Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sacramento County grand jury seeks applicants to provide needed oversight

November 29, 2014
Sacramento Bee
By Sam Stanton

Over the years, a panel of 19 Sacramento County residents has investigated the county’s Child Protective Services agency three times, peered into the challenges facing the Delta town of Isleton and helped uncover corruption inside Sacramento’s library system.
The group has toured area prisons, studied officer-involved shootings and investigated questionable activities inside school districts.
Now, the Sacramento County grand jury is seeking new applicants to serve a yearlong term that participants say is short on financial rewards but an important method of guaranteeing oversight on public bodies.
“It’s a very rewarding challenge to get on the grand jury and to be able to look at the inner workings of a lot of agencies,” said Don Prange, a 76-year-old veteran of seven of the last 10 grand juries.
Prange, who has served as foreman for five of those years, said the panel has helped expose widespread problems and wrongdoing, and issued more than 250 subpoenas during his time to help investigate agencies.
A former Ohio police chief, Prange said he became interested in serving after seeing a story about grand jury recruitment in The Bee and deciding he needed a challenge other than playing golf and volunteering at Senior Gleaners Inc.
He is now in his final year serving on the panel, which pays grand jurors $30 a day plus mileage, and says he has met citizens of all ages and interests on the grand jury.
Jurors selected for the panel serve for a one-year period that begins July 1 and work 15 to 20 hours a week. The panel is advised by a Sacramento Superior Court judge and has authority to investigate public bodies and officials, as well as to investigate tips from the public.
The grand jury has the authority to issue criminal indictments in coordination with the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, although most of its activities result in an annual report that outlines its findings.
Some of the grand jury investigations have resulted in scathing reports about agencies such as CPS or the library system, while others have produced recommendations for improvement at schools districts or other entities that typically get little oversight.
“The Library investigation (in connection with the D.A.’s Office) resulted in the Library Director resigning, millions of dollars being defrauded uncovered, millions of dollars in overdue fines being uncovered and (three) people being sent to prison,” grand jury coordinator Becky Casteneda wrote in an email.
To serve, candidates must be a U.S. citizen, a resident of the county and be at least 18. Citizens currently serving on a trial jury or who have been discharged from a grand jury in the past year are not eligible.
Judges may nominate candidates to serve, or interested individuals can apply by mail by sending a letter of interest to Sacramento County Grand Jury, 720 Ninth St., Room 611, Sacramento CA 95814.
The letter should be mailed by Feb. 2.
Potential candidates must undergo a criminal background check and file a statement of economic interest. More application information and a questionnaire to be returned is available at
Call The Bee’s Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.

What Is a Grand Jury and How Is It Different in California?

November 26, 2014
CBS Sacramento
By Tony Lopez

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — The decision to not indict officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, came from a grand jury, so we wanted to dig into the process of how one is put together.
Most of us are familiar with the usual jury system, where you get a summons to appear and fulfill your civic duty.
But who is eligible to sit on a grand jury?
“The same people who are eligible to sit on a regular jury,” said defense attorney Ken Rosenfeld. “You have to be an adult over 18, you can’t have a felony conviction and you have to be a citizen of the United States.”
But grand juries can differ from state to state and even from county to county, Rosenfeld said.
“Placer County is different from Los Angeles [County] in respect to their grand jury system,” he said. “One has 19 members, the other 23, so each county can make their own rules.”
But the goal is the same—deciding whether charges or an indictment should be brought forward against a defendant in a criminal case. In California, defendants aren’t called to testify in front of a grand jury.
That wasn’t the case in Ferguson.
“He actually testified, the officer. That generally doesn’t happen in a grand jury because the person doesn’t really know what’s happening the state of California for the most part,” Rosenfeld said.
There’s another big difference in terms of burden of proof.
“Their grand jury has to actually believe the prosecution can prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “In California it’s just enough that a case should go to trial or could go to trial.”
In California you either get a special summons, or you can apply by contacting your local county’s jury commissioner and be willing to make a time commitment.
“Grand juries generally convene for a year and the people who are allowed to be on and accept the responsibility of it, understand they can be impaneled for a year,” he said.
Meaning they need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice to hand down a recommendation that can change the course of someone’s life.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

[Merced County] Grand jury complaint spotlights management issues in county Environmental Health Division

November 21, 2014
Merced Sun-Star
By Ramona Giwargis

A civil grand jury complaint filed last month blamed Merced County’s tardy food inspections on a lack of oversight and control by management, potentially leading to the third investigation of the county’s Environmental Health Division in three years.
The complaint singles out two supervisors – Director of Environmental Health Ron Rowe and Supervising Environmental Health Specialist Vicki Jones – and raises questions about their involvement in the day-to-day operations of the division.
According to the complaint, Rowe and Jones spend too much time outside of the office or in closed-door meetings. Rowe and Jones, his subordinate, leave the office at the same time and are gone for long periods of time, the complaint said.
“Their many absences and severe lack of oversight caused several programs to fail, mainly the food inspection program,” stated the grand jury complaint, obtained by the Merced Sun-Star.
The complaint claims that Rowe and Jones take long lunches together multiple days each week, leading to lack of oversight of the county’s food inspections.
“Neglecting to oversee their responsible program causes great harm to the public in potential food borne illness, unsanitary conditions,” the complaint said. “Ron Rowe and Vicki Jones negligently place the public at risk by not managing their (food) programs.”
Merced County’s Environmental Health Division was the subject of two prior grand jury investigations for falling behind on annual food inspections. The department conducts inspections on more than 1,100 food-related operations in Merced County, including restaurants, gas stations and school cafeterias.
The 2013-14 grand jury report found 12 percent of food inspections were overdue as of March. Food inspections were behind by 40 percent from the prior year, with a follow-up report showing inspections of 88 facilities remained past due from 2012 and 2013.
In a previous interview, Rowe and Jones blamed the overdue food inspections on a 20 percent reduction in staffing, aging computer equipment and increases in workload.
But the 2013-14 grand jury report hinted at trouble with the division’s management, stating that jurors found a “general sense of distrust” between management and line staff. However, jurors kept their primary focus on the overdue food inspections.
Meetings behind closed doors
Rowe and Jones declined comment on the new complaint, referring questions to Public Health Director Kathleen Grassi.
In an interview with the Sun-Star, Grassi said a grand jury member last year told her that there was a “management problem” in the division, but failed to provide specific details.
Grassi said she gave staff the opportunity to meet with her privately after last year’s grand jury investigation was completed, and two staff members shared concerns related to Rowe and Jones.
“The two staff that met with me individually said there were a lot of closed-door meetings,” Grassi said. “The long lunches and closed-door meetings were the two things brought up by staff.”
But Grassi was quick to point out that closed-door meetings might be necessary for management and that no one could provide evidence to substantiate anything inappropriate was happening.
“Maybe they are discussing personnel issues. Just because the door is closed, it doesn’t mean anything inappropriate is going on,” she said. “We certainly have to give professional staff the benefit of the doubt.”
Not having enough specific information to verify the concerns, Grassi said, she was unable to take action. She’d heard no further concerns from staff until the recent grand jury complaint last month.
Following the new complaint, Grassi met with all the Environmental Health employees earlier this month to discuss their observations. Grassi said she was told about one inappropriate comment made by Rowe to Jones, but declined to elaborate on it.
“It was probably not an appropriate comment, but it does not indicate there’s anything immoral or illegal going on, generally speaking,” she said. “I’m not going to hang somebody based on one comment. It’s definitely a red flag, but if I heard several other comments, it would be different.”
Grassi said she gleaned many suggestions for improving the division’s overall management practices from her conversations with staff. Increasing communication, having more frequent meetings and involving all supervisors in decisions are a few of the things the division will work on, she said.
Filling a third supervisor position vacant since 2011 will also help, Grassi said, because it will allow Rowe to distribute the workload more evenly.
“There was a perception that there was favoritism of Vicki because she took on additional workload and Ron was working with her directly,” she said. “More even distribution of the workload will allow all the supervisors to be available to staff, and there will be less need for them to be out of the office.”
Grassi said the Environmental Health Division was severely behind on its food inspections when she joined Merced County in 2012. However, she said the division is now on track with current year inspections for food facilities.
Grassi said she’ll continue to monitor the Environmental Health Division, keeping her door open for staff to discuss concerns and reminding supervisors their actions could lead to negative perceptions.
“Perception is 99 percent reality,” Grassi said. “I told them unless you have a personnel matter going on, the door stays open. Unless you have a lunch meeting, you meet here in the department.”
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or