Monday, August 4, 2014
Why the 2013-14 San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury went soft on most targets
July 18, 2014
San Jose Mercury News
By Bonnie Eslinger, Daily News Staff Writer
The work of the 2013-14 San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury ended last week with the release of its final report, which called for dissolving a "dysfunctional" harbor district board.
Of the 10 reports it issued, that one stood out from the previous ones for its strongly worded criticisms. In contrast, the nine previous reports have been relatively soft on their targets.
For example, a report it released earlier last week recommended a handful of measures to enhance safety on the county's new Devil's Slide cliff trail, such as getting a guardrail that kids can't crawl under and installing an emergency call box or improving cellphone service along the trail.
The grand jury also followed up on a citizen's concern about whether buildings at the San Mateo County Event Center are earthquake-safe. Its resulting three-page report states they indeed comply with applicable seismic standards, but notes "this does not imply that any of these buildings meet 2014 seismic performance standards."
An investigation into the county's system for inspecting restaurants and other food vendors found that the process "is functioning in a very satisfactory manner and should be maintained as such," although the grand jury gently pointed out the health department could do a better job of updating and maintaining the accuracy of its online inspection results.
The 19-member grand jury's approach likely varies from year to year, depending on the foreperson, acknowledged Kati Martin, who led the current group.
"This year, not all of the reports were scathing ... I'm sure the way I conducted the grand jury this year was a little less aggressive," said Martin, who is retired. "I know it was less aggressive than in previous years; just different personalities."
The grand jury's other investigations focused on a range of concerns, including financial abuse of elders, the relationship between charter schools and traditional public schools, overcrowding at the county's jails and the adequacy of special district websites.
Established in all of California's 58 counties as required by state law, civil grand juries are "charged and sworn to investigate or inquire into county matters of civil concern," according to the penal code. Working independently and confidentially, civil grand juries are supposed to investigate the operations of local public agencies and inquire into matters of corruption or misconduct, the California Grand Jurors Association states on its website.
"We are the watchdogs. We are there to see what's being done, if it's being done correctly and if it can be done better," said Barbara Arietta, president of the San Mateo County Association of Grand Jurors, an organization of former grand jury members that aims to encourage others to volunteer for the job.
Arrietta proudly pointed to past civil grand jury reports, including one that scrutinized the rising and unsustainable salaries and benefits being given to city employees in the county.
And in 2009, the grand jury recommended that the county switch from electing supervisors at large to by district. The supervisors didn't immediately act on that recommendation back then, although they did place the question on the ballot two years ago in the wake of a civil rights lawsuit; voters approved the change.
Jason Wacha, an attorney who served as deputy foreman of this year's grand jury, agreed with Martin that the group shouldn't focus solely on the negative.
"We don't just investigate places where there are potential problems," Wacha said during an interview last week that included Martin. "We look at things sometimes and say, 'You may not realize it sometimes, public, but this department we looked at, it's actually really efficiently run and with their limited resources are doing a very good job, and here's some of the stuff they've accomplished.'"
By way of example, he said the grand jury looked at the county's adult detention facilities and concluded that their overcrowded conditions will be "alleviated" when the new jail opens in Redwood City next year. It also noted there's no overcrowding at the juvenile facilities and that programs are in place for both adults and youths to reduce recidivism. The main problem was a lack of data showing the programs' effectiveness, the grand jury said.
"What we found is there are so many dedicated people in this county, particularly with regard to juvenile offenders," Martin said. "(But) there's not real good procedures in place for measuring their success and telling the public about it."
What the grand jury decided to investigate hinged in part on members' own interests as well as complaints filed by residents, he said. It also took suggestions from the heads of county departments and other public agencies.
Wacha said he couldn't disclose what percentage of reports came from a county or city insider, citing the grand jury's mandate to operate confidentially. Even if a report states it was generated by a citizen complaint, "the citizen could be the head of a department," he said.
Beate Boultinghouse, president of the California Grand Jurors Association, said it's not unusual for an employee -- or even a department head -- to make a suggestion to the grand jury. But the group ultimately has to maintain its independence and get at least a 12-vote supermajority to approve all investigations.
Martin and Wacha said this year's grand jury maintained that autonomy and all inquiries were thoroughly vetted by the whole group.