Local Politics

Grand jury process scrutinized

Report has been approved and sent for printing, but local resident raises concerns that the grand jury's post office box was not accepting mail because of lack of payment
Hollister resident Aurelio Zuniga expressed concerns that his letter to the county grand jury was not delivered.
Marty Richman said the grand jury would benefit from a binder that lays out its standard operating procedures.

When Barbara Thompson, interim county counsel, updated the San Benito County Board of Supervisors at its Feb. 7 meeting about the status of the grand jury report and said, “The good news is that it has been approved by the superior court judge for publication and it’s being sent to the printer,” it was thought to be the end of the discussion. And it was, until Hollister resident Aurelio Zuniga got up to tell the board of his experience with the grand jury.

Zuniga told supervisors that there has been a delay in releasing the report and that he thought it was important for the public be able to read it. His main concern, he claimed, was that on March 4, 2016, he wrote to the grand jury. In September 2016, he received notice from Postal Graphics for him to come by and pick up mail that had been returned.

“I was shocked to see it was the correspondence that I had mailed on March 4,” Zuniga said and added that Postal Graphics told him to go to the post office if he wanted to know why the mail was returned. “I was told the post office box had not been paid for,” he said, noting that he mailed the correspondence again in October and received a letter from Ann Ross, the grand jury foreperson, telling him she had received it.

“What bothers me, does that mean for seven months or longer no member from the public could correspond with the grand jury?” he asked. “That’s what this was telling me. It’s just not right.”

Zuniga said he realized the supervisors don’t answer for the grand jury, but he thought it was important that they and county counsel were aware of the situation.

Ross said on Feb. 20 that the report had gone to the printer, but there was a formatting problem and she had to convert the document that was on her thumb drive to a PDF file and then take it back, hopefully by Feb. 21.

“Other years, grand juries might have known it had to be in a format before it went to the judge, but I didn’t know that,” she said. “I have to re-format it because the pages don’t line up. Now it’s all ready for printing. There are no more steps.”

During the supervisors’ meeting, Hollister resident Marty Richman told the board that there are no continuity documents for the grand jury. He said when new grand jury members report for duty they don’t even know what room to meet in or even where to find the key.

“There has to be some kind of continuity document so that somebody remembers to pay for the post office box,” he said and recommended that the supervisors contact people who have previously served on the grand jury and ask them to write some continuity documents. “The grand jury will be a lot more efficient and not have to spend weeks trying to figure out where to plug in the coffee pot. These continuity documents or SOPs (standard operating procedures) should be in a three-ringed binder.”

Ross said of Richman’s suggestion that the reason there is no such procedure is because the rules keep changing from year to year.

“Every jury finds out there’s no SOP manual like you have in the military,” she said. “There could be an SOP, but you don’t have to follow it. When you walk in the door that first day, you can say ‘we’re scrapping all standard operating procedures and writing our own.’ Many juries have done that. There’s no handing it over because the rules change. There are new rules every year that have to be put into what would be an SOP. Any SOP we might have had we could not use.”

After these concerns from the public about the grand jury process, it quickly became apparent there was a bigger issue, as far as the supervisors were concerned, than non-payment of a post office box—including who is in charge of the grand jury.

“I’m just confused over who is overseeing it,” Supervisor Jerry Muenzer admitted. “I know we oversee the budget, the judges seat the grand jury, and then everybody seems to wash their hands of them and let them go about doing whatever they want to do.”

None of the supervisors had an answer and Muenzer suggested that perhaps there should be a discussion between the county attorneys and the superior court to determine who is ultimately responsible for the continuity of the grand jury process, agreeing with Richman that a three-ringed binder might be the answer.

Thompson said there is an independent body appointed by the court and the only involvement the supervisors have with the grand jury is to review the final report and to review expense claims for payments to jury members. She thought continuity was normally accomplished by jury members who participated on more than one consecutive jury, and then passed along their experiences to the new members. She said the county has supplemented the grand jury experience by conducting a two-day training session through the Grand Jury Association.

“It just seems the last few years the grand jury has been struggling,” said Muenzer, wondering again who was responsible for guiding jury members and suggesting Thompson look into the matter.

Thompson said she believed the grand jury was responsible for itself and the county would assist if asked. She said she would suggest that the grand jury come up with a continuity file, but, ultimately, it was up to the appointed members.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho commented that he was concerned that a constituent — Zuniga — had to tell the supervisors about the post office box not being paid for.

“We doubled the grand jury’s budget in recent years and I think there’s a basic procedural component that we can work with the court to make sure the grand jury is functionable,” he said. “It would be helpful to know some of these issues so we can collaborate better. Maybe it’s not just ‘throw more money at that service these folks are providing local government.’ We need to sit down at some staff level with Judge (Steven) Sanders and discuss some of these issues.”

Supervisor Robert Rivas said it was disheartening to hear of Zuniga’s concerns and that the grand jury has had a “tumultuous couple of years.”

“I was on the receiving end of several emails accusing myself and board members of trying to stifle the grand jury and that I was critical of our CAO (Chief Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa) and the hiring process,” he said. “We had a fundamental disagreement with my colleagues on the board and they investigated that. Why would I want to stifle them? It’s about transparency, in my opinion.”

Rivas said the grand jury system is one of the most important institutions in the country. He said he would be open to allowing staff to meet with the court in order to improve communications between the two.

“As a board, and as one member of this board, it’s important for us to hold up the integrity of the grand jury and that’s what we’re all trying to do,” he said. “Mail sitting in a box for months is absolutely unacceptable. Had we heard of this previously I’m sure we would have addressed it long ago.”

Espinosa said the county has offered assistance to the grand jury with the budget and other issues.

“We don’t know all the intricacies of the grand jury,” he said. “We have the budget and we have to make sure they adhere to the budget, but other than that, they’re kind of on their own. I will reach out to the courts and draft minimum requirements.”

Muenzer said there should be an orientation during a new grand jury’s first meeting involving the court and county. Espinosa said there already is an orientation within the court system, but the county is not involved. He said when he reaches out to the court he will make sure the county is part of the orientation process in the future.

Supervisor Mark Medina commented that plans to better inform new grand juries are fine, but follow-through is just as important. He asked Thompson if there were a timeframe for any changes. Espinosa suggested staff come back the next calendar quarter to update the supervisors.

Thompson said Feb. 16 that the county counsel’s office reviewed the report and there were no major issues with it.

“We had some changes that we submitted back to her (Ann Ross) on Sept. 30, and she incorporated them into it and submitted it to the court,” Thompson said. “I know the court discussed some issues with her. She submitted the final draft back to the court, I believe, the end of December. The judge released it in January.”

Ray Espinosa, county administrative officer, said the grand jury operated within budget and its report was submitted on time.

“It needs to be released to the internal parties that have been subject to investigations within three days before it goes to the printer,” Thompson said.

Ross said she is not aware of any rule about showing the report to anyone other than the judge before it goes to the printer.

“That would undermine the entire process,” she said. “There’s no releasing it before it’s printed. They don’t get a chance to weigh in before it goes to print.”

 

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.