The San Benito County Civil Grand Jury has nearly exhausted its $19,500 annual budget with more than four months left in the fiscal year, jeopardizing more than 10 investigations. The issue came to light Tuesday when the county Board of Supervisors considered modifying the compensation jury members receive.
Grand Jury member Dean Judd said recruitment already is "difficult," and plans to limit the per-diem $15 rate that members receive for meetings would further hamper the goal of operating with a full 19 members. The county is considering only paying grand jurors, who are appointed by the superior court judge, for attendance at scheduled meetings of the full jury — not committee meetings where most investigative work takes place.
That amendment, Judd said, would remove "even that small recognition of our service." Jury member Steve Austin said investigations need to be done by smaller committees of the larger group and that "taking away funds for committee meetings will certainly impact our effectiveness."
Gene Hopp said he was "appalled" that the grand jury's request for more funding has not been met and that he believed the intent of the ordinance to reduce compensation "is to severely impact the duties of this board."
Bill Healy said that the grand jury does what no other individual or group can do: delve into government agencies and evaluate their effectiveness. He noted that the grand jury does not report directly to the Board of Supervisors — or the superior court judge or state attorney general, for that matter — and said that "if you control the purse strings, you control the outcome" of its investigations.
The grand jury has been meeting at the Mars Hill Coffeehouse in downtown Hollister, not the idea venue to share confidential information about ongoing investigations, Healy noted, adding that repeated requests to address the jury's funding have gotten no response from county administrators. Second-year grand jury member Michelle Gutierrez said some jurors may quit over the compensation issue while another juror said it felt like the investigative entity was "being treated as a burden" and that calls for fewer meetings and carpooling to reduce mileage reimbursements was "insulting."
During the public comment period, Andy Hsia-Coron of Aromas said the grand jury "plays in incredibly difficult role in keeping government honest. You need to send a signal in this county that you want to have the highest standards for openness for governance … and for that you need to have a robust grand jury."
Supervisor Anthony Botelho called the grand jury "an absolutely essential organization" but that the county expects every department to live within its budget — "and that should include the grand jury. Here we are in February and we've blown through the entire budget. Some level of accountability needs to take place. If it was any other department, the grand jury would probably be investigating why you have blown through your budget in half a year — and rightfully so."
Supervisor Jaime DeLaCruz said the county should fund the grand jury through the rest of the fiscal year and then reevaluate funding during annual budget deliberations. "They are another set of eyes for our community," he said.
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer said he took grand jury members' comments to the board to mean that "they're not accountable to anyone, and that is wrong." He did, however, support the idea of forming a subcommittee of supervisors to further look into the matter.
Board Chairwoman Margie Barrios said the county takes the work of the grand jury "very, very seriously and we do appreciate it," though she echoed the point that all groups receiving county funding must live within their budgets. "If we did this (considered extra funding mid-year) for every department, who knows where we'd be?"
County Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa said that the county is already planning to spend $15,000 to provide a private meeting space for the grand jury at 2301 Technology Parkway. He suggested the jury reduce the amount of individuals it has attend committee meetings in order to save money on per-diem costs. He also outlined approximate grand jury budget expenditures in recent years, pointing out that the group is seeking an additional $12,821 to get it through the rest of the fiscal year:
2014-15 (fiscal year ends June 30): nearly $19,500
DeLaCruz called for a compromise, allowing the grand jury to decide on how many members it needs at committee meetings. "We don't really want to infringe on their ability to investigate," he said. "I just don't want to cut them right now. I'd rather help them out — they know they are on notice today — then we can work together."
Barrios said she and DeLaCruz will be the subcommittee that will look into the grand jury funding issue along with Espinosa and that the matter will come back to the full board on March 3, at which time there will be a recommendation from staff about how much additional funding can be provided for the rest of the fiscal year. The board at that time will also consider modifications to the ordinance that sets out how grand jurors are compensated.
For more information on the San Benito County Civil Grand Jury, click here.