Are grand jury reports the voice of the people--or a hunt for red herrings?
Thursday, January 7, 1999
When the just-released 1998 grand jury report tackled two issues close to the heart of Peninsula environmentalists--the activist Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District and the growth potential of a new Los Padres Dam--howls of protest could be heard almost all the way back to the office of the clerk of the Superior Court in Salinas, where the report was issued.
Among other things, this year''s grand jury report recommended merging the park district with the Monterey County Parks Department and all but endorsed a plan to build a new Carmel River Dam. "I would question the appropriateness of someone with such strong opinions leading a grand jury discussion of the dam," says Gillian Taylor, conservation chair of the local Sierra Club, of 1998 grand jury foreman Robert Quinn''s participation.
"The accusations that grand juries are politically motivated or out on a witch hunt is an insult to the 18 or 19 members being singled out," says Quinn. "It''s an insult to the integrity of the grand jury."
Naturally, this year''s grand jury report is not the first to be accused of containing politically motivated swipes at government institutions. In 1997, the Monterey County grand jury report entered the fray over approval of Rancho Chualar II--and, say some, helped sink the project. The report also blasted Seaside officials for mismanagement--charges that were frequently mentioned in the November campaign that unseated Seaside Mayor Don Jordan. The 1996 grand jury rapped the county itself for mismanagement, suggesting that political pressure may have contributed to a too-hasty decision about where to locate a Youth Center and Delinquency Prevention Facility.
Those who''ve worked on recent grand juries say there are a number of techniques and procedures used to keep grand jury investigations free of political posturing. But they also acknowledge that the mere process of looking into government bodies and institutions can lend itself to criticism-- particularly from those who''d rather not be investigated by novices.
"The hottest [item] for us was Seaside," says Roger Loper, the 1997 grand jury foreman. "The first reaction was that this was a political bias, and the second was that it was racially biased. All I can say is that I don''t believe that for a minute...I can see that as an answer only when there is no other defense."
Unlike other jurors, who receive summons in the mail and--if selected--are compelled to serve, grand jurors are typically solicited to apply for year-long service through newspaper ads, and then screened by a Monterey County Superior Court Judge.
Superior Court Judge John Phillips, who presides over the grand jury, says he and court administrator Sherri Pedersen sometimes find that when they are screening potential jurors, they discover people with "hidden agendas who want to get in and exploit things that maybe need exploiting and maybe they don''t." He says the two try to avoid those types, instead preferring "to look for people who will come in and do their job objectively." Additionally, grand jurors are given the charge by Phillips when they are sworn in for their year of service "not to go out on their own" and "to set aside their own personal feelings and not make a crusade from something they feel personally about."
But even given those safeguards, grand juries typically take on the flavor of the volunteers who serve in any given year. Typically, those jurors who are best able to volunteer for the time-consuming job in the first place are retired, although a few each year are still employed. Most are no longer folks who''ve been encouraged by to apply--a difference that Phillips says has been adopted over the course of the past decade. By definition "the charter of a civil grand jury is very broad," says Gary Patton, the executive director of the environmental watchdog group LandWatch and a former Santa Cruz County supervisor. "In my long service [as a supervisor] receiving reports, some struck me as extremely objective, others struck me as not nearly that way."
Patton says what stuck out for him in particular in the current grand jury report was the jury''s decision to tackle the dam issue, something he views as a policy issue rather than a government entity. But 1998 jury foreman Quinn points out that each complaint investigated by a subcommittee of six jurors on the authority of the full grand jury. And he says each subcommittee prepared its own recommended course of action that was only included in the full grand jury report with the approval of at least 12 of the 19 members. Loper says a similar process was followed with the 1997 grand jury report.
The final draft of the grand jury report is always reviewed by Phillips office and the county counsel. That doesn''t mean that the report is above reproach, but then again, he points out that the strength of the grand jury. "It''s the only body that''s comprised of citizens that come in with fresh eyes each year." cw
Additional reporting by Richard Pitnick