A Review of Santa Clara County’s Grand Jury, Which is Accepting Applications

Santa Clara County’s Civil Grand Jury—a watchdog of local government—needs 19 new jurors to serve during the coming fiscal year. The deadline to apply is March 8.

Every year, the grand jury fields citizen complaints and chooses which to pursue as investigations. Sometimes, the grand jury chooses to follow up on a previous jury’s reports to make sure the recommendations were taken seriously.

California’s 58 civil grand juries, comprised of regular citizens, provide a level of oversight, monitoring local government’s actions for instances of abuse of power. Every year, the local arm of the judicial branch audits elected leaders, public agencies and the county’s 25 special districts to make sure they govern with integrity and don’t misuse taxpayer money.

“Civil Grand Juries are the cornerstones of democracy that ensure county and local government are wholly accountable to the people they serve,” says Presiding Judge Brian C. Walsh. “Civil grand jury service offers everyday citizens a unique opportunity to contribute to the efficiency of local government and to hold elected and appointed officials accountable for the use of our precious tax dollars.”

Applicants must be at least 18 years old, a U.S. citizen who has lived in the county for a year or more and able commit to at least 20-25 hours a week to the role. Terms start with the new fiscal year.

“We are incredibly committed to selecting a group of citizens who represent Santa Clara’s diverse community,” Walsh says. “Because the Civil Grand Jury looks at all aspects of government, we need a deep bench of knowledge—everything from construction to finance—and are looking for a mixed set of skills and abilities. But most importantly, we are looking for civic mindedness, strong ethics and commonsense.”

The currently impaneled grand jury released a dozen reports between 2011 and 2012:

Custody or Rehabilitation? The County’s Approach to Women Inmates at Elmwood >> Women locked up at Elmwood Women’s Correctional Facility need better access to support and self-help services and more focus on rehabilitation—as opposed to punishment for minor crimes, the jury concludes.

South Santa Clara County Memorial Special District Continues to Fall Short of Good Governance >> Jurors dug up some shocking violations of the Brown Act by the governing board of a small veterans memorial district. Boardmembers, all elected officials, held a private meeting to talk about ousting a fellow trustee who wasn’t even invited to the meeting. Then, boardmembers proceeded to strike out his votes at a later regular board meeting, even though their attempt to remove him was completely illegal. The jury pressed further and found that the district had no effort to reach out to veterans to connect them with valuable services, despite being paid by taxpayers to do exactly that. The district had no website, no mission statement and no up-to-date ethics training.

San Jose City Hall: A Promise Kept or a Promise Broken? >> In 1996, voters passed a ballot measure that required the city to use proceeds from the sale of the old City Hall to help finance the new one. Jurors found that the city didn’t keep its promise, and that the new City Hall is far beyond the scope of what voters originally asked for.

Is Santa Clara County Ready for Prison Reform? >> When the state last year started trying to thin out its prison population, it shifted a huge weight to counties, requiring them to release some of the jail population to ease overcrowding. Jurors wanted to see how well the county stepped up to the task of this new responsibility. They released a glowing report, naming the county as an example to follow in enacting prison reform.

How Santa Clara County Decides to Lease Property at Below Fair Market Rates >> The role of our county government is to offer public services like mental health care, education, recreation and other welfare services. Very often it can’t afford to staff a department to extend those services itself, so it contracts with nonprofits or other community organizations to help, in exchange for letting them lease county-owned land for $1 a year. The jury examined this leasing practice and concluded that it’s necessary, but that the county needs to treat these exchanges as financial transactions, naming a dollar amount loss and list the assessed fair market value of the property on Board of Supervisors meeting agendas before a vote is taken.

Change Starts at the Top in Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Resuscitation >> A prior jury lambasted Valley Medical Center for its shoddy financial management, finding that its operating losses more than quadrupled from 2000 to 2009. The $1.2 billion operation has consistently needed a bailout from the county’s general fund. The current jury decided to follow up and see if the public health agency followed the previous recommendations to fix that. Jurors say in their recent report that the hospital took steps to fix that, including a the Board of Supervisors hiring a doctor as county executive and federal healthcare reform that handed down stricter oversight rules to public health agencies.

Community-Based Organizations: Partners in the Community >> The county pays more than 100 community organizations to extend public services to residents. That’s 155 separate contracts adding up to $46.5 million. Because of how much money is on the line, the jury decided to look into how these private and nonprofits perform with our taxpayer money. The consensus was positive overall, with suggestions for some minor improvements in the way the county awards small-dollar contracts.

An Analysis of Pension and Other Post-Employment Benefits >> The jury looked at the pension and benefits of employees at 16 county cities. The cost of retirement takes away from valuable city services, like public safety, said jurors, who called for across-the-board pension reform.

County Updates the Look and Feel of its Website Without Attention to Content >> Sure the county’s new website is shiny and new, but the useful information is either absent or tough to find, jurors said. They cited San Jose’s city website as a helpful user-friendly model to mimic. (San Jose has since updated its own website design.)

Veterans Memorial Restoration: Preserving History and Restoring Pride >> It took the San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs more than a year to repair a vandalized $1.25 million war memorial on Park Avenue by the Guadalupe River. The agency missed several completion dates and patched up the monument with a temporary plastic cover. The jury wanted to find out why the repairs took so long. It wound up finding out that the city didn’t communicate well with the public, should have bought copyrights from the original manufacturer and needs to install security cameras by the memorial to stave off or catch future vandals.

Continuity in Fire Service Delivery >> Another follow-up to a previous grand jury’s audit, this report found that local fire agencies need to re-think the way they respond to emergencies. About 94 percent of calls for service are unrelated to fires (about 70 percent are medical). This is caused, in part, because modern building codes require sprinklers and flame-retardant construction materials, cutting down on emergency fires to fight. That means agencies need to consider ways to dispatch vehicles appropriate to the call received. The jury found that fire departments are following those recommendations and reinventing service protocol.

Luther Burbank School District Misses the Mark in its Response to the Grand Jury >> This Burbank school district gave jurors a little lip when responding to a 2010-11 report that accused it of violating open meeting laws and granting too much authority to an outside consultant. The district wrote its responses to the audit based on input from the same consultant the report called into question. The successor jury followed up to make sure the district wrote a new formal response to the review based on input from objective counsel, not a person defending their work.

WHAT: Apply for the county Civil Grand Jury
WHEN: Deadline to submit an application is March 8
WHERE: Download an application from http://www.scscourt.org
INFO: Gloria Alicia Chacón, Office of the Civil Grand Jury, 408.882.2722

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

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