CINDY YAMANAKA, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
By ERIKA I. RITCHIE / STAFF WRITER
Published: May 20, 2014 Updated: May 21, 2014 6:28 a.m.
Grand jurors say a plan by the Orange County Board of Supervisors to slash their pay is retribution for past investigations, but the board says it’s Sacramento’s doing.
Supervisors on Tuesday considered an ordinance to cut grand jury pay by 70 percent, taking the daily rate from $50 to $15 – the minimum amount mandated by state penal code. The item, introduced by Supervisor Shawn Nelson, was discussed, then tabled. The review came just as new jurors were selected to start service.
The proposal follows heated discussions nearly a year ago when supervisors and grand jury members squared off when Supervisor Todd Spitzer introduced reducing juror pay as a way to save several hundred thousand dollars in the county’s $5.4 billion annual budget.
At that time, the board asked for a review of recruitment, compensation and retention, but it was never conducted. The board noted Tuesday that should be done before any action is taken.
“I think we blew this one when we applied last year,” Spitzer confessed. “We suffered criticism because it made us look like we were retaliating. The daily stipend could make the difference between someone applying and not applying, especially if they‘re retired. I’m very concerned if we can’t get citizens to apply.
They truly do a very important public service.”
The grand jury consists of 19 county residents, often retirees, who serve for 12 months starting in July. It is empowered to bring criminal indictments and conduct civil investigations of county and city governments. Many who serve say they do it as a way to give back and add that serving provides insight into law enforcement and county agencies. Jurors in Los Angeles County get $60 a day and jurors in San Diego County are paid $25.
On Tuesday, Nindy Mahal was selected to the grand jury for the third time, which included an era supervisors called “rogue” following a report titled, “CalOptima Burns While Majority of Supervisors Fiddle.” That 2013 study rankled supervisors and caused Supervisor John Moorlach to characterize the study as “sensational and tabloidish,”
“A Call for Ethical Standards: Corruption in Orange County,” released in April also drew supervisors’ outrage.
The CalOptima report cited the departures of 16 senior executives within 18 months after Supervisor Janet Nguyen joined its board. The jury recommended that more than one supervisor serve on CalOptima’s board, and that county staff members be removed from the board. The supervisors rejected both recommendations.
Nguyen said she had to hold a press conference to defend herself following the grand jury’s allegations. “I pleaded to them not to release the report. I wanted to come and speak to them,” she said. “You were supposed to be objective. I don’t respect the 2012-13 report.”
Still, Nguyen distanced the report and the proposal to cut juror’s pay. “This has nothing to do with going against the grand jury.”
But Mahal, who has a background in accounting and finance, recalled events differently. “We kept trying to arrange a time to meet her and we’d show up and she would have just canceled.”
Like Mahal, dozens of current and past grand jurors called the supervisors actions to cut their pay conspiratorial.
For Mahal being a juror has changed his life. “I was born in India and it’s such a corrupt country,” he said. “The grand jury is a very important institution. It keeps the Board of Supervisors, city and county officials and law enforcement in line. They are aware that someone is watching and they know they can’t escape in their misdeeds.”
Supervisors “can’t control the grand jury,” said John Moohr, president of the Grand Jury Association. “The only thing they can control are the fees.”
Nelson said if it were up to him, he’d give the grand jurors $100 a day. He plans to look for legislation to set an appropriate fee for reimbursement. He added the state took $78 million from the county last year, and that the discussion of lowering the grand jury’s pay coincided with that.
“It’s easy to assume there was a grand conspiracy,” Nelson said. “We’re responding to a state mandate that is improperly funded.”
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