June 27 2012 09:38 AM

Recent reports raise questions about civil grand jury's relevance

A June 13 screen shot of Marti Emerald questioning the accuracy of a grand jury report on city street repairs.

At its June 13 meeting, the San Diego City Council's Rules Committee discussed how to respond to a county civil grand jury report that took the city to task for not being proactive on street repairs. While it's not unusual for government officials to disagree with grand jury findings, this report rankled folks—City Councilmember Marti Emerald, in particular.

"This year's grand jury has issued, I think, some very questionable reports," she said. "At worst, the grand jury is losing its credibility, but it's also losing its relevance."

By law, the subjects of grand jury reports must respond within 90 days; those responses are forwarded to the presiding judge of the Superior Court. Emerald asked that the city's response include a request that the court look at the criteria for grand-jury appointments and what exactly the job of the grand jury is.

State law, however, has already defined that. All 58 counties in California have grand juries that are charged by statute "to investigate or inquire into county matters of civil concern." For San Diego County, which impaneled its first civil grand jury in 1850, this, at least recently, has meant investigations and inquiries into topics ranging from traffic congestion near Liberty Station to faulty storm drains in Leucadia to San Diego's street-repair backlog, the first of 17 reports by the 2011-2012 grand jury and the first to get a formal response.

The red flag, Emerald said, was the fact that the report opens by citing "recently released" data from The Road Information Program (TRIP) that ranked San Diego's roads the eighth-worst (the grand jury report says seventh) among major urban areas. It's a ranking that's cited repeatedly by mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio, Emerald noted.

The TRIP report, the city's grand jury response notes, was released in 2010 and relies on 2007 CalTrans data that looked at streets and roads, on-ramps and off-ramps, countywide, not just in San Diego. That was one of several points of clarification in the lengthy rebuttal from the Mayor's office and the Independent Budget Analyst's office that took, the Mayor's office estimates, more than 15 hours to prepare—a significant amount of time, but less than the 40 hours it took to respond to, and correct, a report by last year's grand jury on a proposed new city hall. And a report by the 2009-10 grand jury recommended­ that all cities, school districts and community college districts in the county, and the port and airport authorities, study the potential of outsourcing, thereby requiring responses from all 66 entities.

Keath North, president of the California Grand Jurors Association, acknowledged that the legally required response can be a strain government resources.

"In the system's defense, at least 20 to 30 percent of grand jury recommendations statewide do get implemented. We think that, for the cost, the benefit is there in an overall sense."

Jim Lewis, foreman for the 2011-12 grand jury, said he stands by the reports. Regarding the one on streets, the facts are there, he said.

"I'm not sure what they're talking about when they say we didn't fully research it," Lewis said. "The initial response when we issued the report was we failed to talk about how much money they had spent already on streets, but it's in the report. It sounded to me like they were trying to defend themselves. Anytime somebody criticizes you, you have to make yourself look as good as you think you can."

Emerald insists it's not a matter of being defensive.

"They're supposed to be an independent watchdog. They can investigate anything they want, but I expect them to do thorough, honest, unbiased investigations and produce a report based on the facts."

The grand jury's report alleging dysfunction within the city's Citizens Review Board on Police Practices (CRB) also drew criticism for failing to be thorough. The report described "a lack of decorum" and "an atmosphere of fear and intimidation" at CRB meetings.

"I would find the grand jury report far more credible if they would have interviewed other members who were outside of the complaint," said CRB member Anthony Wagner, who emphasized that he wasn't speaking on the CRB's behalf. "It's my belief that they interviewed two people out of the 23 [CRB members].

"In any setting where you stick 23 people of different minds, different backgrounds, different educations, different ethnicities into a room, we're not going to be inviting each other over for dinner or drinks," Wagner added, "but we have a respect for one another. Some of those people did not believe their views were respected. But, for every majority, there's going to be a dissent."

Whom, exactly, the grand jury interviewed for the report is confidential.

"Grand juries are sworn to secrecy and so the only things that we can talk about publicly is the information that's contained in our reports," Lewis said.

Jurors are selected by Superior Court judges and serve from July 1 through June 30 of the following year. The position requires a commitment of between 24 and 32 hours a week, sometimes more. For this reason, grand juries are largely composed of retirees. For the 2010-11 grand jury, out of 120 applicants, 93 were retired, 87 were white and 96 were 55 or older. Jurors are paid $25 a day, plus mileage.

The county funds the grand jury; the budget for the one that convenes July 1 is $588,080, said Walt Ekard, the county's chief administrative officer.

Ekard said he's had a good working relationship with grand juries, but he said jurors need to recognize limitations.

"You have 19 people, many of whom have no government experience, who are expected to come into this job and, within two or three months, start making cogent recommendations on aspects of government that people spend their entire careers doing. One of the things I suggest to them: Don't pick a topic that you can't get your arms around in a very short period of time."

He also warns jurors not to be adversarial or use their position to advance an agenda.

"‘You have the ability to make the county look really bad,'" Ekard said he tells new jurors. "The media's going to love picking up on what you say, and it's going to embarrass us for a couple of days—you have that ability. I have the ability to ignore everything you do and basically make your year a waste of time. So why not put all of that aside and let's figure out how we can collaboratively work on this."

Ekard said he respects what the grand jury does and gives it credit for effectively pushing the county to expand the too-small Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility.

"It was grand juries pushing the county for years to make that a top priority," he said.

Perhaps the state needs redefine the grand jury's purpose, Ekard said, especially with shrinking newsrooms. "Maybe you should at least focus grand juries on looking at some of those aspects of government that no one else is looking at."

Or, perhaps something simpler than that.

"I just wish they had a different name," said San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria, who issued a memo in response to the streets report. "‘Grand Jury' conveys an authority that does not match their charge or their work product. It gives the public the wrong impression. I'd feel that way even if their reports about the city were more positive."

Email kellyd@sdcitybeat.com or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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