After an annual application, screening, and interviewing process, this year’s members of the Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury have been selected, sworn in, and instructed, and the group is now in session.
Different from the Criminal Grand Jury, the Civil Grand Jury is a delegation of dedicated and caring citizens who applied for the yearlong responsibility of keeping watch over the county’s numerous governmental agencies, institutions, cities, and districts. (The Criminal Grand Jury is specially delegated by the District Attorney from the existing jury pool to oversee cases of special circumstance.)
The citizens who serve on the Civil Grand Jury come from all five of the supervisorial districts in the county. Out of the many who take the time to apply, 30 are selected before the group is reduced to 19 through a random drawing. The remaining 11 are alternatives in case another juror is unable to fulfill the yearlong obligation.
This year, the 19 chosen Civil Grand Jury members are George Bajor, JoAnne Banks, Jean Beaulieu, Barbara Breza, Mary Frink, Travis Gibbons, Melvin Kimlinger, Justin LeCavalier, Sharyne Merritt, Linda Mier, Pamela Olsen, Timothy Putz, Sue Reilly, Jack Snyder, Lorelei Snyder, Charles Stauffer, Ted Sten, Peter van Duinwyk, and Jonathan Ziegler. According to this year’s foreman, the jurors vary from homemakers to attorneys, retired educators to doctors, and the group includes a mix of ethnic, socio-economic, and gender variables.
As the jurors are sworn in, the presiding judge evaluates the applicants and selects the foreman or forewoman. This year, for the fourth time, Ted Sten has the honor of serving as foreman.
The time commitment necessary to serve on the Civil Grand Jury is not insignificant. The 19 members serve on three to six of eight total committees. (They include Cities and Special Districts, Criminal Justice, Editorial, Health Education and Welfare, Planning and Development, Response, Finance, and Publications.) Committees meet multiple times a week, and require attendance of members from throughout the county, adding extra driving time to many members’ busy schedules.
“You don’t do it for the money,” said Sten of his and his peers’ dedication to the Civil Grand Jury. This makes sense, considering transportation costs (roughly 50 cents per mile) and juror compensation (a mere $25 per day spent in session).
Sten, who has served on other civil service commissions, considers himself a long-time dedicated community service advocate. He said he sees these qualities reflected in his fellow juror members: “You have to be dedicated for three reasons,” he said. “One, it is a year-long commitment; two, it is a lot of hard work; and three, it is not only the jury members dedicating their lives to the Grand Jury, but also their families.”
But the satisfaction of serving what Sten refers to as Santa Barbara County’s “most important organization beyond any other committee, commission, or board” is immense. According to Sten, the Grand Jury is so salient because “it looks into any issue that affects the county, the eight incorporated cities, special districts, and school districts. Plus, it has the power of subpoena. It is an instrument that can affect positive change.”
Unlike a criminal jury, the Grand Jury does not sit in on cases while evidence is presented. Rather, the Grand Jury receives potential cases and investigates them. It also receives anywhere from 80 to over 120 letters of complaint from anonymous sources, who, in turn, receive a letter of confirmation from the jury and hear nothing further until a report is made. Because of the sensitive nature of many such complaints, they remain confidential and anonymous while the Grand Jury spends one week evaluating each, discussing it, and ultimately voting whether or not to accept it. Twelve yes votes out of 19 total are needed to accept.
Complaints that are not accepted are kept confidential; accepted complaints are referred to the appropriate, corresponding committee. Sten stressed the fact that it is not the volume of complaints that influences which or how many will be chosen, but rather the nature of the complaint that decides. Once chosen, the committee investigates the complaint before issuing and publicizing a report. Each report represents hundreds or even thousands of hours of work and hundreds of miles driven by the committee. Reports are also the Grand Jury’s single most effective tool; in the words of Sten, they function by “shining a light on the issue.”
All of the Grand Jury’s previous reports, as well as the form to file a complaint, are available at the jury’s Web site (sbcgj.org). Some recent reports include the 2005-2006 report on and investigation into the levee in Santa Maria in North County. The jury recognized the possibility of the levee collapsing in the rain; it had breached before, and there were homes nearby. The report did its job by shining light onto the issue, bringing it to the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and to the county, which funded its maintenance.
Another report, titled “Trapped in the Granada Elevator: Not an Uplifting Experience” from 2008-2009, saw the Grand Jury’s investigating committee come up short in search of emergency protocol. Based on two separate emergencies, they issued a report, and the City of Santa Barbara’s Public Works Department took action.
Although the Grand Jury does not have any enforcement powers, the penal code clearly states that when a report recommending a course of action is issued, the identified agency is required, at the very least, to respond. Such action highlights the power of a well-publicized and concise report — the Civil Grand Jury’s most effective tool.