When it comes to Orange County Grand Jurors pressing local leaders on drought and climate, or controversial conditions at the local pet shelter, some county supervisors last week said you shouldn’t always listen to the citizens. 

Namely, at their regular board meeting on Tuesday morning, county Supervisors Andrew Do and Don Wagner pushed back on the OC Grand Jury – an impaneled civilian watchdog arm that probes and publishes reports on issues of public concern – as too “political” in some cases, or out of their depth.

Or as Wagner put it:

“A bunch of retired people with less experience than our own staff to say what they say, especially when they venture out into the scientific community, as opposed to when they actually dig into as they are supposed to – government services or indicting ham sandwiches.”

Others on the board defended the panel as “representatives of the public” – a vessel for everyday people to relay often complex information about crucial regional issues in plain terms. 

Especially on issues like public corruption. 

An issue that not every OC politician is anxious to bring to light.

“I do think they’re not experts. I don’t think they have that background. But they are representatives of the public. And they certainly have a right to comment and opine,” said Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento at last Tuesday’s supervisors meeting.

“And they certainly got it right in Anaheim. They got it right in Santa Ana. They saw those things coming way back before there were FBI investigations there.”

Last year – before a set of FBI affidavits described a cadre of special interests controlling Anaheim City Hall from the shadows – grand jurors raised alarms over lack of transparency on the proposed $150 million cash sale of Angel Stadium. 

The stadium deal fell apart within days of the FBI probe coming to light. 

A few days after the Anaheim report, grand jurors published another.

It called out county supervisors for helping hamstring the county’s Office of Independent Review, helmed at the time by a director who vowed to be an effective watchdog, after it probed and reported on a “troubling” use-of-force culture at the OC Sheriff’s Department in 2020.

[Read: An OC Supervisor Gutted the Watchdog Office for Probing Sheriff, Says Grand Jury Report]

Do and Wagner’s public challenges to the OC Grand Jury punctuated several major issues in the region that came up for discussion on Tuesday morning – issues which grand jurors called attention to in reports released this year: 

Drought and climate change, alleged animal mistreatment at the county animal shelter, and the education of homeless children.

On the child homelessness report – which makes a staggering estimate of 30,000 homeless public school students in OC, and the inability of school staff to properly serve them – Do and Wagner said grand jurors should have taken the issue up with the county department of education, not the Board of Supervisors. 

Wagner, meanwhile, raised the concern of grand jury bias in the animal shelter report, which questions the shelter’s hiring practices, significant increases to animal euthanasia, and the challenges presented by county officials to grand jurors’ investigation itself. 

“Yes I’ve read the report, every page of it,” said Wagner, responding to public commenters who called on supervisors to institute changes at the shelter.  “And unlike some of you, I also had the opportunity to interact with the grand jury before the report came out, as they were busily preparing it … I will assure you it led me to question the impartiality of the couple grand jurors who were specifically pushing this issue.”

He continued: 

“This grand jury report had some folks driving it, whose goal was not impartial truth. I don’t know why their goal was what their goal was. Maybe they share the – to my mind – outrageous view that the professionals who come to work in our shelters are running death camps.”

Wagner defended county shelter staff.

“The men and women and professionals are trying their best to help our animals. There is room for legitimate disagreement as to how that gets done.”

Foley said the grand jurors’ report might lead to real change.

She said about 11 of the grand jury’s 18 shelter recommendations had been practically accepted by the county.

“I think as far as the grand jury reports I’ve seen come forward, that’s actually progress.”

Do, a Republican, questioned grand jurors’ authority to make findings in the case of their drought and climate report, which urged action on “climate resiliency” and water usage amidst “inevitable” longer droughts and extreme weather patterns.

A majority of supervisors – with the exception of Foley and Sarmiento – voted to disagree with the Grand Jury report’s finding that “climate change is inevitable and exacerbated by human behavior.”

Do called the report’s findings a “political statement.”

“It’s an opinion by uninformed and uneducated people in the science of it, without any data to back it up to support their position, their findings — a conclusion without any basis as to whether there are qualifications or foundation of information,” Do said.

He continued: “It’s just a blanket of assertion couched in terms of a finding. If we agree to this finding then we agree to the methodology and we have to see that that is, encouraging to me, an overreach by the Grand Jury.”

Where a Grand Jury has access to information or evidence — “Yes, their findings can rise to the level of findings and they sometimes are correct,” Do said. “But when they go out and make a political statement like this, to me, and then couch it as a finding, to me that is beyond the scope of what the grand jury is supposed to do.”

It thus became a debate about climate change, with some supervisors wondering whether it was that relevant to Orange County.

“I’m kind of at a loss at where to go with this, I know – but not from the county necessarily – we have climate change issues,” said Supervisor Doug Chaffee, a Democrat.

Foley defended grand jurors’ focus in the report.

“I believe that climate change is inevitable and I think there is plenty of scientific data to support that. I mean, we’re in a building right now that’s LEED certified and the reason for that is so we can reduce our carbon footprint.”

Disagreeing with her colleagues, Foley said county staff had the technical expertise and training to make determinations on climate change solutions, as called for by grand jurors. 

“I think they do have specific training. We could pull up a list of all the seminars and education efforts they’ve done over the last year to prove that.”

Wagner, on the other hand, said county staff had the technical expertise to carry out the solutions, not come up with them. 

“They have the technical expertise to do things like build LEED certified buildings,” he said.

“And to come up with programs that are responding to outside forces that are saying there are issues here.”


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