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The Power to Investigate

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The Power to Investigate

Do you have a nose for snooping into government affairs?

By David Abbott

Mark your calendar for recognition of an institution that normally flies under the radar… Grand Jury Awareness Month coming this spring. And RIGHT NOW the selection process is in full swing for the 2017 Grand Jury (GJ) that will serve from July 2017 to June 2018 investigating complaints filed against local government agencies. 

Introductory workshops will take place from Jan. 5 through March 16.

“The strength of the grand jury is gathering 19 citizens with a diversity of skills and looking at the efficiency of county government,” Matt Stone, current Grand Jury foreperson, said. “We have awesome power in a little living space.”

The GJ operates under state law, functioning as an independent body that oversees the legislative and administrative departments of county, city and special district governments, such as local school districts and Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) created districts, like the Palm Drive Health Care District. 

It has the power to investigate to ensure their “efficient, honest and fair operation” in service to the citizens of Sonoma County.

Power to Learn

While the Sonoma County GJ has the power to subpoena, take sworn testimony and access law enforcement employee records in search of critical information, it has no criminal prosecutorial authority. 

One of its primary benefits is the ability to shine a light on obscure government functions. 

Once the investigation is completed, the GJ can forward an accusation* which can expose inefficiencies or dysfunction in local government agencies and lead to corrective action.

 “There’s no magic wand or power, but we do have the bully pulpit,” Stone said. “And what better education can you get than looking under the hood and seeing how government works and who the players are?”

Stone served on the 2015-16 grand jury and is one of four jurors retained for continuity into the current fiscal year. He acts foreperson to help guide new jurors through the process until the new jury is seated in July. 

“I’m not a tiebreaker or order-giver, but more a cat herder in charge of organizational training and assigning responsibilities,” Stone said of his duties.

Each grand jury is selected by a two-step process: the application, which is reviewed by the county, and then the candidate is interviewed by a Superior Court judge. In June, 19 jurors and at least five alternative will be randomly selected for a one-year term, so the prospective juror pool must be at least 60 people.  Time commitment is about 10-20 volunteer hours per week, so the composition is skewed towards older, whiter retirees. 

Seeking People of Color 

 “The effectiveness of the GJ depends entirely on the pool of volunteers who step forward each year to offer their time and expertise to ferret out ‘the next big problem’ and to research the possible fixes,” Stone said.

As the county searches for new jurors, it hopes to broaden the reach and diversity of the body in order to expand both the scope of investigations. 

“We have to ask if that’s the right demographic for investigating incidents involving people of color,” Stone said. “If the GJ could broaden it’s economic and demographic reach it could monitor things like vineyard workers’ rights.”

He believes that one way to help broaden the demographics would be for businesses — be they large agri-business, Medtronic, or other big corporations — to make an effort to encourage employees to volunteer and make it easier with paid time off. 

“Let them do it for an educational experience,” Stone said. “For one year you feel the burn, but that employee will be a rock star.” 

Success Stories

GJ investigations have led to many high profile corrections in recent years. 

A 2011 GJ report catalogued mismanagement of the Sonoma County Library system and since then, the recommendations have been gradually implemented.

Likewise the Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) received recommendations to hire new management and improve customer service. The GJ also investigated the pension fund issues that led to formation of advisory/review panel, the Sonoma County Law Library was kept from insolvency and almost every recommendation made is being incorporated into countywide housing planning

“We’ve had three reports on the library in the past six years and they followed our recommendations,” Stone said. “Some people complained about the PRMD — there are horror stories — and over time our recommendations have been implemented.”

But there are instances when an investigation does not come to fruition just because of a phone call from the grand jury.

“If the GJ decides some department needs to be looked at and they get that phone call, there is an audible tightening of the sphincter on the other end of the line,” Stone said. “That phone call triggers a conversation when the GJ arrives for meetings and a tour. Then you come back and somebody’s fixing the problem. Things get done before you even report just by showing up.” 

Platform for Change

California is one of a few remaining states to maintain a civil grand jury system, with two types of grand juries, civil and criminal. They are separate bodies governed by different rules. Criminal grand juries are rarely used in Sonoma County, because the District Attorney has other alternatives to bring about criminal charges. 

“Outside of attaining elected office, I believe being a Grand Juror provides an individual with the most powerful platform for promoting real change and having a real impact on our community,” Stone concluded. “This is a key ‘take away.’”

For juror guidelines or to obtain an applicationgo to sonoma.courts.ca.gov or send a request with a self-addressed envelope to:

Sonoma County Superior Court

Attn: Court Administration

600 Administration Dr., Santa Rosa, California 95403

For further information call (707) 521-6501

* of misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance

You could make a difference! Join Sonoma County Civil Grand Jurors to learn about serving!

Thursday, Jan. 5 at 4 pm

HEALDSBURG LIBRARY

139 Piper St, Healdsburg

Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 6 pm

SONOMA VALLEY LIBRARY

755 West Napa St, Sonoma

Saturday, Feb. 4 at 11 am

GUERNEVILLE LIBRARY

14107 Armstrong Woods Rd, Guerneville

 Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 2 pm

CENTRAL LIBRARY

211 E St, Santa Rosa

Thursday, Feb. 9 at 4 pm

ROHNERT PARK LIBRARY

6250 Lynne Conde Way, Rohnert Park

Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 6 pm

PETALUMA LIBRARY

100 Fairgrounds Dr, Petaluma

Friday, Feb. 24 at 4 pm 

SEBASTOPOL LIBRARY

7140 Bodega Ave, Sebastopol

Tuesday, Mar. 2 at 11 am

RINCON VALLEY LIBRARY

6959 Montecito Blvd, Santa Rosa

Saturday, Mar. 11 at 11 am

WINDSOR LIBRARY

9291 Old Redwood Hwy, Windsor,

Saturday, Mar. 16 at 1 pm

CLOVERDALE LIBRARY

401 N Cloverdale Blvd, Cloverdale