $20,000 fine. “Now it’s down because we’ve taken steps to correct it,” he said.
Curbs, gutters, sidewalks and asphalt were listed in need of repair for public safety. “A preliminary maintenance and repair plan for curbs, gutters, sidewalks and asphalt is currently being developed, and will be further developed … by the district’s new manager,” the statement continued.
Areas in the worst state of disrepair and with the most unsafe conditions are being fixed soon as possible, according to trustees.
The trustees’ statement concluded with plans to adopt a new set of bylaws, plus a purchasing and contracting policy, an ethics code for the district, a conflict of interest policy, an expense reimbursement policy, a public records policy and a job descriptions.
“We did everything we possibly could to provide a better facility,” Lawson said. “It looks better. It’s starting to function better, it’s just taking some time to turn this thing around.”
Bryant also said he was pleased with the response adding, “things are doing much better.”
Reporter Marina Gaytan can be reached at (209) 826-3831 ext. 6562 or email@example.com.
Robert “Bobby” Jones, a parent in the Blochman Union School District, requested both a full investigation and corrective actions in a complaint about oversight of a local charter school program earlier this week.
He faxed the complaint, dated Jan. 27, with a civil division of the Superior Court known as the Santa Barbara County grand jury.
Ted Sten, foreman of the 19-member jury, said the body is sworn in on July 1 each year and operates through June 30 of the following year. He said the jury answers both complaints and inquiries in a completely confidential process.
“The whole basis of the grand jury is that it’s confidential,” he said.
Sten added that he cannot answer questions about the likelihood that the jury will investigate the Trivium complaint, but he said any investigation into a complaint could include a review of documents and witnesses.
The Santa Barbara County grand jury issued 10 reports from June 2013 to January 2014.
The most recent report, issued Jan. 27, responds to a complaint from prisoners about the quantity and quality of meals served at the Santa Barbara County Main Jail.
The grand jury listed methodology that includes kitchen inspection; an interview; an unannounced visit; and examination of meal content, preparation, nutritional value and serving methods.
The jury concluded that “meals meet state standards and provide a reasonable variety of nutritionally balanced food to all prisoners...”
In another complaint, low-income housing providers alleged that they suffered after the Santa Barbara County grand jury criticized the Lompoc Housing Community Development Corporation, the county of Santa Barbara and the city of Lompoc for mismanagement of other affordable housing facilities. The jury found “no basis for the allegations,” according to the report summary.
Sten explained that each investigation is tailored to the complaint.
“It’s a very involved detailed process before a report is written,” he said.