As I conclude two years on the Placer County Grand Jury I’m struck by how the experience was so completely different than I could have ever imagined. There were periods of intense frustration, brought on by my own personal view of organization and commitment, and moments of satisfaction that we were reporting on important aspects of local government. My experience was not unique. All the Grand Jurors I served with felt alternatively gratified by our work while carrying the weight acrimonious debate and fellow jurors who failed to carry their work load.
Over the two years of my service on the Grand Jury I kept notes on my experience and some of the frustrations I encountered. True to my oath to keep all Grand Jury investigations and discussions confidential, I won’t discuss the specifics or particulars of interviews or votes taken by the Grand Jury. The 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 Placer County Grand Jury Final Reports are the official record of our investigations. The Grand Jury speaks with one voice. While the Grand Jury reports have been polished for publication, there is nary a hint of the verbal mud wrestling that often times accompany crafting the final reports.
So you want to be a Grand Juror
You may have seen the local newspaper story announcing that your local county is now accepting applications for the Grand Jury. The general perception is that Grand Jury service entails meeting a couple times a week to discuss and vote on investigations done by other county employees or the District Attorney. This is not how a Grand Jury works. The actual Grand Jury websites can provide information about the time commitment and workload. An even better introduction to the Grand Jury process is usually found by attending an informational meeting hosted by previous and current Grand Jurors.
However, if you are really interested in applying for the Grand Jury you should read the past reports. Unfortunately, I found that most people who apply to the Grand Jury never bother to read through the most recent Grand Jury Report. Each investigational report contained in the Grand Jury’s Final Report represents hundreds of hours of work by the jurors. If you become a Grand Juror, you will help lead an investigation, interview individuals associated with the investigation, attend lots of meetings, read through lots of revisions of the report, attend lots of meetings, potentially argue with people, attend lots of meetings, and then help publish the final report. Attending lots of meetings is the easy part.
Most California county Grand Juries are comprised of 19 people selected at random after the initial application process. The term is for one year and some jurors may apply to serve a second term. There are state laws that govern the function and powers of the Grand Jury. While each county’s Grand Jury may be operated differently, largely dependent on their budgets, their primary function is to investigate county government plus cities and special districts within the county. They can also be called upon to hear criminal indictments brought by the District Attorney’s office.
My Grand Jury tour of duty
I served two years on the Placer County Grand Jury (2014 – 2015 and 2015 – 2016). In my second year I was the Pro-Tempore to the Foreperson. After my first year of service I was done. I had my fill of listening to people bickering over inconsequential items. I was tired of people who couldn’t figure out how to use basic software such as MS Word, or the computer in general, allowing them to escape doing any of the work. I was tired of telling my family I was going to resign only to find myself preparing the next meeting agenda for the committee that I was the chair of.
Even though my first year was enough to make most people run out of the haunted house known as the Grand Jury, I did meet some very talented people. I also saw the value and wisdom of the Grand Jury and its potential to affect change. Above all, I admired the woman, who with absolutely no prior experience, was thrown into the position of Foreperson by the presiding judge in our first year on the Grand Jury. For reasons that escape me, she chose to return for a second year as the Foreperson. She recruited several other jurors to apply to return for a second year. I was one of those folks.
In a sense, she was building her team for what she hoped would be a more congenial and effective second Grand Jury year. Most of the first-year problems had their genesis in a lack of experience. This is an inherent problem with all Grand Juries – there is little institutional memory or knowledge on how to run the show. There is no guarantee that those who return for a second year will actually take a leadership role or even have a clue as to what to do.
If you find yourself on a Grand Jury with very few people who have returned for a second term, heaven help you. Unless you have some bright and talented people coming onto the Grand Jury, it will be a slow and tortuous year. This is what our Foreperson wanted to avoid in the second year. After we were empaneled (officially blessed to be Grand Jurors by taking a long oath given by the advising judge), those who were selected for a second term went to work creating a structure for getting the committees up and running as soon as possible. We approached new jurors who we thought would make good committee chairs. People who looked and sounded organized and were not afraid of computers.
By any measurement, those jurors who served on both the 2014 – 2015 and 2015 – 2016 Grand Jury will tell you the second year was far more efficient. Instead of meetings that stretched for hours trying to make last minute edits to reports in the first year, we completed the reports in a timely fashion, free of deadline anxieties, in the second year. The work flow was improved by emphasizing that committee’s and their reports should be meeting certain milestones with their investigations during the year. We also emphasized continuous training at our Full Panel or plenary meetings. We went over the differences and nuances between facts and findings on numerous occasions.
Each of the returning Grand Jurors had a specific role in the second year: Foreperson, Office Manager, Technology Coordinator, Secretary, Sargent-at-Arms, and Pro-Tempore. We all worked very hard to bring the new jurors up to speed. The Foreperson and I would call the new jurors periodically to make sure they were not too lost or to answer any questions. When you become Grand Juror you have a firehose of information being directed at you and it can be very hard to assimilate all the content.
By contrast, in my first year, committee chairs were usually chosen by the member who didn’t show up to the first committee meeting. Can you say disaster? There was no chairperson training as to how to run a meeting within the Grand Jury framework. Consequently, some committee meetings devolved into long agonizing diatribes given by one or more jurors who felt they weren’t being listened to. Of course, I didn’t set any shiny example as a committee chair my first year. After it was apparent that none of the committee members had read any of the material for one particular meeting, I adjourned the meeting after 20 minutes, got up and left the room. My improper overly dramatic message was, “Don’t waste my time.”
For all of our second year preparation, structure and organizational work, we still had a room full of new people who really didn’t know what it meant to be a Grand Juror. This is the second problem with the Grand Jury system – clueless citizens. At our first Full Panel meeting of the Grand Jury I made what must have seemed like a very odd prediction to all the jurors, “At some point during this year, you will want to quit the Grand Jury.” At our last Full Panel meeting of the term, I returned to that prediction and asked how many people had wanted to quit during the year. I recall virtually everyone raising their hand, including those who had returned for a second year!
Who will you serve with on the Grand Jury
As I told the judges in my interview to return to the Grand Jury for a second year, once I realized that half of the people on the Grand Jury were either incapable of doing the work, or simply just didn’t want to, it became easier for me to push forward. In other words, once I stopped expecting that my fellow Grand Jurors would actually do any work, and I knew who I could count on to produce and perform, I was able to plan meetings and get work done. It’s crazy but true. You have to ignore those people who are just dead drift-wood sitting on the shore.
People who apply to be on the Grand Jury come in three flavors-
- The open minded “do-gooder”: people who may have worked in or around government and want to help improve the process. These folks understand that departments and agencies work under a myriad of bureaucratic rules imposed on them. While the mission of the bureaucracy may be sound, the execution can be sloppy.
- The government sucks curmudgeon: people who generally have a negative view of government and think, “If I were in charge I could fix this mess.” I call this the Donald Trump syndrome. Many of these Grand Jurors have an axe to grind as it is called. They assume that most people who work for government are inept, government is corrupt, and there are just too many damn laws in this country.
- The coffee klatch crowd: people who are retired and have nothing else to do. For these people, it was a toss-up of whether they joined a book club or applied to the Grand Jury. They are actually delighted to have some place to go every week. They have people to chat with, coffee to drink, and they really like the snacks other jurors bring to meetings.
In reality, I didn’t care which of the three flavors a Grand Juror was. They could be a yogurt swirl of all three flavors. All I cared about was they had done their homework and came to the meetings ready to work. The Grand Jury doesn’t look at government through the lens of good intentions or irrational perceptions. The Grand Jury deals with facts, determines findings, and then makes recommendations for improvement. All of our baggage of how we think government should work is thrown out the window when we must deal with the facts of the investigation. All jurors must conform to this reality regardless of what flavor they are.
A person’s disposition toward government isn’t necessarily an indicator of their motivation and willingness to work. Over my two years on the Grand Jury I saw a generally a third of the jurors really take a leadership role to get the work done. Another third did their share of the work and were instrumental in running the investigations and drafting the reports. Finally, there were roughly a third of the jurors who really just wanted to show up and chat. They just wanted to sit around and discuss what other people had produced.
These folks who came to be entertained by the investigations were great at making suggestions on where to put a comma in a sentence, but they never actually helped write anything. They wanted to come and see the interviews. But they didn’t want to arrange the interviews, take notes or otherwise do anything that might be construed as work. The slackers in the Grand Jury room aren’t going to be shamed into doing much work other than making a pot of coffee.
Grand Juries investigate, they don’t dictate
It’s unfortunate that some people who apply for the Grand Jury have an agenda. Sometimes the concerns of these citizens are valid and other times they are not. Invariably there will be people who want to change how government operates. That isn’t necessarily the role of the Grand Jury. If someone really wants to change the direction of their county, city, water agency, school district, they should run for office. The Grand Jury is not the place for frustrated wanna-be politicians.
Too often, strong personalities on a Grand Jury, with well-meaning topics to investigate, lead their fellow Grand Jurors down a dead end path. The Grand Jury needs to separate political decisions from the actual operation of the department. Just because the County Board of Supervisors failed to fund a worthy cause or allocated money to a contract of dubious merit in the eyes of one resident, is not grounds for a Grand Jury investigation. Those are political decisions made by elected officials. What is fair game for an investigation are how the funds were used and the operation of the department if there are credible allegations of mismanagement.
What did I sign up for?
What happens when you stick 19 people in a room and tell them to solve a problem? You get 19 different ways to solve that problem. That’s essentially what happens when you convene a county Grand Jury. In all honesty, most new grand jurors are so baffled by the process, this author included; trying to figure the first step to solve the problem is like walking into a dark room and trying to find the light switch.
Two months into my grand jury experience and I finally started to wrap my arms around the process. Thankfully, my first-year Grand Jury had some returning jurors with flash lights to lead the rest of us into this dark tunnel of Grand Jury process. On the first day, after being selected and sworn in, we were given this large binder that contained our handbook of operations. This thick binder of pages could act as a sleeping pill for an insomniac. It’s not that there wasn’t great information within the numerous chapters; it’s that it was like reading a manual on how to rebuild an engine without without ever having lifted the hood of a car.
What to investigate?
As hard as it is to solve a problem, there first has to be consensus on what the problem is we are trying to address. Within a committee of seven people, there are seven different perspectives on what issue we are trying to focus our attention on. This issue of focus is a far greater problem for Grand Juries initiating investigations as opposed to a citizen’s complaint. When a county resident makes a complaint to the grand jury, and the committee it is assigned to begins to review it, some truths become self-evident. It might not be an issue the grand jury can even investigate because it’s outside our jurisdiction such as a complaint dealing with a Superior Court Judge.
The real wrestling matches occur when a grand juror suggests an area of county government to review and investigate. It can be a challenge just to narrow down the scope so you aren’t interviewing fifty different people. It can be difficult when a fellow grand juror is passionate about a topic, and the committee agrees there is a problem, but there is no consensus on how to tackle investigating the issue.
The problem of finding consensus can be exasperated if committee meetings are run in an informal fashion like old friends discussing the old college days. As difficult as it may be, committee chairs need to run meetings with a more formal etiquette structure. When one member has the floor, they need to finish their comments before the next person talks. It might be that the chair does a round Robin poll so each member can have his or her say.
What are you complaining about?
Citizen complaints are the back bone of the Grand Jury investigations. A good citizen complaint alerts the Grand Jury to a particular failure in government operation that only someone who has interacted with the special district, city, or county department can realize. Unfortunately many citizen complaints fall outside the Grand Jury’s jurisdiction, have too little information, or are just the ramblings of a conspiracy kook. Some citizen complaints are more of a manifesto of grievances about how the citizen had been poorly treated by an agency.
Most of the time the citizen just don’t understand the rules and regulations that makes it impossible for the Sheriff’s department to cite a neighbor for letting their dog poop on his grass. However, while there may be no investigation regarding the Sheriffs failure to enforce the dog-poop penal code, there may be an issue with customer service or communication as to why the offending puppy dog isn’t hauled off to the animal shelter.
The other source of Grand Jury investigations are those that are suggested by the Grand Jury members. Similar to random citizen complaints, some grand jurors want to recreate the county or city government in their own understanding how government should work. Some of the investigative suggestions have merit, but some jurors have no clue how much time and effort is required to mount a credible investigation. You couple this with Grand Jurors who look at the committee and Full Panel meeting as a social hour and it becomes painfully obvious that there just aren’t enough Grand Jurors willing to tackle some the big picture investigations.
Shortly after being empaneled, we spent two days at Grand Jury training provided by the California Grand Jury Association (CGJA). The training was good at providing an overview of the Grand Jury system and how to complete an investigation and write a report. Unfortunately, the presenters can’t really speak to the operations of each of the different counties in attendance. Some counties have more resources, such as an actual office with staff, than do other counties who have a very limited budget.
I attended two annual training sessions and came away each time feeling as if I was being talked like child in elementary school. The CGJA likes to dumb-down the description of the Grand Jury process in their presentations. Perhaps this is a function of having to cover so much territory in a small amount of time. Regardless, most people walk away without a clear understanding of the next steps for getting their Grand Jury moving forward. It would be better to have the Grand Jury big picture broken up into more digestible parts over a couple months. Most new Grand Jurors can’t conceive of writing a report so early in the year before they have clear understanding of how to execute an investigation.
While the California Grand Jury Association touched on every aspect of official Grand Jury operations, they notably avoided dealing with Grand Juror conflict. The two biggest points of conflict are deciding what to investigate and then interpreting the facts, findings, and recommendations of a final report. There were times when the tension between committee members was so palpable it was if a heavy fog of animosity had filled the room. The end result was that some Grand Jurors just checked out of the process. They were there physically, but they chose not to participate.
Some people are very demonstrative when it comes to expressing their opinions. Other people are inclined not to verbalize their position preferring to let their vote speak for their opinion. The personality clash comes when some people begin to feel intimidated by other jurors who do not share their perspective. Collegiality among Grand Jurors can only be achieved when respect for fellow jurors and the process is fully embraced.
The anonymous authors
The least illustrative of the CGJA topics covered was on report writing. Even though CGJA has a special one-day training seminar on how to write a report after an investigation has concluded, it completely failed to prepare most Grand Jurors for the experience. A Grand Jury report is fairly straightforward. It should contain a summary, background, investigational methods, facts, findings, conclusion, and, finally, recommendations.
The background and training that is lacking is how a committee tasked with writing a report starts a draft report and the ensuing editing process. In my second year on the Grand Jury we really tried to emphasize a framework for compiling all the different parts of the report. This meant that all members of the committee needed to open the draft document and use the MS Word comment function to note their questions and submits edits to the text. While this may sound simple, I was amazed at how many people couldn’t open the document, leave a comment, and save it properly, even after we reviewed the process numerous times.
But the real agonizing part of editing a report is reconciling all the different perspectives of the Grand Jurors with regards to the facts, findings, and recommendations. Some Grand Jurors can make observations that are very keen and salient to the report. But other Grand Jurors will keep coming out of left field with their understanding of the investigation. While I’m all for a spirited discussion of the relevance of certain findings as they relate to recommendations, my patience was severely tested by Grand Jurors who insisted bigger government conspiracies lurked within the department or all the blame rests on the decisions of elected officials.
I sought to find compromise with integrity when it came to report writing. I was willing to acquiesce to the position of a fellow Grand Juror as long as it did not compromise the overall integrity of the report. This meant that some of my most well-crafted sentences in the draft report were left on the cutting room floor. Invariably, we found equally descriptive sentences that all the committee members could abide by. In hindsight, the reports were made stronger by compromise as they more accurately reflected all the Grand Juror’s perspective.
Draft, edit, revise, edit, revise, vote, edit, revise, vote….
The final element that makes the report writing so arduous and time consuming is the numerous reviews. Not only are committee reports circulated for comments from all the Grand Jurors, they are also perused by County Counsel and the presiding judge who make their own comments. It is not uncommon for a report to go through numerous iterations as various people leave their comments on the report. Each round of comments can spark another laborious meeting to hammer out the suggested edits.
Sometimes it can feel that with each new edit the report is being watered down. In reality, the report is usually being condensed like simmering off excess water for a sauce. What remain should be kernels of truths that are indisputable. Then by rational logic, practical recommendations are offered to correct the problem or issues that were investigated.
The report writing phase can take longer than the actual investigation. This is when Grand Jurors really need to be focused and engaged. Unfortunately, this is also the point when most of the conflicts between Grand Jurors rise to the surface. Some of the report writing meetings can be intense and the decibel level of some voices increases in direct proportion to the passion of the Grand Juror. As a committee chair person, I tried, and sometimes failed, to keep committee meetings focused and on the topic.
In terms of Grand Jury training, more emphasis should be place on the management and leadership of the process in order to avert lengthy and acrimonious debates. Until a Foreperson or committee chair feels they have been given the authority to actually lead a meeting by virtue of the rules and training, some Grand Jury meetings run the risk of collapsing into chaos. I’ve seen it and it is no fun. That’s when you ask yourself, “What in the heck am I doing here?” or “I didn’t sign up for this.”
Increasing complexity of local Government
County government has become exponentially more complicated from when the California Grand Jury system was established in the 19th century. County and local governments must adhere to a mountain of county, state, and federal regulations. Management decisions are increasingly based on maintaining compliance with these rules, fear of losing funding, or running afoul of the law. The appearance of misfeasance by a county agency may actually be the result of complying with seemingly contradictory rules and mandates.
The current Grand Jury system has not adapted to account for the complicated nature of county governance. What could have been a simple investigation into the operation of a county agency in 1860, can now require detailed analysis of a tremendous amount of statutes, regulations, and data. What may appear to be waste, fraud or abuse within a department can simply be the necessary operations to remain compliant within in the law. Government is not simple. Government doesn’t always operate efficiently.
Grand Juries don’t always have the time or expertise to plow through the necessary documents that dictate the operation of many departments. Grand Jurors are, for the most part, left to their own intuition to conduct investigations and triangulate facts. Without a full picture of how a department or agency works, some Grand Jurors are quick to jump to conclusions that are not supported by the facts. Fortunately, from my experience, there were fellow Grand Jurors who tempered to the propensity to make erroneous conclusions on the part of other members of the Grand Jury.
I readily admit that I was a Grand Juror who wanted to reach conclusions that were not supported by the facts we obtained. It is easy to become incredulous about the apparent mismanagement of a city, special district or county agency when presented with conflicting testimony. But was the testimony given by two separate people really in conflict? Or, did these two individuals just have opposing perspectives of the operations? That’s where triangulating the gathered facts, and not relying solely on hearsay or raw evidence, becomes vital in any investigation.
A real handicap for Grand Juries is recruiting the necessary people with real world skills to match the shepherding of complex investigations. There are not only the day-to-day activities of the grand jury such as where to file complaints, responses, and other forms, but also to manage an investigation from start to finish. A poorly executed investigation can result in a diminished view of what the Grand Jury does. An investigation that comes to the wrong conclusions because of poorly worded interview questions, lack of due diligence in researching the issue, or a flawed recommendations allows government officials to dismiss the overall report as virtually meaningless.
Grand Jury work
Unless you have served on a California county Grand Jury it is hard to fathom both the banality of numerous meetings and the sense of accomplishment of the investigations. The experience of Grand Jurors is both one of pleasure and pain as they trudge through completing their year-long term. For my part, I suspect I was more often the source of pain to my fellow grand jurors. For all the times that I presented myself as less than a team player or was overly critical, I sincerely apologize.
Just as government has become more complex over the decades, Grand Jurors need to become more sophisticated. The Grand Jury must be able to operate just like the county. That means all the jurors need to understand how to open their email correspondence, fill out their expense reports, read technical documents, and generally participate. While I didn’t expect every Grand Juror to take a leadership role, I did expect them to respect the process. I was miffed at how many Grand Jurors felt that they shouldn’t have to do homework. Yes, work at home. You can’t be an efficient committee if no one reads through the material before they come to the committee meeting.
You can’t be a part-time Grand Juror
If you have multiple vacations planned that will prevent you from attending weeks of meetings during the year, don’t become a Grand Juror. Just having access to email while you are on your Bahama Cruise is not a substitute for participating in committee and Full Panel meetings. Being a Grand Juror is like having a job. People are depending on you to fulfill the task you volunteered to complete. If you are absent during vital parts of the investigation or report writing, please don’t show up with numerous suggestions on how to write the report and recommendations.
Grand Juries are comprised of a random selection of minimally qualified county residents who have volunteered to serve. Because of the nature of the yearlong commitment with a minimum of 30 to 40 hours per month attending meetings, volunteers are typically retired folks. Having a grand jury of primarily comprised of retired individuals is not a bad thing. Many have solid skills and experience in bureaucracies, report writing and a background of living in their respective county. Since the primary function of the Grand Jury is to investigate and report on the various government entities within the county, citizens who have transitioned out of the work force are a necessary and important component of all Grand Juries.
The impetus for me to write about my experience is shared by many grand jurors who quickly realized that their nominally compensated/volunteer citizen service as a juror encompasses a larger time commitment than originally explained. The final time commitment is even greater than anticipated as some jurors have to compensate for other jurors who may not be up to the task. In this respect, serving on a grand jury closely resembles many jobs that require collaboration and reliance on co-workers to produce their part of the job. Fortunately, the Placer County Grand Jury was able to get a more definitive outline of the skills, resources, and time commitment necessary to serve as an effective Grand Juror posted on the county’s website.
I’m just a volunteer, tell me what to do
For my part, I purposely came into the grand jury process with an open mind and no agenda. My mantra was just “tell me what to do” and I’ll try and accomplish it for you. When I was nominated and selected to chair a committee, I approached it with complete impartiality. I didn’t care so much what we might investigate, only that we stayed organized, on topic and everyone had their voice heard through the proceedings.
I carried this slightly disengaged approach into my second year as Pro-Tempore and committee chairperson. I use the term disengaged because I tried to limit my social interactions with my fellow Grand Jurors. It is hard for me to mix work and pleasure. I quickly began to see how much work was required to actually produce a Grand Jury report. It’s not that I didn’t like many of my fellow Grand Jurors, but it can be difficult to request that an acquaintance pull their load on the committee and then go out for a light-hearted lunch afterwards. But that’s just me. I admire people who can easily mix, mingle, and role switch within a workgroup.
I learned a lot from my Grand Jury service. I learned when to keep my mouth shut, how to summon patience, and that not everyone loves my jokes. More importantly, I learned there are hundreds of dedicated government employees who are really trying to do their jobs the best they can under the circumstances they are presented with. I have a new found appreciation for how government works and the role of the Grand Jury in supporting good governance. If you are up for challenge, have a desire to learn, and enjoy working with other people, I would recommend you apply for the Grand Jury in your county. I guarantee you that it will not be easy, but it will be rewarding if you approach it with an open mind.
Another piece I wrote on the interesting nature of the California Grand Jury system