San Benito County supervisors Tuesday unanimously approved lowering the pay for civil grand jury duty to the least permissible under state law.
The new rate of $15 per day for each of the 19 citizens who make up the county's civil grand jury provides compensation for attendance only for a meeting of the entire panel.
Jurors told the Board of Supervisors in public session that that amount covers only a fraction of the work the grand jury puts into investigations of public matters of civil concern, such as a need for more law enforcement or sale of equipment used by the local government.
"You are in effect proposing to pay us for 25 percent of our time," said Steve Austin, a grand juror. "The current $15 a day for a grand jury member makes San Benito County the lowest paying county in California."
County Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa said in a statement to the board that the county previously raised the funding ceiling for grand jurors.
"We actually did increase their budget this year by 28 percent," Espinosa said. "We haven't done that for any other department in our county that I can remember over the last three years."
BenitoLink reported last month that the grand jury already exhausted most of its $19,500 annual budget, previously expected to cover the fiscal year that will end June 30. The grand jury reportedly had been meeting at the Mars Hill Coffeehouse in downtown Hollister.
In the event any bystander there took notes for the record on proceedings of the grand jury, that individual could face legal trouble, according to state law: "Every person who, by any means whatsoever, willfully and knowingly, and without knowledge and consent of the grand jury, records, or attempts to record, all or part of the proceedings of any grand jury while it is deliberating or voting, or listens to or observes, or attempts to listen to or observe, the proceedings of any grand jury of which he is not a member while such jury is deliberating or voting is guilty of a misdemeanor."
Sections 888 through 892 of the California Penal Code lay out rules for a grand jury — a body of citizens of the county that swears to investigate public interests, including official action.
Marvin Jones, a resident of San Benito County and member of its grand jury, ended the period of public commentary with a stinger for the board: "What are you trying to hide?"
"I'm not aware of anything that we have to hide," replied Supervisor Anthony Botelho. "That's not the reason. We're trying to develop a process for management of an item that we have to deal with. This ordinance sets in place how the grand jury will be compensated in the future. We don't know what the budget exactly will be next year. That is something organized by staff of several departments. As far as any reform of the grand jury's management of the county's monies, there is a tremendous unwillingness to meet us halfway."
The Board of Supervisors in recent years has disclosed significant worry over the county's cash-strapped budget.
"Like always, we appreciate all of the comments," said Supervisor Robert Rivas, who noted in public session in 2013 that county officials at that time "were struggling to keep the library open."
"This isn't about any type of cover up, which is absolutely ridiculous," added Rivas. "This is about dollars and sense. We have a grand jury that has exhausted its budget near-midway through the fiscal year."
Supervisor Margie Barrios, who chairs the board, further stressed the county's budgetary woes.
"Questions were asked, 'Why?'" said Barrios. "Budget control — that's why we're doing it."
This story received an update at 9:13 p.m. to provide more detail on the longevity of financial concerns expressed by officials.