Viewpoint

State’s civil grand jury system: Does it work?

February 24, 2014 

SLO Auditor-Controller Gere Sibbach.

Like most important questions, the answer is, it depends. Over a period of government service spanning more than 30 years, I have observed and interacted with many grand juries. Some have achieved much good, some not so much, and some have done mischief. But the overarching fact is that they serve a critical function as an independent watchdog. They support the public’s interest in honest, efficient and effective local government.

A new grand jury is seated each fiscal year. During February, the San Luis Obispo Superior Court seeks applicants to serve from the following July through June. Each jury has its own character and could face very different challenges.

In my early career, the jurors received almost no training and their primary function seemed to be as a minor irritant to government officials. (That of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) But beneficial changes gradually occurred. New members began meeting and sharing experiences with jurors from other counties, various officials such as the county auditor, county administrator and district attorney were invited to address the newly seated panels and state law required the subjects of grand jury inquiries to respond in writing when a grand jury issued a final report. Thus grand juries became more knowledgeable and their findings more difficult to ignore.

Grand juries may initiate investigations based on complaints from citizens, or they can explore whatever their members decide to look into.

Their investigative powers are nearly unlimited. However, they have no real enforcement power. When their reports are of high quality, are well documented, are even-handed and nonpartisan and contain practical recommendations, they cannot easily be ignored by the subject officials and agencies. They provide important impetus for important change.

On the other hand, poorly written or poorly documented reports can be dismissed out of hand.

Sometimes failed reports result from preconceived or politically based notions on the part of the grand jurors. Since a final report requires a consensus of at least 12 of the 19 members, this rarely happens.

More often, in my view, failed reports result from a lack of cooperation on the part of the agency being investigated. In this situation, the jury may have relied on misleading or nonrepresentative data, misunderstood complex regulations or run out of time to fully understand a problem before its fiscal year term ends.

I believe a responsible government agency should be open to scrutiny at all times. When problems are identified, acknowledge them and take corrective action.

This advice seems difficult to follow. Demands for perfection by the media and the public are not reasonable and probably contribute to this situation. However, accountability must be accepted, and without watchdogs like the grand jury (or auditors!) it is too easy for an agency to stagnate and poorly serve its constituents.

Grand jurors receive a small stipend plus reimbursement for mileage. They need to have at least 20 hours per week available.

If you want to learn more about this unique opportunity to serve your community, go to http://www.slocourts.net/grand_jury.  

Gere Sibbach is a certified public accountant and retired San Luis Obispo County auditor-controller.

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