The workings of the San Benito County Civil Grand Jury might be unclear (or wholly unknown) to some, but it is an important means for everyday citizens to have a significant impact on how local institutions function.
Each year, qualified county residents who have applied for a jury position duty are chosen by lot to serve one-year terms and are empowered to investigate every part of county and city governments and school districts. The findings of those investigations, along with the grand jury’s recommendations for resolving any identified problems, are released at the end of June, corresponding with the end of the jury’s term.
Roxy Montana has a keen insight into the proceedings, having been appointed to the grand jury six times since 2001, first applying after seeing a “help wanted” advertisement in the newspaper. She spent four of those six years as the foreperson of the jury, including the recent 2021-22 term. The reports and findings can be found here. BenitoLink’s coverage can be found here.
Montana agreed to be interviewed on the grand jury process and its importance to the community.
BenitoLink: What are the qualifications of a grand jury member?
Montana: You have to be over 18 years of age and a citizen of the county. You have to possess the English language, and you cannot be a felon. There are usually around 25 to 30 people who apply each year, and 19 jurors are selected along with a pool of alternates, so you stand a good chance of serving if you apply.
What are a juror’s duties and obligations?
The work takes about 25 hours per week, every week. It includes meetings of all of the jurors, which happen during the week, and there are also meetings for committees, which include law and justice, which covers the sheriff and police departments and the jail, then health, education, and matters concerning the welfare of the general community. There are committees for special districts, like the airport and the water districts. Anything going on within the county is under the purview of the civil grand jurors.
How do you decide what offices and departments to investigate?
Some are mandatory, like the county jail, which must be investigated yearly. After that, it is up to the grand jury’s discretion what else they will look into. It may be that a department has not been reviewed for a while or that there are some overarching issues, like a large number of vacancies in many departments that were covered in last year’s report.
And there are also complaints that we get directly from citizens, which can be mailed to the Grand Jury [at P.O. Box 1624, Hollister, CA 95024]. Only the grand jury has the key to that box so that only they see what is sent in and confidentiality is maintained. The grand jury opens the complaint at a meeting, and it is read aloud along with any supporting documentation. Then it goes into a vote to accept that complaint or to move it along one way or another.
Once you have decided what you will investigate, what is the process?
The grand jury will vote for a committee to perform an investigation, and they go into a particular department with questions for the people there who are the most experienced. It’s best to have an open mind because if you go into an investigation thinking you know everything and already have the answers, then you should be the one who is being interviewed. They record the answers, put them together in an organized fashion, and report back to the next grand jury meeting, much the same as they do at the Board of Supervisors meetings.
Any juror can ask questions of the committee members, and the interviews they have done are available to all the jurors. If the committee had not thought of that question, but they find it’s a good one, they can go back and collect more information or data. But whatever is gathered is considered to be raw information, so it must be verified. And sometimes, when you go in for a second or third source, you get more information, and that veins off into more details which ultimately builds a report.
How does the grand jury produce the findings and recommendations?
The finding and recommendations come from the committee rather than the grand jury as a whole, though generally speaking, we can vote on modifications to them. There is the report, which includes the methodology and a discussion of the issues. The findings are then listed, and every finding has to have a recommendation. And once it is issued, the departments involved have 90 days to respond to the report.
Departments criticized for not implementing the previous grand jury’s recommendations, such as law enforcement, typically respond that they did not have adequate funds to make those changes. Can the reports be used as a club to get more funding from the county or the city?
Yes, the department can use it as a club. Or the people can use it as a club because it is a matter of their safety. And who keeps us safe? Years ago, I used to ask what are the three main concerns that you have within a community, be it the city council, the board of supervisors, or whatever. And the number one answer was always safety. Sometimes it would be “safety, safety, safety,” and sometimes it would be “safety, schools, highways,” but safety was always number one.
So if the safety of the community depends on the police and the sheriff’s departments, then you look at the budget and say, well, how much of that budget is going to them? Do they have what they need? Do they have what they need to keep people safe? So it’s oftentimes letting the public know so they can put up some pressure for additional support.
Once the report is done and the responses are filed, does the next grand jury review the work of the previous grand jury?
Yes, that’s called continuity in Grand Jury terms. The responses have to come within 90 days of the issuing of the report, and by that time the next just is paneled. And what better resource is there for them than to take a look at the work of past grand juries and then be able to follow up on their actions? And there are sometimes investigations that need to be rolled over into the new grand jury.
There is also the newly formed San Benito County chapter of the California Grand Jurors Association, of which I am a member. And we are now looking at past reports dating back to 1985 and reviewing recommendations, and looking to see if anyone took action on them or if we are still investigating the same old issues.
Why should someone get involved and become a grand juror?
People need their own representatives. Locally, you have five supervisors and five city council members. But on the grand jury, you have 19 people who are ordinary citizens who choose to be extraordinary and put in the time to contribute to their community as their voice.If you go to a board of supervisors meeting, you get three minutes to come up and express yourself. There is no opportunity for any one of those supervisors to respond. And there might be a lot of people who want their three minutes. But sometimes, it takes a battle cry for people to be heard, and the grand jury is a way for regular citizens to look into a problem and find solutions.
Grand Juror applications, citizen complaint forms, and archived Grand Jury final reports can be found on the County website.
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