Grand juries tend to make for splashy headlines—especially over the past nine months, with all of the attention given to Russian collusion in the 2016 election, à la “Federal Grand Jury Indicts Paul Manafort.”
The county’s local grand jury, which is part of the Santa Cruz County Superior Court, is something else entirely.
“Our role is more like watchdog,” explains Lauren Tobin, outgoing foreperson for the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury. “We look at local government and county government agencies to make sure they are operating efficiently and effectively and ethically, and with transparency. We don’t do indictments. We don’t deal with criminal charges.”
Last week, the Grand Jury released its final of seven reports, “Honoring Commitments to the Public,” a follow-up on reports from two years ago. This year’s previous six reports looked at the public defender system, local youth homelessness, data-driven budgeting, the San Lorenzo Valley Water District, county mental health, and public safety in local schools.
Grand juries date back to the Middle Ages in Europe, but the only countries that use them today are the U.S. and Liberia, off Africa’s West Coast. And although there are plenty of civil grand juries throughout the U.S., California is the only state that actually requires each county to have one of its own.
Until a couple years ago, county grand jurors were picked via summons mailed out to thousands of residents, and each recipient had the option of whether or not to apply to have their name put in a drawing. The jury still does mailings, but now, with public service announcements, it also recruits any resident who has roughly 20 hours to spare per week and an interest in civic issues, and encourages them to apply.
Applications are due in April, and Judge John Gallagher winnows down the field of qualified applicants, with previous jurors pitching in to help with interviews. After narrowing the possible jurors down to 30, 19 names get picked out of a hopper. The 2018-19 jury got seated last week.
Over the next few months, those 19 jurors will brainstorm possible investigations based on complaints, news stories and things they’ve heard in the community. They then split up into a number of committees, with each group doing an investigation and drafting a report that eventually gets read by the entire jury. At any point, an investigation may get dropped, if it doesn’t find much, Tobin says.
The county government funds the grand jury with $52,000 a year, but Tobin says that small dollar amount does not undermine the group’s independence. She says there’s not much risk of ever losing that funding—which isn’t listed under any one department—since the state requires every county to have a grand jury. (Even if the funding did disappear, that wouldn’t stop the grand jury from doing its job, she says.)
A good chunk of the money goes to mailing costs. Each juror, including the foreperson, makes $30, plus per-mile gas reimbursements for driving from home.
Once a report comes out, the agency in question can respond to the findings and recommendations. Then it’s up to other watchdogs to hold them accountable.
“We don’t have enforcement authority,” Tobin says of the jury. “We we can’t make them do what we recommended. The important thing is that the reports bring these things to the eye of the public.”
The jury’s most recent report follows up on reports from two years ago to see if their recommendations were being implemented. Both the county mental health department and sheriff’s office had finished implementing those recommendations, while the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors had finished implementing most of them. The Soquel Union Elementary School District had just begun doing so, and it wasn’t clear if the Felton Fire Protection District had implemented much of anything.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the reports are available for the public to read,” Tobin says. “They read the news stories about them, which is great, so they kind of know, but they don’t read the reports. They’re not that long, and if it’s something you care about, it’s interesting.”
To learn more about the Grand Jury and read the reports, visit santacruzcounty.us/GrandJury.