If San Mateo County Manager John Maltbie fully understood the role of the civil grand jury and why and how it functions, he would not be so quick to criticize and conclude there is a “cloak of secrecy surrounding the civil grand jury.” Instead, he should welcome aid in ensuring good government, which is precisely why the California civil grand jury system exists.
As former forepersons of the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury, it was disheartening to read the county manager’s wrong and misinformed statements in his July 23 Daily Journal guest perspective “Pull back curtain on grand jury secrecy.” They were particularly perplexing considering he has been the county manager for many years and, thus, should be familiar with why the California civil grand jury exists, the critical role it plays to ensure good government and the processes used to help the grand jury function as a citizens’ watchdog group.
Grand juries have existed in California for more than 150 years since the adoption of the original state Constitution in 1849-50. Each grand jury is under the supervision of a local California Superior Court judge. Throughout its one-year term of office, the civil grand jury receives advice and counsel from the County Counsel Office. The County Counsel’s Office and the presiding grand jury judge review every final report.
The county manager is correct that the 58 counties’ civil grand juries can be “one of the most potentially powerful civil institutions in California.” However, he is wrong by saying that it is “cloaked in a veil of secrecy.” Grand jurors are subject to court rules and sworn to confidentiality. If confidentiality is breached, they can be held in contempt of court. Just because the county manager does not control or like the rules does not mean the grand jury is a discredited and ineffective body. In fact, the opposite is true. The court rules by which the grand jury abides enable and empower it to do its best work, without the bullying voice, political agenda, heavy hand or arm twisting of government officials — elected or employed.
Many wonder how one is selected to be on the civil grand jury. To be clear, grand jurors are not “chosen in secret,” as incorrectly stated by the county manager. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Notices are publicized in newspapers, inviting people to apply. Residents are also recommended by elected officeholders or contact the court. The presiding judge of the grand jury interviews each prospective juror, helping him/her understand the expectations and time commitments. The final step in the one-year term selection process is a summons issued by the court for a random drawing of names in the judge’s courtroom — similar to jury selection in a civil or criminal trial and is open to anyone. The court reporter makes a transcript, including grand jurors’ names, recorded with the Superior Court. The civil grand jury foreperson is chosen by the presiding grand jury judge. To claim that the civil grand jury is “chosen in secret” is wrong and misleading.
Grand jurors come from diverse backgrounds. As a truly independent body, each grand jury is free to address any local governmental entity or public officeholder. Under state law, at least one published report must be written by the end of the county fiscal year. With very limited exceptions, no one outside the grand jury can direct it to conduct an investigation. Ideas for investigations generally come from citizen complaints, matters raised by grand jurors and referrals from the preceding grand jury.
The grand jury analyzes whether a government agency is operating in a businesslike manner and providing public services effectively and economically. The grand jury seeks to identify and interview individuals with expert knowledge and diverse views. There would be a chilling impact without the guarantee of confidentiality. The grand jury typically provides its data to the government agency being investigated prior to publishing a report to ensure errors have not been made. Also, every proposed report is reviewed in detail and must be formally approved by at least 12 of 19 jurors.
Relevant data is published along with its recommendations. Written responses are required from the agencies subject to grand jury recommendations. If the county manager is unhappy with a report or disagrees with its findings, he may simply respond with his version of the facts. That response is available along with the grand jury report at http://www.sanmateocourt.org/court_divisions/grand_jury/.
We serve because we believe in furthering good government. There is no more a “culture of secrecy” as the county manager alleges, than exists with respect to any function of local government itself.
Public agencies and elected officeholders may not like what they hear or read, especially when there is a hard, honest look at how improvements must be made to ensure good government. However, that does not justify an incorrect depiction of civil grand juries as “cloaked in secrecy,” especially by a county manager who should know better. Civil grand juries are beholden to the people — not to elected bodies, government employees or public agencies.
Julia Yaffee (2003-04), Gerald Yaffee (2007-08), Virginia Chang Kiraly (2008-09), William Blodgett (2009-10), Raymond W. Basso (2010-11) and Bruce E. MacMillan (2011-12) are former forepersons of the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury.