Keeping an Eye on the Grand Jury (June 25, 1997)

For the second week in a row grand jury representatives paid a call on the Board of Supervisors (June 17). They were present to recount various activities revolving around the GJ's annual report which is due to be issued on June 30. For those familiar with the politics boiling around the GJ for the past year, the news was not encouraging.

As reported here earlier, there is a concerted effort throughout the state by local government bodies to emasculate grand juries. For example, in Yuba County officials from the planning and building department sued the grand jury for libel after the Grand Jury criticized their performance in a 1994 report. The GJ report concluded that the P&B director and his assistant harassed personnel and directed staff to ignore county and state codes. The two bureaucrats sued asking for unspecified damages claiming the GJ defamed them. Fortunately, a judge recently threw the case out of court because the plaintiffs couldn't prove malice or reckless disregard for the truth. In other words, the judge ruled the GJ members were just doing their job: they investigated a complaint, weighed the evidence and issued their findings. County officials don't like it when they are publicly criticized for improper, inefficient or wrongful conduct.

Things are no different in Mendocino County where certain officials have carried out an attack on the GJ for the last couple of years. The past two GJ reports have been mildly critical of the county's administrative apparatus, including three Supes who bent the Brown Act by tripling as a traveling delegation to Sacramento. With the exception of 3rd District Supe John Pinches, most county officials hold the GJ in low regard and have stood silently by while the public's watchdog has been muzzled.

Last year, the Supes — again with the exception of Pinches — began interfering directly with the GJ when they voted to withhold funding for the mass report published in local newspapers unless the GJ agreed to delay its report by three or four months so that county officials could respond in writing to any findings issued by the GJ. Earlier this year, the Supes restored the funding but the GJ's mass report will not be published until October or November instead of July in order for the bureaucrats to include gabflabble (or is it bafflegab) in the report. Never mind that the GJ is an independent, autonomous body which is supposed to issue its own stand-alone findings on the performance of local government, the public will now have a joint report comprised of the conclusions and findings of the public's watchdog as well as those being watched. It's just another variation of the fox guarding the henhouse.

At both Board sessions, Pinches questioned the GJ forewoman, Vicki Crawford, on how much work this year's panel has actually done. Although the GJ is supposed to be impaneled from July 1 to June 30, the 96-97 GJ was approximately two months late in getting started; then it would be several more months before they actually got down to business, relatively speaking. Once they were sworn in, a holdover grand juror was tossed off the panel by Judge Conrad Cox in retaliation for the juror writing the state Attorney General Dan Lungren and Gov. Pedro Wilson. The juror wrote complaining of the Supe's action in withholding funding and playing games with the GJ report.

Although legally a creature of the Superior Court, the GJ had no one to defend its integrity as the citizens' watchdog while its authority to function independently and free of political interference was being compromised. For the first six months or so of its term the GJ essentially was rudderless due to judicial politics. While the March 1996 elections elevated two new black robes to the Superior Court — leaving Cox as the sole survivor from the court coordination wars with the “insurgent” Muni Court judges — court administration, including direction for the GJ, slipped sideways during the nine-month lame duck period. In fact, even though the “reform” judges were in control of the court system by January, Cox — who opposed the Muni Court's coordination plans — remained as supervising judge of the GJ until just a couple of months ago. It was on his watch that the GJ was under political, budgetary and constitutional attack by those — including Cox — who aim to blind the public's eyes. It was also, coincidentally, during this period when the GJ “was slow in getting started” in carrying out the public's business.

At the Board session, Pinches told Crawford he had “heard that the grand jury hadn't been doing anything for six months.” Crawford responded that “Yes, we were slow in getting started,” but she said that was mostly because the original GJ foreman had died at the beginning of the new term. Of course, one of the reasons grand juries have alternates and vice foremen/women is that they are there to fill any vacancies which occur, whether by death or whatever the circumstances. The idea is you don't miss a beat just because someone falls by the wayside. So obviously something else was occurring which caused the GJ to get off the mark slowly. If you think it's political interference and intimidation, go to the head of the line.

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