It’s likely the highest form of civic service for an ordinary citizen.
A civilian grand juror.
Community members, who take a year of their time to work with the district attorney as a panel and also investigate civilian government with an aim toward making our government function better for the people.
The latest report from this year’s grand jury tells us that when grand jurors went back a few years to check if county officials followed up on their recommendations – as required by law – they found out that for the last three years, the county of Orange just took a pass.
It’s just the latest chapter in a sad history of the longstanding tense relationship between our county grand jury and county supervisors.
Politicians hate being called out.
And few call them out more than grand juries.
Now in past years, as Orange County grand jurors stepped up their focus on county supervisors – looking at their questionable management impact on CalOptima, the county’s billion dollar health plan for the poor and elderly – it triggered significant public blowback from supervisors.
That 2013 report's title - "CalOptima Burns While Majority of Supervisors Fiddle" - really caught their attention.
And when grand jurors went as far as to formally remind county supervisors about a culture of corruption at the county Hall of Administration, supervisors reacted with fury – public and private – with Supervisor Todd Spitzer even leading formal efforts to cut grand jurors pay.
Now in fairness to him, Spitzer reached out to me last week to indicate that he’s consistently been pushing his colleagues at the county to respond to county grand jury reports and even unsuccessfully carried legislation as a state assemblyman to formally require grand jury report follow up.
Yet what this latest grand jury report really shows is that it’s culture that matters.
As the board of supervisors became more and more politicized around 2012 – and a massive scandal broke out with the sexual assault arrest of Carlos Bustamante, a top county executive with OC GOP connections – former CEO Tom Mauk was ousted.
His eventual replacement, trash executive Mike Giancola, ran a loose shop – evidenced by the recent grand jury report.
Yet the funny thing is, that’s exactly why Giancola was put there…to run a loose shop.
And once county supervisors started trash talking the grand jury, Giancola and every other executive knew they didn’t have to listen anymore, much less do anything.
Lets hope that’s in the background now.
Now, there’s every indication that County CEO Frank Kim has agreed to respect grand jury reports moving forward and will institute a formal annual public follow up report on progress every March.
Yet grand jurors shouldn’t just expect Kim to hold himself accountable.
Their own experience should teach them that.
Grand jurors might want to consider offering interested jurors a way to stay engaged from a policy perspective, after they leave official service.
Now, as their report suggests, the grand jurors association in San Diego has take up a contract with the county government to conduct formal follow up audits looking at how county executives react to grand jury recommendations.
Here in Orange County, grand jurors opted to have the CEO’s office do that, which is fine.
Yet I would challenge individual grand jurors and even the Grand Jurors Association of Orange County to stay engaged on the topics they investigate by using the power of their individual pens.
They represent some of our very best assets as citizens because they have taken the time to become topical experts on an array of areas critical to the functioning of our government. They shouldn't just disappear after their grand jury service ends.
I can commit to every former grand juror that the editorial pages of Voice of OC will always remain a receptive venue where in-depth follow up of grand jury reports as well as the issues you cover is welcome and encouraged.
Later this year, as part of our burgeoning involvement initiative, we’ll even be launching seminars on how to write op-eds and how to investigate government on your own by learning how to use the state’s Public Records Act.
Those are the kinds of tools we hope to offer to help former grand jurors keep our elected officials and government agencies accountable.
In a democracy, follow up is a task that involves all of us.