June 1, 2006
And the Verdict is ...
by RICK ST. CHARLES
I recently read a column in a local newspaper in which the writer urged citizens to educate themselves by reading the sections of the 2004-2005 Grand Jury report which dealt with Findings and Recommendations relating to Paul Gallegos. She found the report so damning that, overcome with remorse, she apologized for having voted for him in 2002. In her opinion, he was arrested, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to be ousted all because of this report.
So I read it. And it was damning. Then I took the next logical step: I read his responses to the charges. Curiously, the writer did not urge voters to read this document. Funny how there are usually two sides to every story but most people only want you to hear theirs. Human nature, I guess. In fairness, I urge citizens to educate themselves by reading Gallegos' responses, because otherwise it's sort of like having a trial in which only one side is allowed to testify:
The whole thing made me wonder just what the heck a Grand Jury is, anyway, so I did some research, because, to quote my professional journalist friend Dave Silverbrand: "Research is good." Turns out the Grand Jury is a legal body comprised of 19 citizens imbued with, to use their website description, "extraordinary powers, privileges and responsibilities." Their purpose, again in their words, is as follows: "The grand jury system reaches back to the origin of democracy and serves (the king, originally, and later the people) as a community `watchdog,' reporting to those in authority the actions of elected or appointed officials who earn their living from citizens' taxes. We report on how/if/how well elected and appointed officials adhere to the laws governing their various departments/offices."
This means they can come into a public office and "review official books and records to which other citizens are denied access."
Then, sworn to secrecy, they take this information behind closed doors, because "most of the jury's work is conducted in closed session. All testimony and deliberations are confidential."
Now, at this point I started getting confused about why they call this particular legal body a "jury." The juries I've served on have all been in an open court where the evidence is not only accessible to citizens, it's downright flaunted. Testimony is loud and clear. Imagine if it were otherwise:
I figured it must take a special class of person to be a Grand Juror; this was confirmed by their website: "Grand Jury service calls for diligence, impartiality, courage and responsibility. Selection for service is one of the greatest honors a citizen can receive."
So I researched their site trying to find out how one gets to be a Grand Juror. It didn't say. Since it's not an elected position, I figured that it might be an appointed position, possibly by our judges or other elected officials. I e-mailed the Grand Jury website and asked, and they immediately responded. It turns out that to be selected for service, you must be over 18 and of good character (whatever that means). Then you fill out an application including a statement that you want to be considered as a potential juror. A resume is not necessary. Then you meet with all the other applicants. Your names are put in a hat (I am not making this up). A presiding judge pulls out 19 names for the sitting jury and four to six for alternates. If your name is picked — congratulations! You have been selected, one of the greatest honors a citizen can receive.
I think they should run the Academy Awards this way. It would save a lot of time and politicking and backstabbing. Anyone who has been in a movie and is of good character (which might mean Russell Crowe can't apply) puts his or her name in a hat for each category, and on the festive night Billy Crystal selects them:
Now, I do not in any way, shape, or form mean to imply that any of the 19 members of the current Grand Jury or any other Grand Jury is anything less than diligent, impartial, courageous and responsible. And I'm sure they have excellent reasons for all the secrecy. But I can't help wondering that since virtually anybody can apply, and they're selected because their name was drawn out of a hat — the greatest honor a citizen can receive — well, it's just possible that some day there might be a rotten apple in the barrel. Someone with a lot of time on their hands and an axe to grind. Plus, any Joe Sixpack or Sally Housecoat can file a complaint about any county or public officials who are bugging them, and the Grand Jury is required to consider looking into these complaints, and if they decide one is worth investigating, exercise their authority to inspect records, demand responses to anything they find they don't like and pretty much act like your parents when you were 14.
Looking at other parts of the report, the Grand Jury found that the Sheriff's Agricultural Farm needs a bucket for its tractor and recommends that they get one, possibly from the surplus inventory of the federal or state government. The Sheriff's department politely replied — and keep in mind that these are our tax dollars at work, paying the people who are researching and responding to the Jury — that they agree, but they happen to be in competition with a lot of other agencies that also are requesting buckets for their tractors, and while it would be A Good Thing to have a bucket, it is not a critical item for their operation.
In summation, I would say that the system sort of works. On the one hand, entities under investigation by the Grand Jury are required to respond to their reports, which in some cases turns out to be a waste of time and taxpayers' money; on the other hand, it provides a system of checks and balances to ensure that taxpayers' money is not being wasted. Sometimes.
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© Copyright 2006, North Coast Journal, Inc.