Government / Politics

Grand Jury foreman questions county’s support of investigations

Budget remains a point of contention between the county and the jury

In June, the 14-member grand jury published its report covering its findings and recommendations for county agencies, including how the jury itself functions. Those agencies or individuals investigated had 60 to 90 days to respond. Five months later, the jury foreman questions whether the county's financial support of the grand jury is adequate to allow for the amount and depth of investigations needed going forward.

According to the California Grand Jurors' Association, the state's system consists of 58 separate grand juries—one in each county—that are convened on an annual basis by the Superior Court to carry out three functions:

  • Investigating and reporting on the operations of local government (which is known as the “watchdog “ function—a civil, rather than criminal function)
  • Issuing criminal indictments to require defendants to go to trial on felony charges
  • Investigating allegations of a public official’s corrupt or willful misconduct in office, and when warranted, filing an “accusation” against that official to remove him or her from office.  The accusation process is considered to be “quasi-criminal” in nature.

Among the nine investigations it conducted, the 2014-15 San Benito County Grand Jury evaluated patient grievances and employee complaints against the county’s Behavioral Health Department. It questioned why so many county staff heads are listed as “interim employees.” Additionally, it investigated why there is an agreement that allows the nonprofit Community Services and Development Corporation to lease its office from the county. Jurors looked into an apparent lack of transparency about how the $42.5 million bond, Measure G, passed in June 2014 by voters for improvements to San Benito High School, were being spent. The report also included an investigation into the county’s obligations regarding the Family Migrant Housing Center and Single Migrant Workers Dormitories; the District Attorney’s Office; and the county jail. The grand jury also questioned whether its budget of $25,432 was enough to fund its own investigations and expenses.

The budget turned out to be a major point of contention, in the view of Bob Marden, who served as the grand jury's foreman.

“At the point that we were sworn in as the 2014-15 grand jury, I went to Ray Espinosa (County Administrative Officer) and told him we don’t have enough money in your budget,” Marden told BenitoLink recently. “They had given us $19,000, and the way they run their budget is they put an administration charge into each department. The grand jury’s charge was $5,821 that they added in as an expense that we had to pay for the services that the grand jury was supposedly getting. It’s questionable that we ever received $5,821. The budget, as we looked at it, was $25,321. That’s how it appears on paper. But when you back out that expense it goes down to about $19,500.”

Marden said he met with Espinosa, with whom BenitoLink made repeated efforts to reach for comment, to tell him the grand jury did not have sufficient money in the budget, and according to state law, he was supposed to notify the board of supervisors, through Espinosa, of the fact, as well as the superior court.

“I told them that we cannot complete the investigations that the grand jury wants to do unless we get a change in the budget,” he said. “Espinosa assured me at that time that they (supervisors) would work with us and we’d be able to do something.

“So, come October (2014), I went back to him and I said I wanted to reiterate that we have ongoing investigations and that we do not have sufficient money in our budget to go ahead and complete. By state law we cannot create money-owed obligations without having the money on the books. If we do that then we’re technically in violation of state law.

“He said for us not to worry and that they’d work with us. Then I went and talked with Judge (Harry) Tobias, as well as Judge (Steven) Sanders. I told them that I had met with Ray and that we cannot complete what we need to do. I said by state law you have the power to mandate to the board of supervisors that they have to fund us by court order. They said let’s wait and see what they’re going to do.”

After several visits with Espinosa and Tobias, the board voted in February 2015 to provide an additional $5,000 for the grand jury to complete investigations on which it was working.

“I said it’s still not sufficient,” Marden said. “I submitted a budget to them of $27,500 as what I thought we’d need to go ahead. Also, part of my argument was, ‘you are writing a budget on something you know nothing about. You have never invited the grand jury to appear at your so-called budget hearings and reviews.’ I said, ‘we’d be more than happy to come and submit. We cannot tell you all the things we do that are under confidentiality, but we can tell you that we believe that we have certain reports that we’re looking into and the amount of time it takes to do this, and this is how we function.’”

Supervisor Margie Barrios, said: “Every agency is expected to live within their means. They have to make it work to whatever extent they can. And to come back and request additional funding puts the board of supervisors in a very difficult situation because we have to be fair. We couldn’t do that for every department. If we started doing that, then what’s the sense of having a budget? We know what our revenues are and what our expenditures are. But we were able to find a source of money for them to help them finish out the year.”

Marden said there were three reports on which the grand jury was unable to work, one of which, he said, he believed was criminal in nature. Because of confidentiality, he would not reveal the nature of the investigation, but said the information was passed on to the district attorney.  

The board responded that Espinosa had reviewed the budget increase request and submitted it as part of the annual budget process. The board stipulated, though, that it would not implement changes to those sections dealing with stipends and expenses because they were in compliance with the penal codes.

The Board of Supervisors sent its official response on Sept. 8, to the court, as well as to: county interim Department Head Appointments; the Southside Housing Center; Commercial Lease Agreement; the Behavioral Health Department; the District Attorney’s Department; Jail Review; and Juvenile Hall Report.

The 99-page response covered 49 grand jury findings, corresponding recommendations and responses from the various departments.

Highlights from the report

– The board disagreed with the grand jury’s finding that interim directors make up 30 percent of county department heads, responding that the county has only one vacant department head position and that the single interim department head only works approximately 20 hours per week, and not 40, as the grand jury stated.

– Regarding the Southside Housing Center, the only area of concern, as far as the grand jury found, was the condition of a laundry and the need for portable restrooms at the playground. Supervisors disagreed on both, stating that the county works with the state to determine the needs of the facility.

– The grand jury found structural deficiencies at the Homeless Coalition, including drainage problems and inadequate electrical service in the dormitory. The board either disagreed or said routine maintenance was already in place to address these issues.

– In response to the jury's findings that the Behavioral Health Department had received numerous complaints regarding improper medical prescriptions and that the staff is either unwilling or unable to respond or correct the complaints against psychiatrist, the county disagreed and said that there is not enough evidence of an “inordinate large volume of complaints.”

– Grand jury findings and recommendations regarding the Behavioral Health Department far outnumbered any other county department. One telling recommendation came across as almost scolding: “The director needs to be advised that his job requires that he be an active role player in all phases of his department’s actions. He should be provided the management training courses to update his skill sets on directing, relating to, and managing employees.”

In his defense, the supervisors’ response spelled out the director’s qualifications and training in social work and community program administration.

– The grand jury also reviewed the District Attorney’s Office, which had not been reviewed since 2002. The recommendations mainly dealt with upgrading the phone and computer systems, the regularity of staff meetings, and ensuring that janitorial services are provided by an outside service. Candice Hooper, district attorney, responded by letter that a message had been added to the phone service; staff meetings are scheduled the first Friday of each month; and DAO is not a janitorial service.

– As for the San Benito County Jail, the grand jury found, for the most part, that it was “well-run and maintained,” despite an “enormous amount of overtime being paid due to under-staffing,” which was adversely affecting officers’ health and safety. It also was noted that there was not a 24/7 on-site medical staff.

The board agreed on the overtime issue, but disagreed that the overtime was adversely affecting the officers, though it did say that “mandatory overtime is not a desirable situation and may adversely affect the quality of life of employees who do not desire to work such overtime.”

Lack of jurors a concern

Marden said the county could not get enough people who were interested in serving on the grand jury this year.

“Judge Tobias had to subpoena prospective members,” he said. “He told them at their interview everybody has a job, everybody has personal things at home, none of those are excuses to get off the grand jury. Of those who served on the last grand jury only two have returned.”

To read the entire grand jury report CLICK HERE.

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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: johnchadwell@benitolink.com.