My Turn: Civil Grand Jury 101
Amid much speculation of the highly publicized news that last year’s El Dorado County Civil Grand Jury (2012-2013) was disbanded before its term ended, the members of this year’s jury (2013-2014), now half way through our term, felt the time is right to provide insight into our progress, our goals and objectives and how the El Dorado Grand Jury operates.
A new civil grand jury is appointed and convened each fiscal year under the auspices of the Superior Court to keep an eye on local government on behalf of the residents of El Dorado County. Contrary to a number of opinions expressed in the news media following the events of last year, the Grand Jury is the county’s premier apolitical civil watchdog, answerable only to the citizens it is charged to inform. Our jury this year is a body of 19 volunteer investigators committed to achieving that goal.
The 2013-14 El Dorado County Civil Grand Jury was seated on July 1, 2013. We initially embarked on a four- to six-week program of formal and informal training, learning legal, ethical and investigative skills followed by considerable time reviewing investigation requests and complaints submitted by county citizens this year and last year. The jury then selected viable topics for investigation and began preliminary examinations.
The term “grand jury” classically evokes a vision of citizens listening to an attorney and then voting for or against a criminal indictment. That describes a California Criminal Grand Jury. In contrast, a civil grand jury has the permission and authority to look into any organization in El Dorado County that uses county resources or is funded with public monies. Viable topics for investigation include, but are not limited to, health and human services, city and county governments, sanitation, public safety, environment, transportation and finance. We as civil grand jurists are autonomous in choosing topics for examination and proactive in conducting our investigations.
Our jury reflects a broad range of experience, expertise, perspectives, professions and political priorities. That diversity provides us unique insight when looking into local issues and problems brought to our attention. Facts and evidence are researched in depth before we give our collective opinion, advice and recommendation as written reports. We do not expect that everyone will agree with our findings and recommendations. We do expect thoughtful and reasoned responses that are in the best interest of the citizens of El Dorado County. In recent years, local and state leaders have attacked a grand jury’s motives and even its right to existence rather than provide meaningful responses.
When we receive a complaint, a letter confirming receipt will be sent to the complainant. State laws governing grand juries require investigations be conducted in absolute secrecy so complainants will not receive any further notice of any action taken except if and when a complainant is invited to testify before the jury.
Every complaint is initially reviewed by the entire jury. It may be rejected for various reasons, but if accepted it is assigned to an appropriate committee for investigation. Complaints received late in the jury year may be passed on to the next Grand Jury for review. No complaint or inquiry is ever overlooked.
Ongoing investigations are evaluated by the entire jury during our weekly meeting until the investigations reach completion and are documented into our grand jury report. Each report undergoes extensive editorial review. Statistics, quotations, and facts are verified with the principals involved. Finally, each report is approved by a super majority of the entire jury and then reviewed by county legal counsel and the presiding judge of the Superior Court to ensure they adhere to laws and codes.
Seated grand juries are independent from previous and subsequent juries. Information from a prior jury’s investigation cannot be used for our reports but can serve as a reference to conduct our own investigations and findings. We can follow up on uncompleted investigations from previous juries but must independently investigate and use our own analysis for a report.
Our investigations will usually culminate in a report to the public either during or at the end of our jury term on June 30. Frequently, just launching an investigation causes the alleged improprieties to be remedied. We have already seen this happen.
Completed reports are distributed to multiple sources including the named principals. They are published on the county Website and provided to local media as reference documents and for publication. I anticipate our first El Dorado County Grand Jury 2013-14 mid-year report will be published in the next few weeks.
Named principals legally have a limited time after receiving a report to reply and comment upon the report’s findings and recommendations. Replies are evaluated for clarity and completeness before being appended to the Grand Jury report Website for public archival and review. Replies and comments are presented exactly as received and the report is finalized. State law prohibits any seated jury from responding to public commentary.
Investigative sources are numerous, yet our most valuable source of critical issues is the people. If any El Dorado County citizen believes they have significant issues that this year’s Grand Jury should explore, now is an excellent time to document and submit your concerns.
Any county resident can submit a complaint that may result in an investigation. An El Dorado County Grand Jury Complaint Form can be found online at edcgov.us/Government/GrandJury/File_an_Action_Request.aspx.
Neil P. Cunningham is the foreperson for the 2013-14 El Dorado County Grand Jury.